FAQ: Transporting Horses by Road and Air - Recommendations for Reducing the Stress

FAQ: Transporting Horses by Road and Air - Recommendations for Reducing the Stress

Reducing stress in horse transport

We understand there is a great amount of variability in equine response to the stress of travel. There are seasoned travellers sport horses that don't blink an eye when loaded and there are young newbie's who fail to eat or drink along the way. Outcomes for these horses are often different despite similar travel conditions.

Cause of equine stress during transport

Stress occurs when a horse is required to make abnormal or extreme adjustments in its behaviour or internal management (physiology) in order to cope with adverse aspects of its environment and management. While some adaptations to travel are normal, a measure of these adaptive responses can provide a better understanding of how stressful the circumstances are to the horse as well as its probable rate and duration of recovery.

The Irish Equine Centre has had an ongoing interest in transport research for the last 30 years. According to Dr. Leadon, "We have looked at stall design with air transport companies, aircraft manufacturers, and with aero engineers. We have studied airflow, temperature gradients, and environmental contamination within road transport vehicles and in aircraft carrying horses. It makes surprisingly little difference whether the vehicle has wings or wheels." Rather, he proposes that managing the transit environment and a horse's general health are key elements to delivering a horse to its destination in as good a condition as possible.

Factors involved in transport that contribute to stress include physical factors, psychological factors and environmental factors, as shown below.

Transport Stress: A Complex Response Involving Multiple Components
Physical Stressors Environmental Stressors Psychological Stressors
Loading and unloading Separation from the herd and familiar environment Fluctuations of temperature and humidity
Constant vibration and noise Exposure to strange environments and animals Altered and possibly inadequate ventilation;
Noise Confinement Exposure to gases and particles from exhaust, urine and faeces
Loss of balance from accelerations and decelerations Lack of exercise or movement (particularly for older horses) Road or flight conditions
Deprivation of feed and water Schedule changes Intensity and/or fluctuations in light levels
Orientation to direction of travel   Dust
Head posture   Bedding
Decreased function of the immune system   Footing materials, traction
Lack of exercise or movement (particularly for older horses)   Disease or pathogens
Socialisation with other travelling mates or isolation if travelling alone    
Length of journey    
Reducing stress in horse transport

Why is transport stress important?

Horses stressed by transport are more susceptible to a variety of diseases, including pneumonia, colic, diarrhoea and laminitis. Additionally, transport stress may alter energy metabolism, which can affect the horse's ability to perform or compete soon after transport. For these reasons, it is important for the horse's welfare to minimize the stress of transport in every way possible by optimising the transport environment. Take control of what can be controlled in order to reduce the chance of illness or injury in your horses once unloaded.


During stressful situations such as exercise or transport, activation of the part of the brain that controls metabolic state (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) results in an increased concentration of the hormone cortisol in blood circulation. The concentration of cortisol in these horses increased during loading and continued to rise throughout the 24-hour transit period, peaking at the termination of transit. After unloading, the stress of transportation ceased and cortisol concentration dramatically decreased.

Shipping Fever and Other Illness

Shipping fever is the most common illness found in horses subjected to transport. It is a respiratory infection characterised by signs of depression, loss of appetite, fever, increased respiratory rate, nasal discharge, and coughing and can rapidly progress to pleurisy and pneumonia. Shipping fever can occur in as little as 4 to 6 hours after departure in all journeys. Initial signs of this condition may be seen relatively soon after take-off in air journeys, which have been preceded by long road journeys or by long delays spent in a road vehicle while awaiting loading onto aircraft. The incidence of shipping fever in long journeys may be 6% or higher.

Not all cases of shipping fever are apparent during the journey.

Prolonged transportation of a horse by road, air or sea may see the horses head in a position that would facilitate the onset of pleuropneumonia, and provide sufficient stress to decrease natural defence mechanisms. Other factors that can contribute to the development of pleuropneumonia include strenuous exercise, inhalation of debris from an arena or track, deprivation of food or viral respiratory infections.

Colic and other unpredictable conditions that occur with horses can also occur in transit on the road or in the air. The handling of these conditions should be approached with the same urgency as shipping fever.

Body Weight

It is normal for a horse to lose weight during transport.

The amount of weight lost can range from 0.45 to 0.55% of total body weight (about 5 to 6lbs in a normal mature Thoroughbred) per hour of transport. This weight loss may reflect reduced dietary intake during travel, dehydration, manure and urine excretion, and sweating. Horses can lose 45 lbs (20 kg) on international flights, and horses with shipping fever may lose 75 lbs or more en route. Horses travelling greater than 12 hours have been found to lose up to 5% of their body weight. Weight loss in transit tends to be regained over the following 3 to 7 days in healthy horses, and possibly over longer periods in horses with shipping fever.

After Arrival

Horses that travel well will be bright and alert with a normal rectal temperature upon arrival at their destination. Unload horses as soon as possible to avoid additional confinement and other stress factors. They should voluntarily drink and be keenly interested in eating within 1 or 2 hours of arrival. Hand walking or turnout in a small paddock for an hour or so upon arrival after a long journey is recommended.

Ideally, dietary adjustments are made over 7 to 10 days to decrease the likelihood of digestive upsets. A normal horse passes approximately one pile of manure every 3 to 4 hours. Any decrease in manure output should be reported to a veterinarian. For road journeys of 6 to 12 hours, a one-day rest period is likely to be sufficient. When horses travel longer than 12 hours by road or are transported by plane, a recovery period of 2 to 3 days should be planned.

Finding out more:

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