Aside from the fact that humans and horses have nearly the exact same amount of bones, there aren’t many similarities we share with our equine companions. This is especially true when it comes to how our transportation is regulated.
It may seem like an excessive comparison, but just like people, horses are transported on the road every day. The difference is there are rules and regulations to ensure safety for humans, while there is no exact guidance to promote the health and welfare of equine passengers. Even though transit has been identified as a common stressor for horses and has been associated with injury, respiratory and gastrointestinal disease, the regulations for minimal space and direction of travel vary across the globe.
Barbara Padalino and Sharanne Raidal are two researchers who have noticed this lack of regulations behind the transportation of horses. Their study “Effects of Transport Conditions on Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Horses” published in Animals, aims to improve the well-being of the horse by documenting how the subjects reacted in confinement vs. transportation in various bay sizes and positions.
The study looked at 26 horses, 12 of which were confined for 12 hours, and analyzed their behavioral, physiological, laboratory and gastroscopy parameters using a behavior-sampling ethogram. All mares then underwent 12 hours of transportation, traveling in either a single or wide bay while facing forward or toward the bay’s rear.
Clinical examination, blood samples and gastroscopy were also conducted before and after confinement and transportation. During the study, Padalino and Raidal looked for common patterns in balance behaviors, such as severity of gastric ulceration after transportation and elevated muscle enzymes, and stress behaviors, such as decreased gastrointestinal sounds. These reactions would help determine the level of comfort and tension the horses felt during the trip.
What they found is that stress-related behaviors were more common during transport than confinement. While documenting each behavior, they also found that horses in confinement were notably quiet, had more consistent sleeping periods and only showed about 700 behaviors every 240 minutes. In contrast, the transported horses revealed no signs of sleep and showed about 3,300 behaviors in the same span of time, which is approximately a behavior every 4 seconds.
The horses transported in wide bays showed reduced balance-related behaviors such as a decreased need to lean on the stall, less loss of balance and fewer total balancing movements. Behaviors such as these are linked to the prevention of gastric squamous ulceration during transportation. This outcome only proved to be more positive when the horse was facing the opposite direction the vehicle was driving in.
Horses in single bays displayed more biting, head tossing and turning, suggesting that there is significant advantage in transporting horses in a wide bay. With more space, the horses are allowed improved balance, displayed fewer stress-related behaviors and showed more frequent similarities to the horses in confinement.
Padalino’s and Raidal’s study creates a reference point, not only for how regulations should be improved in the future, but for how horse owners can provide higher quality transportation for their horse to support their overall health and welfare. They note that further studies should be conducted regarding horse preference of direction of travel and the effect of space and direction on respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases as they relate to transportation. This would help to identify mechanisms that might minimize the adverse impacts of transit-related stress.
For more information on this study, check out the team’s research article published in Animals.
Padalino, B; Raidal, S; 17 Jan. 2020. “Effects of Transport Conditions on Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Horses.” Animals.