What’s the best way for horses to travel?

It’s not like you can buckle their seat belts. You can’t exactly give them those fuzzy little neck pillows for the long, overnight trip, either.

Yet horses regularly take long trips, especially in Australia. So how can you make their travel more comfortable and less stressful for them?

For starters, give them more space, researchers say. A new study has just revealed, for the first time, that larger bays provide better balance and welfare benefits compared to ‘standard,’ narrow bays, according to Barbara Padalino, PhD, researcher at the University Alma Mater Studiorum of Bologna Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences, Division of Animal Sciences, in Bologna, Italy, and her research partner Sharanne Raidal, PhD, of the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, NSW.

Transporting horses backwards – meaning they’re rear-facing – might also help, she said. However, their study was less conclusive on this point.

What was conclusive, though, was that horses had better balance when they travelled in larger bays and/or when they were rear-facing, Padalino and Raidal said. And furthermore, the group’s study showed a clear correlation between loss of balance and gastric squamous ulcer development.

“We can definitely see that space is really important,” Padalino said. “When horses have more space, they can balance better (by, for example, having more room for spreading out their legs to brace themselves). Position (rear- versus forward-facing) seems to have some effect, but it’s not as important as space.”

In their study, Padalino and Raidal tested a group of research mares during a 12-hour road trip and during a 12-hour stationary holding period in transport-sized stocks. They looked at behaviour, blood samples, physical (bodily) reactions, and stomach testing.

During the transport phase of the study, the horses travelled in two groups in the same truck in varying formats: large bays, narrow bays, forward-facing, and backwards-facing.

They found that horses in larger bays (190 cm length compared to the standard 1.2 m2—the required minimum in Australia) showed fewer balancing behaviours such as leaning against the partitions. This kind of leaning can lead to bruising, even severe, as detected in horses arriving at slaughter. (“You can’t see a bruise on a horse because of the coat, but bruises are easy to detect on carcasses,” said Padalino.)

They also had fewer stress-related and balance-related behaviours, such as touching their lead rope or licking the surface in front of them, she said. The licking could essentially be considered a stereotypical behaviour since it serves no purpose but is repetitive, and the rope-touching could be a way for the horse to redirect his stress.

What’s more, these horses had lower levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”), neutrophils, and white blood cells compared to horses in “single stall” compartments, Padalino explained. “These results suggest an effect on horse health and welfare,” she said.

“So many people continue to believe that horses travel better when they’re in narrow compartments, often because they think the padded partitions help them maintain their balance, but this just isn’t true,” said Padalino. “Ours is finally the first study to confirm this. But if you think about it, it seems obvious that horses need to be able to spread their legs out to deal with the balancing challenges they face during transport. It’s just basic physics, really.”

While Australia has the above-mentioned space requirement of 1.2 m2 per horse, specific space regulations on equine transportation worldwide are rare and aren’t based on scientific findings, Padalino said. In Europe, the requirement is greater—1.75 m2 per horse. Still, that’s less than the 1.9 m2 used in this study.

Globally, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) imposes a “vague” space requirement for any animal: “They say that animals should have sufficient space to adopt a balanced position as appropriate to the climate and species transported,” she said. “Our findings could be useful for updating OIE and national requirements.”

As for rear-facing travel, their results suggested that traveling backwards was a better position for horses due to more favourable physiological and laboratory data, she said. However, the behaviour data was less conclusive. In particular, although the horses showed less ‘balancing’ behaviour when rear-facing, these study horses actually ended up losing their balance more than horses in the forward position.

While this might seem contradictory, it’s also possible that the results had something to do with the design of their study truck itself, according to Padalino. “The compartments located just behind the cab, at the front of the truck over the axle, were rear-facing,” she said. “So the behaviour we’re seeing might actually be related to that position more than or in addition to the position of the horse itself. This also means that our findings may be overestimated, suggesting that if we had not had this logistical situation, rear-facing positions would have given much lower balance behaviours in comparison with facing forward.”

Furthermore, the researchers found that the horses who showed more stress-related and balance-related behaviours during transit (as viewed by video surveillance) tended to have higher rectal temperatures and heart rates after arrival, according to Padalino.

Since these signs also correlated with a higher risk of stomach ulcer development in their study population, it could be a way to screen for horses that are more likely to develop transportation-related health issues, she said.

Unlike when the horses were confined in stocks for 12 hours, they didn’t fall asleep during transit—and this is another important conclusion from the study, Padalino said.

“This is a novel finding, and it suggests that horses can’t rest at all while traveling,” she explained. “It’s possible that they’re facing sleep deprivation when traveling overnight (which happens frequently to avoid daytime heat).”

As a side note, the researchers observed that horses seemed to travel better when “paired with a buddy” compared to a horse they didn’t know or didn’t like, Padalino added. While this wasn’t part of the study, it was certainly something the scientists noticed anecdotally.

“When they’re buddies they interact a lot in a positive way rather than an aggressive way,” she said. “That’s especially important after about seven or eight hours of travel when they’re getting tired. Horses are like people in that they start to get ‘grumpy’ when they get tired, and if they’re traveling next to a neighbour who’s not their friend, they start to get upset.”

The authors were keen to acknowledge the funding they received and which made this research possible, from Virbac, Goldeners and World Horse Welfare.

The paper by Barbara Padalino and Sharanne Raidal was published in Animals in January 2020. It is titled: Effects of Transport Conditions on Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Horses.

It is open access and you can read in full here.

Read more of Padalino’s research into reducing the risk of transport related pneumonia (travel sickness)