Travel is Stressful for Horses… and there can be Serious Consequences.
By Dr Erin Roddy, DVM
Here’s How to Minimise the Impact and Risk of Travel for Your Horse.
We all know of horses who are mentally stressed by travel – but even horses who travel calmly are likely to be concealing mental and physical stress.
Travelling can often be unpredictable and uncontrollable for horses. They use a lot of energy balancing, can become stressed by having an empty gut, or being too hot, and can be worried and on edge because of noise and being in a confined space.
There has been so much research in the last few decades into how horses handle and display stress that it is impossible to ignore what the data tells us. Anecdotally it was believed that only horses showing stressful behaviour were indeed stressed. The adages “hauls like a pro” and “the same horse at home and away” led many horse owners to believe that if their horse “appeared” calm that they obviously were. The recent research however has shown that horses displaying no outward stereotypical stress behaviours (weaving, sweating, pacing, calling out, etc.) could and often did still show signs of stress physiologically (elevated temperature, respiration, and heart rate, elevated blood cortisol and muscle enzyme levels, changes in gastric and fecal pH - and ultimately gastric and hind gut ulceration).
We must remember that horses are prey animals – it is part of their evolutionary defence mechanism not to show fear or stress. From our monitoring of physiological responses in horses we know that many horses are showing very high stress responses while outwardly appearing calm and “relaxed”.
We always need to remember that one of the biggest consequences of inflicting stress on our horses is the damage it causes to the gut! Once the stress cycle is started and cortisol is released into the bloodstream there is a negative cascade which directly affects gut motility, gastric and hindgut pH, the health and variety of the microbiome, and this cascade can be a direct cause of gastric ulceration, hind gut ulceration, colic, diarrhoea, and laminitis.
Why is Travel such a Major Stress for Horses?
Travelling is one of the biggest stressors we regularly impose on our horses - and many horses experience this stress as often as every day. There are a number of components which contribute to travel stress, and it is important to break them down so that we can address each one and minimise the overall negative impact on our horses. Here is a non-exhaustive list, and ideas on how to help your horse cope well with travelling.
Fear of Restricted Spaces
The first component is a general fear of the unknown and inherent claustrophobia horses have. It is entirely unnatural for horses to be loaded into a dark, confined space, which is often loud, smells strangely, and which moves! In fact, this study compared the stress response of being confined for 12 hours in stocks versus travelling for 12 hours, and travelling is much more stressful so the elements of noise, smell, and movement are definitely having an impact.
Much of what we do with horses is desensitisation and they are amazing in their ability to continually acclimate and adjust to whatever we ask of them. Desensitising and training your horse to be confident, comfortable and relaxed loading and travelling will help with the fear element. A horse that is stressed when loading is not going to relax physiologically once the actual travel begins. Once the stress cycle starts it will impact the body negatively even if the horse appears to have “calmed down” outwardly.
Also consider the stress of leaving home and “herd ” (mates who might not be travelling) - and any interactions between the horses who are travelling. Some horses may do better alone, some better with a known friend, some may be fine with any horse. Mares in particular can be stressed by travelling with a horse they don’t know or like as they are inherently more protective of their personal space.
Assess and systematically address each of these elements before just throwing a bunch of horses on and driving out the gate.
Noisy, hot spaces
Ensuring that the space the horse is travelling in is as comfortable as possible is extremely important. Make sure noise is reduced as much as possible by tightening anything that can rattle or bang, and consider earplugs or noise proof bonnets.
Maximising airflow, and controlling temperature is also extremely important. I suggest to all my clients that they install a thermometer in their trailer, truck, or float as it can be amazing how much hotter it will get inside versus the outside ambient temperature. Horses produce a lot of heat as well and having multiple horses inside without adequate airflow on even a mild day can quickly produce a very hot and humid environment inside. Try to avoid travelling when it is hot or humid outside and if you must I strongly recommend installing fans, vents, or an air conditioning system in the horse area.
Dehydration is another big danger when travelling with horses. Ensuring your horse has eaten and drunk well prior to travelling is the most important preventative to dehydration. If for some reason your horse has been withheld food before the trip, leave enough time prior to departure for them to eat well and drink well. It is impossible to overhydrate a horse and very hard to catch up once they become dehydrated. Ensure that you provide access to fresh, clean, cool water often throughout the trip and even more often in hot weather. Some horses can be picky about water which tastes different so bringing water from home with you can ensure consistent drinking. Alternatively, acclimating your horse to water mixed with electrolytes or a small amount of molasses prior to travelling can help mask the taste of foreign water. Personally, I have found mixing a small handful of dirt into town water helps with horses who may be used to bore or dam water at home.
Ensuring your horse is well hydrated prior to travel and stopping frequently to offer cool, clean water will help prevent arriving with a dehydrated horse at the end of the journey.
Movement & Balance
While travelling, horses need to continuously adjust and readjust their balance (one of the best ways to appreciate this is to take a ride yourself where your horse normally travels!) which is physically demanding on them. Researchers travelled two horses for 58 minutes and found that they each moved vertically around 80m total, and horizontally around 230m total during that short ride!
This act of maintaining balance uses a lot of core strength and continuous thought on the horse’s part especially as they don’t know when you will be braking or turning. This means that they are unable to rest effectively while travelling, they must be constantly alert and anticipating what the trailer will do next. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation leads to impaired immune system functioning and impaired athletic performance.
Additionally, horses' muscles are very sensitive to pressure as they are not designed to spend a lot of time lying down so continuously leaning against a wall or divider results in muscle damage and a significant increase in muscle enzymes in the blood.
Making sure that they have enough room to spread out and balance confidently and a comfortable, secure floor underneath them with plenty of traction underneath them is vital. Make sure that bum bars are placed at the right height so that they are safe and provide some bracing for the horse to use.
An Empty Gut
One of the biggest advances in recent research has been the effect of withholding feed on the horse’s gastrointestinal system.
I strongly recommend horses always have access to clean, good quality, long stemmed forage at all times and this includes while travelling. Being without feed is stressful for horses, science proves it. In the past it has been recommended that horses be fed every 4 hours to prevent setting off the cascade of stress response in the body and I do think this is a good rule of thumb. But recent data shows that some horses show signs of physiological stress at the 2-hour mark and some in as little as 15 minutes of not having access to feed. It varies based on the horse’s microbiome and their previous feeding history. Travelling is also stressful for horses, science proves this also. Withholding feed while travelling is adding insult to injury in my opinion.
I get a lot of owners who are worried about the possible consequences of providing feed while travelling, mainly the possibility of choke and respiratory disease. Personally, I have never encountered a case of choke while travelling but I am sure that there have been cases (there’s always some horse somewhere that has done something!). Preventing your horse from choking while travelling is the same as preventing from choking at any time: Feed enough and often so the horse isn’t tempted to bolt its feed, ensure regular dental maintenance to ensure the horse can chew effectively, use slow feeding methods such as hay nets and grazing muzzles to slow down over enthusiastic eaters. The guaranteed damage to the gut and potential for setting off the stress cascade caused by withholding feed is much more dangerous than the small possibility of choke.
Respiratory disease as a result of travelling is a much more valid concern. However, studies show that dusty/mouldy/foetid trailers without adequate airflow and horses not having the opportunity to lower their heads to clear their airways are the culprits, not feed. If your horse is travelling for more than 8 hours, it is vital that you either allow them enough space to lower their head during travel or stop periodically and unload them to graze, to allow them the opportunity to do so off the trailer. If you are concerned about hay causing dust in the trailer, simply dampening it down with water will reduce dust and increase hydration!
Most horse owners these days are aware of one of the most common consequences of stress on the horse: gastric ulceration. It has long been recognized that gastric ulcers occur more frequently in horses who travel and compete a lot than in horses who don’t. However, that relationship has generally been linked to the environmental stress of travelling and competing and the stress of heavy training. This kind of stress certainly increases the risk for gastric ulceration but it is not the only element at play.
Recent research has shown that another significant factor which increases the risk of gastric and hindgut ulceration is the stress of food withholding and an empty stomach which so often occurs during training, stall confinement, and travel. This is another reason why ensuring you start each journey with a well-fed and hydrated horse and make every possible effort to maintain that status throughout the trip.
The use of gastric ulcer medication has become common when it comes to travelling and competing with horses and certainly for horses who have been diagnosed with EGUS this is an important tool to be used under veterinary management. That being said, I do not condone ad hoc use of gastric ulcer medication as a “stress reliever” or “preventative measure”. All medications come with side effects and possible negative effects on the horse and should be used judiciously and under direct veterinary supervision.
Preventing stomach emptying by providing adequate feed and preventing dehydration by ensuring frequent access to palatable water are much safer and reliable methods to avoiding gastric ulceration. Use of Stress Paste to help protect the gut lining, balance the microbiome and aid hydration while supporting the nervous system is a useful way to help minimise risk.
We have covered lots of ways to reduce and control the factors which influence the stress of travelling on our horses but what about the elements we can’t control? Weather, traffic, and things that happen along the way can all be unpredictable and out of our control. Supporting and protecting our horses’ bodies, minds, and especially their fragile and sensitive GI tract is critical to arriving at the end of your journey with a happy, healthy, and relaxed horse.
How Poseidon Animal Health can Help your Horse Travel Well
Poseidon Animal Health has created several research based, science backed products to support and protect your horse while travelling.
Digestive EQ or Digestive RP for horses who travel and compete more often are the most comprehensive products on the market for supporting all elements of horses GI tract to maintain gastric and hind gut pH and protect and support the microbiome. Double dosing prior to an anticipated stressful event or travel is a great way to boost the protection and support of the gut ahead of time.
Stress Paste is an absolute game changer in supporting horses through times of any kind of stress but particularly travel. It is packed with ingredients which protect the GI tract and maintain hydration levels as well as encourage the horse to eat and drink normally. I use Stress Paste the night before, morning of, and throughout the duration of any trip with my horse and I have been blown away by the change in the way they cope with and bounce back from travel. I have also now seen numerous horses who are off feed or not drinking during travel or upon arrival at a new destination immediately begin eating and drinking after just one tube of Stress Paste.
Best of all, all Poseidon’s equine supplements are competition legal and contain no medications so are safe to use in all classes of horses, at any time.
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