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Points to consider when transporting equines

Transport can be a stressful business depending on the temperament of your horse, so it's worth putting a little planning in before you set off.

Here are a few tips that should help your journey run as smoothly and safely as possible.

Water and electrolytes

Unless a horse has a history of dehydration, excessive or uncontrolled administration of electrolytes could actually have adverse effects on water and electrolyte balance in the horse.

Check that a horse that is to be transported has been drinking normally in the days leading up to transport, and especially immediately before transport.

The pre-travel administration of oral or intravenous fluids is not usually recommended unless the horse has a history of developing dehydration during travel.

Body weight

It is normal for a horse to lose weight during transport.

The amount of weight lost can range from 0.45 to 0.55% of total body weight (about five to six pounds in a normal mature Thoroughbred) per hour of transport.

This weight loss might reflect reduced dietary intake during travel, dehydration, manure and urine excretion, and sweating.

Horses can lose 45 pounds (20kgs) on international flights, and horses with shipping fever could lose 75 pounds or more en route.

Horses travelling more than 12 hours have been found to lose up to 5% of their body weight.

Weight loss in transit tends to be regained over the following three to seven days in healthy horses, and possibly over longer periods in horses with shipping fever.

It is recommended that horses be weighed before travel to establish a baseline for comparison with weight status on arrival and in the recovery period.

Since scales are likely to vary, weigh two large sacks of feed and record their weights.

Keep the sacks intact to weigh on the scale at your destination. You will then be able to compare departure with arrival weights, compensating for differences in scale accuracy. Weight tapes, when applied correctly, tend to be accurate within 40 pounds.

Respiratory health and disease

One of the fundamental rules of transport is "sick horse on, sicker horse when getting off."

The importance of avoiding the shipment of horses that are even slightly sick (other than for transport to a hospital or clinic) cannot be overemphasised.

This is especially true for horses with respiratory illness.

Horses with fever or nasal discharge and those with a history of exposure to other horses with infectious respiratory disease (such as strangles or viral respiratory infections) should not be transported.


Unnecessary medication should be avoided, especially before travel. Adverse reactions are always a possibility with any therapeutic substance.

Tranquilisers should be administered only by a veterinarian and are not recommended unless necessary.

Feed and water

Clean water should be offered regularly—approximately every three to six hours—during prolonged ground or air transport.

If possible, it is advisable to bring water from home as some horses are reluctant to drink water that is not from the home sources.

In warmer conditions, high humidity, or when horses are sweating, water should be offered more frequently.

It is important that horses eat during long journeys.

However, it is also imperative that the environment on the transport vehicle have as little contamination of the air with respirable particles as possible.

In particular, the breathing zone around the horse's muzzle should not be heavily contaminated with particulate matter.

Because hay nets must be placed very close to (or within) the breathing zone, it is essential that hay be as dust-free as possible.

It is, therefore, recommended that hay be thoroughly soaked in water before being loaded on the vehicle or fed in a net to horses.

Head posture

Horses should be given as much freedom of movement of their heads as is safe.

Restraint in the head up posture for prolonged intervals can severely compromise lung clearance mechanisms and predispose a horse to shipping fever.

Hay nets should be placed as low as possible while still assuring that horses cannot entangle their feet in the nets.

There are a number of factors about air quality that impact the respiratory system.

The properly designed trailer or van will allow for adequate ventilation without a gale force draft directly on the horse or a total drenching if it rains.

That said, it is almost impossible not to have the airflow in a trailer recirculate rear to front along the floor, bringing noxious fumes up for the horses to breathe.

The pressure profiles along a moving trailer largely dictate that there will be lots of rebreathing.

More open-stock trailers potentially offer significant advantages for ventilation and reduced heat load during the summer.

Urine-soaked bedding or poor drainage from the trailer can also have a negative impact on air quality.

When urine breaks down, a substantial amount of ammonia fumes can be generated.

Excessive inhalation of ammonia fumes can cause respiratory irritation that predisposes the horse to respiratory problems.

Recent research suggests that in the case of long road journeys there is benefit in removing faeces and urine-soaked material during periodic stops.