Planning a road trip? Keep your horse happy and healthy during the journey, with expert advice from Liz Brown MRCVS
Q. Should I worry about shipping fever on a UK journey?
A. SHIPPING FEVER, or pleuropneumonia, is an infection which may occur after travelling. Bacteria present in the lungs can multiply and cause pneumonia, inflammation and secretion of fluid into the surrounding cavity, known as the pleural space.
Contributing factors during travel are dehydration and a prolonged head-up position, both of which reduce drainage of mucus from the lungs. Additional risk factors include recent fast exercise or viral infection, exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage, or exposure to inhaled particles.
While shipping fever can occur after a shorter trip, longer journeys represent an increased risk. Keep a horse well hydrated, make sure he does not overheat and untie him periodically to allow him to lower his head.
Initial signs include a high temperature, lethargy and appetite loss, and may progress to laboured breathing or an unsteady gait. A delay in veterinary treatment can result in more severe disease, which may have a poor prognosis for survival.
Q. How tiring is travel?
A. TRAVELLING requires muscular effort for the horse to balance and stabilise. Studies have found evidence of muscle fatigue after longer journeys, which may affect performance. An overnight stay before the competition will allow time for muscle recovery and rehydration.
A study of horses on an eight-hour trip showed that the frequency of stress-related behaviours was greatest in the first hour of the journey and that balance-related behaviours were most common in the final hour.
A smoother ride, on a motorway, for example, will be less arduous than travelling on twisty roads with changes of speed and direction. A lorry journey may be less taxing than travelling in a trailer.
Remember, too, that a seasoned traveller will find the journey less mentally and physically tiring than a less experienced horse.
Q. Are rest breaks recommended?
A. IF your journey is longer than three to four hours, schedule a stop to allow the horse to rest and drink. Untie him, so he can drop his head. If there is a safe place to unload, a short walk and a graze are beneficial.
Animal welfare regulations state that no horse may be transported on a journey in excess of eight hours, except in an approved vehicle where the limit is 24 hours – provided that water and feed are provided at eight-hour intervals.
Q. Which way should a horse face while in transit?
A. STUDIES have shown that horses have lower heart rates when facing backwards. They seem to find the experience less stressful and can engage the muscles of the hindlegs and quarters to buffer braking. When facing forwards, they tend to hold their heads higher.
Some horses find it harder to balance in a trailer. A larger horse may prefer to travel without the partition so he can stand diagonally.
Floor mats can be slippery and may not afford the horse sufficient grip. A layer of shavings can make him feel more secure.
Q. Can travel affect soundness?
A. TRAVELLING places different stresses on a horse’s limbs or body as he maintains balance. When he is positioned diagonally, these stresses may be uneven and could aggravate a pre-existing condition. Horses travelling in a herringbone pattern for long periods have been observed to appear stiffer on the right hind leg afterwards; this limb may experience more loading during repeated stabilisation.
Allow a horse time to recover after a long journey, to prevent secondary injuries. When travelling abroad, he may need a day or two of light stretching before returning to normal work.
A high head position can put extra stresses on the neck. A horse travelling with his head positioned over a locker, or a longer horse who cannot stretch his neck forward, may look stiff after unloading. Any degree of arthritis present in the cervical facet joints may aggravate this problem.
Q. How can I help my stressy horse cope?
A. FIRST consider why he gets stressed. Does he have room to stand comfortably and balance? Try widening the partitions or placing him in a different orientation or vehicle, maybe with a companion.
Accustom him to the trailer or lorry with short journeys. Drive carefully; if you are towing a trailer, you may not realise that your horse’s ride is a lot rougher than yours is in the car.
Q. Why is ventilation vital?
A. VENTILATION should be sufficient to provide good airflow. Keep the windows open, as long as the horse’s face is not exposed to a continuous draught and particles of hay or dust are not blowing into his eyes.
Take care not to over-rug. Muscles create heat while horses travel; several horses in transit together can generate considerable warmth. A warm horse will lose heat and fluid through sweat.
Q. How can I keep a horse hydrated?
A. AIM to minimise fluid loss through sweating by keeping the horse cool, and stop regularly to offer him water. He may be more inclined to drink if you give him time to rest and eat first, while you take a break, offering him a bucket before you set off again. Gastric ulceration can make a horse reluctant to drink, an important consideration when travelling long distances.
Allow a horse time at the end of a competition to rest, eat and drink, before loading him up. Give him free access to water once at home to replace any fluid losses.
Q. Should I provide hay?
A. HORSES benefit from eating hay or haylage during a journey. Travel can be a risk factor for gastric ulceration; chewing encourages saliva production, which helps neutralise stomach acid, and fibre in the stomach will reduce acid splashing.
A horse with a respiratory allergy may need to avoid eating hay on the way to a competition, however, if it triggers coughing. It is advisable not to feed a horse from a haynet at head height if he has had upper respiratory tract surgery, in case he inhales food particles.
Q. Travel boots or bandages – what’s best?
A. BOTH provide protection from knocks or treads. Legs can swell slightly on long trips, so it is important bandages are not too tight and are applied over a sufficient layer of padding. Boots must fit well so there is no danger of them slipping down.
An over-tight tail bandage can constrict the blood supply, resulting in discomfort that can be mistaken for colic – along with the growth of white hair or, in extreme cases, complete loss of the tail. A tail guard is easier to apply but may slip.
This feature can also be read in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 6 May
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