Horses use almost as many calories on the back of a lorry as they do walking. In an article guest edited by William Fox-Pitt, Andrea Oakes explores how to make longer journeys comfortable — and the key problems to avoid

Guest editor William Fox-Pitt explains the reasons behind choosing this topic:

“I recently helped Cassie White, who conducted some research into the humidity on lorries for horses travelling down to Pau, in the south of France.

The data was quite shocking, revealing levels of humidity of 90% for several hours on some lorries — for some reason, people still don’t like to give their enough horses enough ventilation and even travel with windows shut.

“What is best practice when travelling horses for long journeys? I get my horses off the lorry every 4-5hr, and many is the time I have had a 4-star horse grazing the grass around a motorway service station lorry park with a bridle and lungeline on.

“It’s also important to refit the travel boots and tail bandage at these breaks — and is a tail bandage a good idea anyway on a really long trip? I’ve seen more problems from using tail bandages than not.

“South African racehorse trainer Mike de Kock advocated turning horses out the night before a long trip if possible to graze and thus take on hydration that way.” 

RECENT studies suggest that some advanced level event horses are travelling more than 3,500 miles by road in the UK per season — that’s roughly equivalent to driving from the UK to Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum, even those competing at novice are thought, on average, to clock up just short of 2,000 miles (see box on new research, below).

Guest-editor William Fox-Pitt was among the event riders taking part in further research to determine the levels of heat and humidity endured by horses during these long hours in transit.

On a return journey by road and ferry from the 4-star event at Pau, the humidity inside some of the lorries was measured at 70-87%. That’s more than a summertime peak on the streets of Hong Kong.

Infection risk

While international competition horses are most likely to face extensive road journeys, those crossing the UK for regional and national events can also cover some hefty distances. How does this affect their health and ability to perform?

“Several studies have shown no measurable effect on athletic performance after journeys of up to 3hr,” says Tim Randle MRCVS, who travels internationally with the GBR pony team.

“The effects of longer journeys are more complex to assess, as there are so many variables, including climate differential from origin to destination, horse temperament, time zone changes and journey duration.

“What is known is that increased air humidity is significant to risk of infection,” adds Tim.

“The horse’s shallow breathing pattern at rest and the prolonged ‘head up’ posture during travel reduce normal clearance of respiratory secretions and potential contaminants from the airways.

“There’s also the inevitable sharing of air between horses in a confined space and the non-specifi c stress that can suppress the immune system.

“The combined effects can lead to travel-related pneumonia, a potentially serious development.”

According to Tim, straightforward measures can greatly reduce the risks to the respiratory system.

“Monitor your horse’s rectal temperature frequently,” he stresses.

“If he displays a raised temperature prior to travelling, don’t go. Optimise air quality by ventilating the vehicle, remembering to open doors and ramps when stationary, such as during ferry travel. Encouraging a head down, grazing posture will promote airway clearance, so feed from the floor before and after the journey — even during, if possible.”

Keeping things moving

The horse’s gastrointestinal system also comes under strain during prolonged travel.

“Dehydration can lead to colic,” says Tim, adding that general stress and a change of food intake can be contributing factors.

“Appetite suppression can also lead to gastric ulcers, so try to avoid making changes to the diet when travelling.

“Most people reduce hard feed for a journey with prevention of colic, azoturia and so on in mind.

“But the paradox is that travelling still consumes around 80% of the calories used for vigorous walking exercise and in itself can amount to a reasonable energy demand.

“Although it’s rarely practical, monitoring bodyweight is really useful — a horse can lose around 0.5% of its bodyweight per hour.”

Tim recommends breaking the journey every 2-4hr to offer feed and water, along with rehydration measures such as dampening feed, soaking forage and using electrolytes.

“Inactivity reduces gastrointestinal motility and predisposes the horse to impaction-type colic,” he adds. “Consider low-level exercise, such as walking the horse in-hand for 20-30min, before and after travel.

“Medication may help prevent gastric ulcers and antacids are permitted in competition, so discuss this with your vet.

“Some studies have shown reduced stress associated with rear-facing travel compared with standing forward or sideways. Nervous travellers most often prefer more rather than less space between partitions.”

Stiffness can also occur. “Travel will exacerbate any lameness issues and will have greater effect on older or less orthopaedically sound horses,” says Tim.

“Consider, too, your horse’s pre and post-journey exercise routine. While travel is tiring, it does not have the same intensity as normal athletic exercise.”

A successful journey starts with the planning, according to Henry Bullen of equine shipping agent Peden Bloodstock.

“Make sure you know where you’re going and allow enough time, taking weather conditions into account,” he says. “High winds can affect Channel crossings, so plan an alternative route through the Channel tunnel instead.

“Also, it might be cooler at night in the summer, but ferry crossings can be busier.

“Some horses won’t eat, pee or drink on board and need extra stops to unload. It’s a case of balancing the benefits of reaching the destination earlier with meeting these requirements.”

And once you’ve organised the outward journey, don’t skimp on the return.

“It’s worrying when people load horses straight up after a competition — especially eventing — and drive off without giving them any time for recovery,” says Henry.

“Much is down to common sense. There are definitely horses who take to travel better than others, so the trick is to know your horse and adapt your plans to his needs.

New research

High mileage in heat and humidity — it’s a gruelling combination for event horses on their way to competition. Yet this picture has emerged in new research at Nottingham Trent University, led by Cassie White.

“These are preliminary findings and just a snapshot of what can happen in transit,” said Cassie.

“The average miles travelled in the UK in a season ranged from 2,000-3,500 for novice and advanced horses, which covers journeys for any reason — from shows to trips for training, gallops and the vet.

“The riders on the journey back from Pau were all very conscientious about their horses’ travelling environment, some using electric fans. But heat and relative humidity levels varied greatly between lorries and were highest on the ferry.

“We know that sub-optimal heat and humidity can lead to impaired performance and health issues including shipping fever, so we’ll be looking into this area further.”

6 tips for stress-free travel

Ensure a smooth journey with advice from shipping agent Henry Bullen:

  1. Open vehicle windows and vents to prevent oven-like conditions — but make sure the wind isn’t drying out your horse’s eyes or blowing hay into his face. Haylage has a slight dampness and might be more suitable in transit.
  2. Tying his head too high and stuffi ng his nose in a haynet will put your horse’s respiratory health at risk. Allow him room to stretch and lower his neck.
  3. Don’t overwrap him in travel gear, which will make him sweaty and uncomfortable.
  4. A seasoned traveller may be better off without a tail bandage on a long journey — too tight and it can rub or damage the dock; too loose and it can unravel and entangle the feet.
  5. Don’t overstock the lorry: the horses in the middle of a herringbone format can generate huge amounts of heat.
  6. A short journey can become a long one, even with the best-laid plans — so always travel prepared.

What the pros do

Event rider William Fox-Pitt: “Horses are more likely to drink after a mooch and a stretch, so we unload them every 4-5hr. We also put clip-on buckets in front of them during the journey with a little water in, even if they only want to dunk their hay in it.”

Showjumper Trevor Breen: “Putting pieces of apple and carrot in the water bucket can encourage a horse to drink. If they’re drinking more they’ll need to urinate, so we put down ample bedding in the truck. They often don’t like it if urine splashes up on their legs from the rubber flooring.

Dressage rider Amy Stovold: “I try to keep the same feed routine but wet the feed. We also check their temperatures frequently and allow them to stretch their heads down to eat and drink during breaks.”