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Transport Is a Tricky Thing For the Health of Your Horse

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Transporting your horse can be a stressful experience for you and your horse. For example, horses lose two to five pounds of body weight for every hour they travel – and that's in cool weather. This can increase dramatically in hot weather due to evaporation at the body surface or sweating. Horses also run the risk of respiratory disease during long-distance travel.

Any journey in a car, truck, trailer, boat or airplane of greater than five hours is considered long distance. Some of the effects of long distance travel on your horse include:

  • Pleuropneumonia or "shipping fever." Impaired clearance of crud, dust, bacteria and any foreign substance from the respiratory system is often the result of standing in the vehicle for many hours and not being able to lower the head. This leads to pleuropneumonia, a bacterial infection of both the lungs and the pleural space that surrounds the lungs. For more information see the article Bacterial Pneumonia in the Horse.

  • Dehydration. Because horses often refuse to drink while traveling, they may lose enough body weight to become clinically dehydrated (loss of at least 5 percent of body weight).

  • Colic, primarily secondary to dehydration. When horses lose body water, the highly fibrous food (hay) that is in their digestive tracts also becomes dehydrated. This is a very big risk factor for impaction colic.

  • Suppression of the immune system

  • Food refusal

    Plan Carefully

    As pointed out by Mimi Porter, DVM, Equine Therapist, Lexington, Ky, "When the horse is faced with stress and copes with it successfully, he is better equipped to cope successfully again in the future. Thoughtful preparation can help him cope with stress and avoid fatigue or assault to health."

    If you have any concerns about your horse's health, have your veterinarian give him a thorough physical examination during the week prior to travel. Chronic diseases may progress during travel. Also, delay your trip if your horse has had an infectious respiratory disease, such as influenza, during the two weeks preceding your trip. Prior respiratory disease will predispose your horse to developing pleuropneumonia. Try to make any feed changes two to four weeks before long-distance transport.

    Other measures include:

  • Frequent stops. Horses should be offered water and food every two to four hours, depending on the weather. In hot humid weather, they should be offered water at least every two hours.

  • Frequent stopovers. Horses should not be asked to travel more than 8 hours at a stretch unless absolutely unavoidable (for instance, a flight to Australia).

  • Plenty of head movement. Do not tie your horse's head on a short rein that keeps his head high. Allow your horse enough movement so that he can lower his head to clear his airways by coughing and snorting.

  • Avoid impaction colic by having your veterinarian give a gallon of mineral oil plus water and electrolytes via nasogastric tube 4-12 hours before long distance transport. Alternatively, feed him mineral oil in a bran mash.

  • Accustom your horse to eating soaked hay during the two weeks prior to the trip. Eating soaked hay for one day prior to travel and during travel will provide your horse with much needed water. This will help avoid both dehydration and colic. If your horse enjoys wet feed, then a bran mash with a few goodies, such as apples and carrots, will also help to deliver fluid to his system.

  • Accustom your horse to drinking flavored water (most horses enjoy water flavored with apple juice) so that he will not reject foreign water. You might want to bring an adequate supply of water from home.

    What to Watch For

    If you notice any of the following signs, call your veterinarian immediately.

  • Signs of depression or not eating.

  • Signs of respiratory disease such as increased respiratory rate or effort, coughing, or discharge (especially any thick or discolored discharge) from the nostrils.

  • Fever, which may indicate either overheating or infection. Any temperature greater than 101.5 degrees F is considered a fever and warrants a call to your veterinarian. You should take the temperature of your horse after long-distance transport once he's settled down in the stall and daily in the morning thereafter. Any fever spikes should be brought to the immediate attention of your veterinarian.

  • Signs of colic or impending colic such as decreased amount of manure, dry manure, decreased appetite or signs of abdominal pain, such as pawing, looking at the side or rolling.

  • Decreased water intake, or decreased urination (this may signal that your horse is dehydrated).

  • Increased heart rate (for most horses, a heart rate greater than 44 beats per minute is elevated).

    Veterinary Care

    Arrange for a veterinary visit as soon as possible after arrival at your destination. Your veterinarian will do a thorough physical examination, with careful auscultation (listening with a stethoscope) of the chest. He will look for signs of respiratory disease, dehydration and colic. Some diagnostic tests may include:

  • Blood work. Your veterinarian may recommend a complete blood count (to look for signs of infection), and a chemistry profile (to look for signs of organ dysfunction, especially kidney dysfunction due to dehydration).

  • Ultrasound. If your horse shows any signs of respiratory disease, your veterinarian may choose to look at the airways using an endoscope, and will often choose to look at the chest using ultrasonography. Ultrasound is a very sensitive method for detecting fluid in the chest.

  • Rectal exam. If your horse shows signs of colic, your veterinarian may choose to perform a rectal, and will probably want to pass a nasogastric tube.


  • Pleuropneumonia. If your horse has shipping fever, your veterinarian will treat with broad spectrum antibiotics and may also drain the chest of excessive fluid build-up. Frequently, shipping fever is so severe that the horse must be sent to a referral hospital where around-the-clock care can be given.

  • Dehydration. If your horse is dehydrated your veterinarian will administer fluids containing electrolytes using a nasogastric tube. If the dehydration is severe, your veterinarian will probably opt to administer intravenous fluids.

  • Fever. Once the horse's temperature reaches 104°F due to overheating, he is on his way to heat stroke. Your veterinarian will use aggressive measures to cool him down by continually bathing him in cool water, offering cool (not ice cold) water to drink and administering nasogastric and intravenous fluids.

  • Colic. If your horse shows signs of colic, your veterinarian will want to administer fluids by nasogastric tube or intravenous. See Colic – How You Deal With It.

    Home Care

    Once you arrive at your destination, let your horse have a well-earned rest. It may take as long as one or two weeks to regain the weight that he lost during travel. This rest should not be stall rest. Rather, your horse should have as much access to turn-out as possible to help him stretch his muscles and help his gastrointestinal function to return to normal. If you do not have good access to turnout, then you should hand-walk, long-line or bring your horse on very gentle rides a minimum of three times a day.

    Again, monitor your horse's temperature once to twice daily in the week after arrival. A gradual rise in temperature may be your first clue that your horse is developing a respiratory infection. And monitor your horse's daily manure production and urine production.

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