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Transporting 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. (See 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).

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