Long-distance shipping can put horses at risk for illness and injury, new research from Australia confirms. The study also highlights some actions owners and shippers can take to keep their horses safe on long road trips.
The study reviewed records of 1,650 horses who were shipped across Australia between Sydney, on the East Coast, and Perth, on the West Coast, over a two-year period. At just under 2,500 miles, that trip is the rough equivalent of driving from Charleston, South Carolina, to Los Angeles. The horses all made the journey with the same commercial hauler, riding in a 15-horse ventilated van. They were fed and watered every four to five hours, and the trip was broken into four stages ranging in length from six to 24 hours of travel time. After each stage, the horses were unloaded for a 12-hour rest stop. Altogether, they spent an average of 49 hours on the road and 36 hours in rest breaks.
Most of the horses completed the trip in good health, the records showed. Just 46 of them—less than 3 percent—showed signs of illness or injury. That’s much lower than the level reported by owners during noncommercial horse transportation, the researchers say. Respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses were the most common problems, followed by fever and injuries. The list fits with other studies of long-distance travel, but the incidence was lower in this study. For example, fever affects 11 to 12 percent of imported horses arriving in New York or Los Angeles, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. But less than half of 1 percent of these horses had fevers during or right after the trip.
Rates of other common problems were similarly low. The respiratory illness called shipping fever (pleuropneumonia) is one of the most common long-haul risks. Poor ventilation, a forced high-head position, which keeps the horse from clearing his airways, and dehydration are contributing factors. These horses rode in a vehicle with a forced ventilation system to ensure good air quality. Still, five horses developed pneumonia, and five others showed mild respiratory symptoms. All recovered.
The stress of travel, dehydration, which can lead to intestinal impaction, and changes in diet and feeding regimes make colic another travel danger. Seven horses developed signs of colic or other gastrointestinal problems during or right after the trip. Most recovered, but one had to be euthanized. Three other horses were found dead of undetermined causes during or within a day of transport.
Injuries were most likely early in the trip, the study found, while the number of serious illnesses increased with the length of the trip. More transport-related deaths and respiratory diseases occurred in spring, although the reasons weren’t clear. “This may reflect abrupt temperature increases at a time when many horses still have winter coats, with consequent, impaired thermoregulation in transit,” writes equine veterinarian Barbara Padalino of the University of Sydney, who led the research team. But other seasonal variables—hormone swings or increased exposure to allergens and respiratory viruses—may play a role, she adds.
“Although the trips were well organized and complied with or exceeded the requirements of [Australia’s] National Code of Practice for the Transportation of Horses, serious diseases still occurred,” Padalino notes. The study points to several ways that good planning and management can help reduce the risks of long-distance travel:
• Ship with professionals if you can. A stable and well-ventilated van, experienced handlers and skilled driving that allows horses to keep their balance will help minimize injuries.
• Schedule frequent stops. It’s essential to keep the horse hydrated and maximize the time he has to clear his respiratory tract. Some travel recommendations call for stopping every two to four hours to offer water and give the horse a chance to lower his head.
• Avoid any abrupt diet changes or restrictions before, during and after transportation. To further reduce colic risks, don’t give antibiotics or deworming medications except on a veterinarian’s advice.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.