A horse that is settled in his yard will be thoroughly familiar with his environment — the taste of his feed, hay and water, the habits of his companions and even the smells of his surroundings will all combine to make him feel at home.
On occasion it may be necessary to uproot him, to move him to a new yard or to a temporary stable for a few days at a show. Change may be unavoidable, but how exactly can this affect his health?
The more your horse travels, the more likely he is to meet horses that are carrying viruses or bacteria that could infect him. Most horses have a strong immune system but, like people, some are more susceptible to infection — especially older or very young animals.
Immunity can be lowered by stress. This can take many forms and may be due to underlying chronic disease, change in diet, separation from stablemates or travelling.
Whether planning a temporary trip or a more permanent move, avoid doing anything in the week beforehand that will challenge your horse’s immune system — such as vaccinations, dentistry and worming treatment. Keep stress to a minimum for a further fortnight as he settles into a new home. Drastic management changes, hard exercise, competition and turnout with new fieldmates can weaken already low defences and leave him more vulnerable to infection.
To avoid the spread of infectious disease, it is advisable to separate the newcomer from other horses for a period of at least a fortnight, if not longer. Monitor him closely during this time and take his temperature morning and evening.
Many horses show behaviour changes when they move home, but call your vet if you spot altered behaviour, particularly in conjunction with coughing, a raised temperature and a reduced feed and water intake.
Dietary changes increase the likelihood of hindgut upset and gastric ulcers. Colic is an additional risk, typically from sudden changes from one feed to another or from large meals — especially those with a high starch content from oats, barley, wheat or maize, where undigested starch can reach the hindgut.
During times of upheaval, it is especially important to maintain general rules with hard feed: give hay first; divide hard feed into three or four smaller meals per day, and replace established feed or forage with new feed gradually over a period of at least seven days.
It is not uncommon for a horse to be given an extra scoop of feed before competition or hard training, which can lead to an increased risk of tying-up (a muscle condition, also known as azoturia or equine rhabdomyolysis syndrome). Conversely, the risk of tying-up will also be greater if his workload is decreased. Reduce hard feed on travelling days or if he has time off during a yard move.
Horses should ideally be fed hay ad lib to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract and to reduce the risk of both gastric ulcers and colic. Hay can vary significantly from batch to batch, however, so start mixing in some hay from a new batch with the old rather than making an abrupt switch. One study showed that if hay was changed suddenly, the bacteria in the hindgut took around four weeks to readjust.
Many horses that drink well at home take in less water than they should while travelling and when stabled away. At the same time, travel and competing can increase dehydration and cause impaction colic or reduced performance. Dehydration also worsens respiratory conditions, as the airways become drier and mucus clears more slowly. This is a risk for horses with chronic respiratory disease such as equine asthma (RAO, COPD or heaves).
Horses that won’t drink in a new home can sometimes be encouraged by the addition of 25g of table salt to the daily feed. Some respond to flavours such as a few drops of peppermint cordial or a little molasses added to unfamiliar water. If you are at a venue with automatic waterers and your horse is used to buckets, then stick with buckets. It can help to take the horse’s buckets from his own stable and a container of water from home.
Grazing quality varies dramatically between pastures and at different times of the year. If your horse is on poor-quality, highly-grazed pasture and receives most of his forage as hay, be wary of grazing him heavily in his new home, or at a venue where there is ample lush grass. This may be enough to induce mild colic, so limit pasture access until his gut has adapted.
Try to use the same bedding your horse is used to while at the show, or for a week or two if the move is permanent. Don’t let him gorge on straw and be aware that a change in bedding can represent a challenge to his respiratory system. When combined with stress from moving, this can lead to development of respiratory symptoms such as coughing and nasal discharge.
On the road
Travelling long distances for stay-away shows can be especially gruelling for a horse. Consider arriving the night before, at least, if the journey is likely to take longer than five hours. Travelling uses more energy than walking, so allow your horse time to recover before you compete.
Aim to keep things as similar as possible to the routine he is used to at home. If your horse does tend to go off his feed, consider feeding a high-dose live yeast probiotic before leaving and while you are away.
Travelling overseas brings additional challenges. The biggest health risk associated with prolonged travel is shipping fever, a bacterial infection in the lungs. Your vet can advise you of precautions to take and may suggest that the horse is endoscoped three to four weeks before travelling to assess respiratory health.
If you are moving or travelling your horse to a very different climate, he may need a week or two to recover from the journey and a further fortnight to find his feet in his new environment. This is particularly relevant for polo ponies arriving from South America and horses travelling from the southern hemisphere.
Allow an easy settling-in period while he adjusts to different time patterns and new light and temperature levels. His vaccination regime may not be in line with UK recommendations, so check that he is covered for common infections such as equine flu.
Ref Horse & Hound; 18 May 2017