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Top tips supported by recent research to help protect your horse during travel.

Transporting horses might be part of the daily routine for many owners and trainers, but for horses, it is stressful, exhausting and carries a significant risk.

There is a large amount of research that shows travelling is a major contributor to life-threatening injury and diseases like colic and pneumonia. Fortunately, there is also much we can do to prepare and protect our horses while they travel.

Some of the most recent scientific work in the area of equine transportation is being led by Dr Barbara Padalino, an Italian veterinarian and breeder of Standardbred racehorses who completed a PhD on this topic with the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science and who continues to publish in this area.

In a very comprehensive survey of almost 800 Australian horse owners involving over 300,000 individual horse transport events, Dr Padalino identified the six most common transport related problems.

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    Most common transport related problems:

    • Traumatic injuries (45%),
    • Diarrhoea (20%),
    • Muscular problems (13%),
    • Respiratory problems (12.3%),
    • Over-heating (10.5%), and
    • Colic (10.3%).

    Importantly, in the two years reviewed in the survey, Almost 10% of participants reported at least one case of transport-related pneumonia and 35 transported horses died, most commonly from fractures, colic or pneumonia.

    During the course of her research, Dr Padalino had been interested in understanding why, during the same journey, some horses develop respiratory illness, while others don’t and, in a later study, her research team found that prior health status and stress-related behaviours during the journey could be used to identify those horses at risk of developing respiratory complications in the days after the journey.

    It is now clear that transportation aggravates pre-existing respiratory disease; in other words, if you transport a sick horse, you will end up with a sicker horse at the other end.

    What is less known but equally important is that stress and fatigue are also a major contributing factor, and horses that exhibit more stress-related behaviours during transport, like a high head carriage and losses of balance, are also more likely to develop health problems post-travel.

    Here are Dr Padalino’s top tips for safe transport:

    Preparing for any journey

      • Train your horse to self-load and to stand quietly, so all journeys start with minimum stress and fatigue.
      • Ensure your float design allows your horse to balance and lower their head during every journey.
      • Get to know your horse’s vital signs so you know what is ‘normal’ for your horse – well before travelling. (Learn how here.)
      • Install a camera inside your float to monitor your horse during every journey.

    Before a long journey

      • Check your horse’s temperature before the journey. An elevated body temperature is one of the first symptoms of disease.
      • Check your horse’s capillary refill time. Press your index finger on the gum, above the third incisor and hold for 2-5 seconds then release. Count in seconds the time it takes for the capillaries to refill and the gum colour to return. The normal is less or equal to two seconds.
      • If you have any doubts about the health of your horse don’t travel and, instead, consult your vet. A sick horse will only get sicker during the journey.

    During the journey

      • Make sure your horse can lower their head comfortably during every journey. If possible and safe, motivate this head lowering by placing some dampened hay or haylage low down.
      • Monitor your horse during every journey, noting signs of stress. Pay particular attention to the amount of time spent with the head above and below wither height.

    After the journey

      • Check your horse’s vital signs and record them. (Learn how here).
      • Continue to monitor and check on your horse for the next 5-7 days after a long journey. Consult your vet immediately if you are in doubt.
      • Opaque, yellowish or greenish nasal discharge is a sign of bacterial infection. Call your vet without delay.
      • If your horse spent much of the long journey with a high head position, or displayed signs of stress and fatigue, follow up with a full vet examination and continue to monitor for early signs of disease.
      • Allow at least 24 hours rest after a long journey. In addition, put your horse out on pasture for 24 hours, so they can clear their airways naturally.

    So there you have it. These top tips are supported by research and will help protect your horse during travel.

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    You can read more about Dr Padalino’s researh on horse transportation here.

    This article appeared in the September-October 2020 edition of Horses and People Magazine.