Airway Diseases, Calming, Digestive & Gut Health, Gastric Ulcers, Horse Health, Transporting Horses

Understanding the Health Risks in Transporting Horses

What are the Health Risks in Transporting Horses?

Education of the horse and preparation of the horse’s gut, immune system and the transport vehicle are the keys to successful short and long-term transportation.

Even short periods of transportation can be stressful to horses and cause detrimental changes to the microbial population in the horse’s gut. On longer trips, a combination of stress and respiratory challenges may lead to travel sickness.

Arriving safely and on-time at your destination relies on your ability to minimize both anxiety and physiological stress to support the horse’s gut, airways and immune system and minimize the risk of injury and misbehaviour.

In this article we examine the causes of common transport-related health problems.

Education and float safety

Investing the time and money in providing your horses with a good basic education so that they are calm and confident when loading and travelling in a horse float or truck will pay off many-fold when moving, competing and evacuating in an emergency situation. If you have never taught a horse to load and travel before it is well worth paying for professional assistance.

Ensure your float or truck is well-ventilated for coolness and so that fumes from vehicles and urine do not accumulate inside.

Before setting out on your journey, weigh up the pros and cons of using float boots to protect the legs or leaving legs bare to avoid overheating. If you do plan to use boots on an inexperienced traveler, try them on a few times prior to the day of transport to allow the horse time to get used to the feeling before loading. 

Travel your horse for the first few times with a companion horse who is an experienced traveler – this calming influence is invaluable.

As an owner, you will always appreciate having a horse who is happy to load and travel calmly so that you also arrive without stress!

Transport, stress and gastric ulcers

Research has found that as little as two hours of transport alters the balance of microbial species in manure, lowers the pH of manure (it becomes more acidic) and changes the white blood cell concentrations. These changes indicate physiological stress even in horses who travel frequently and appear outwardly calm.

Stress affects the gut muscles and can cause cramping, spasms, bloating, diarrhea and slow the rate of passage of food. It reduces the efficiency of digestion, weakens the cells in the intestinal mucosa (leaky gut) and impacts on the gut microbial population which further affects digestive efficiency, gut acidity, immune function and hormone signalling.

Stress also causes a reduction in the number of specialized cells that exist in the horse’s airways for the process of clearing contamination from the lungs.

As a result of stress, transported horses may have a weaker immune system, be more prone to gut pain and colic, and experience nervous system disfunction that may result in behavioural changes. 

Studies show that equine gastric ulcers can form in an empty stomach during a period as short as four hours or in only a few hours of transport where stress is an exacerbating factor. 

Scientists have found that feeding lucerne hay reduces the risk of ulcers developing. Lucerne is rich in calcium which can buffer acid, is high in pectins which help to protect the gastric lining and when fed just before transport and exercise, will ‘soak up’ the stomach fluid to help reduce acid splash.

Scientific trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of nutraceuticals rich in phospholipids and amino acids such as lecithin, pectin, fermented soy and aloe vera. It is recommended to feed these during treatment with veterinary prescribed drugs such as omeprazole to facilitate healing. Good results are reported from continuing with the nutraceuticals as follow-up treatment for a month and later used at a reduced rate for maintenance of normal gut health. Click here to read about Farmalogic ReLEAF, a supplement to aid horses prone to gastric ulcers.

Travel sickness

Agriculture Victoria defines “Travel sickness” (also known as Shipping Fever) in horses as a bacterial infection of the lungs and chest cavity that may result from long distance transportation. 

The condition is technically known as Pleuropneumonia and occurs when the normal bacteria of the upper respiratory tract enter the lower airways, causing infection. Pleuropneumonia is not contagious between horses.

In a healthy horse, continuous movement of mucus through the airways protects the lungs from bacteria and debris. The process is assisted by gravity during the many hours each day that horses graze, cough, snort or rest with their heads down low to expel contaminants. 

During transport, an elevated head position, stress and exposure to fumes, dust and polluted air increase the risk of a failure of the normal mucus defense mechanisms that protect the airways. Research demonstrates that horses confined for long periods with their heads continually elevated above the normal standing position accumulate secretions in their airways containing high levels of bacteria.

Bacterial colonization of the lungs causes pneumonia and as the infection progresses into the pleural cavity, infected fluid causes difficulty breathing. 

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual signs of travel sickness may be lethargy, depression, fever, shallow breathing and poor appetite. Signs may be mistaken for colic, with horses unwilling to move, cough or lie down. They may take short, stiff strides and grunt as they move but a nasal discharge is not always present.

Early identification of the disease and prompt treatment are required for successful treatment of travel sickness. 

Precautionary supplementation with antioxidants and omega-3s can boost the immune system and modulate inflammatory and allergy processes thereby supporting airway health during transport.

Behaviour, calming supplements and the gut

Many horse owners reach for calming pastes before traveling in the hope of avoiding a stressful journey and an over-excited and difficult-to-handle horse on arrival. Whilst some of these products do work, there is little or no evidence to support using some ingredients in horse calmers. Click here to help you better understand the main ingredients used in calming blends.

Probiotics and the Gut-Brain Axis

Exciting new research is coming to the fore regarding the significant influence of the gut microbial population on animal health and behaviour. Disruption of the balance of gut microbial species (as occurs during stress) has been demonstrated to cause behavioural change in some species. 

Animals treated with probiotics had measurably lower levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone. Research demonstrates that feeding horses a specific strain of live yeast reduced the impact of transport stress on microbial populations and reduced the levels of stress hormones measured in the blood during transportation.

Scientists believe that it is plausible that supplementation with probiotics to improve digestive comfort could contribute to behaviour modification in horses. Supplementation with live yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae or some Lactobacillus bacterial species maintains the natural diversity of hindgut bacterial populations. This reduces the levels of lactic acid and maintains a more stable hindgut pH which could reduce the impact of stress on the gut during transport and avoid deficiencies in the vitamins and amino acids normally provided by a healthy hindgut microbiome. Farmalogic Rejuvenate powder and paste, Farmalogic B-Good Paste and Farmalogic Mega-B Boosta are formulated with the live yeast proven to reduce the impact of transport stress. Click here to find out more.


Scientists researching dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids have found that omega-3s in the form of DHA and its precursor, EPA, can improve cognitive function in humans. These types of omega-3s are marine sourced, and can only be found supplements made from special marine algae and fish oil, such as Farmalogic Omega Balancer and Equine Vit&Min Omega-3 PLUS. Research from many species demonstrates that DHA is essential for normal brain development before and after birth. New work is linking EPA to mood and behaviour. Perhaps in future we will see research linking marine-sourced omega-3 supplementation (DHA and EPA) to improved horse behaviour and learning.

Guidelines to help your horses arrive at their destination in a healthier state and ready to perform to their potential.

  • Click here for Tips to prepare for transport
  • Click here for Tips for keeping your horse healthy during transport
  • Click here for Tips for recovery from transport

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