Travelling with your horse

Transporting a horse can cause “stress” as a result of the confined environment and changes to its feed and water intake. There is also the risk of coming into contact with new bugs in a different location and when meeting new horses. Good management before, during and after the journey will help to reduce the risk of stress developing into more serious health problems. Horses with mild illness before they travel are much more likely to develop health problems such as shipping fever – a respiratory disease associated with air and sea travel.

Effects of travel on the horse’s digestive system

Transporting horses often means a prolonged period of time in a confined space, with reduced feed and water intake and an altered feeding pattern, all of which can cause a reduction in gastrointestinal motility. Weight loss can also occur during travel, particularly on long journeys. The effort that is required by a horse to maintain its balance during travel has been reported to be similar to that of walking or at least twice that of resting energy expenditure. Therefore, on long journeys it is likely that energy expenditure would be reasonably significant.

It is important that horses eat during long journeys because reduced feed and water intake for three or more hours could be detrimental – long periods without fibre can increase the risk of colic and gastric ulcers. To maintain gut function, horses should have access to good-quality forage. However, it is important that the travelling environment does not become contaminated with dust and particles from forage because this can increase the risk of respiratory problems.

Hay should be as dust-free as possible and thoroughly soaked before feeding and not allowed to dry out. An ideal source of fibre in this instance is haylage, a hay replacer such as Hi-Fi Senior or soaked high-fibre cubes. If a change of forage is necessary while the horse is travelling or away, it should ideally be introduced gradually in the weeks leading up to the journey or event.

For prolonged journeys of 12 hours or more, it is advisable to reduce the amount of grain and hard feed in the diet immediately before and during the travel while maintaining access to forage. Energy requirements can be met by offering fibre and oil, which pose less of a risk to the health of the digestive system. Alfa-A Oil contains the same amount of energy as a conditioning or competition mix, but with no cereal content at all. Sugar beet is a useful feed because it will also help to keep the horse hydrated as it is fed soaked.

Stress can increase the rate of passage of food through the digestive system, which can disrupt the natural population of bacteria in the gut, which are essential for efficient digestion. Digestive enhancers that contains prebiotics and yeast can be used before, during and after travel to try to maintain the population of friendly bacteria, thereby keeping the gut healthy.

Water should be offered at least every four hours during prolonged road or air travel. Sweating increases a horse’s need for water and a stressed horse that sweats profusely and refuses to take water during travel has a greater risk of colic. Horses eating dry forage will also need additional water. Some horses won’t drink water they are not used to, so it might be necessary to travel with a supply of water from home. This isn’t always possible because of the large quantities required, so an alternative approach is to accustom the horse to a flavouring in the water at home and then continue to use it while away to mask the change of water.

Electrolyte supplements can also be used to replace salts lost through sweat. The body doesn’t store electrolytes, so they should be given the day before, during travel and afterwards to replace what is lost. Ideally, electrolytes should be given in water but, if this puts the horse off drinking, they can be added to feed, although the feed should be wet to aid the absorption of the electrolytes.

Top tips for travelling with your horse

  • Horses should travel in good health.
  • Do not withhold food and water for more than three hours at a time – reduced feed intake for more than this could be detrimental to health and increase the risk of colic.
  • Travel with access to forage to maintain gut function.
  • Haylage is preferable to hay. If using hay, it should be thoroughly soaked and not be allowed to dry out.
  • Hard feed should be fed no less than one hour before travelling.
  • During long journeys, small feeds of fibre and oil-based feeds can be used. Soaked sugar beet or Alfa-Beet should help to maintain hydration and gut movement (even small quantities of fibre can help to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers and colic).
  • Introduce electrolytes a few days before travelling – the body can’t store them, but at least you can start with a full tank and it will get your horse used to the taste of them.
  • Ideally, electrolytes are best added to water as long as it does not put the horse off drinking. If added to feed, make the feed as wet as possible to aid absorption of electrolytes.