Transporting the Competition Horse

Transporting the Competition Horse

Travelled nationally and internationally for leisure, breeding, competition, sale and slaughter, horses are the most travelled livestock [1]. The effects of which on welfare have been relatively well documented with proven indications of both physical and psychological stress [8] and the development of ailments such as respiratory problems, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, pyrexia and physical harm [1]. For performance however, there is less investigation despite the majority of hours accrued from travel, arising for performance related journeys. As owners and riders, we want and expect those performances to be our best, after weeks, months and years of training. However, with recent research suggesting a 4 hour rest is required prior to exercise after a 3 hour journey [17], could this be an overlooked detriment to the horse’s performance? How does transportation affect your horse? 


Despite horses proving to be good travellers and adapting and habituating well to several modes of transport [16], it is likely that every horse experiences a degree of stress every time they step onto the lorry. Horses are naturally flight animals, roaming freely with their herd. Travelling a horse contrasts many, if not all of these attributes by placing the horse within a confined unfamiliar space, with an unfamiliar or absent travelling companion, unusual movements beneath their feet and changes in environmental temperature, sounds and smells [3,4]. Proof of the effect of these contraindications include less time spent feeding, higher heart rates, increased cortisol and other biochemical indications of stress [20] and observed behavioural changes [7], all of which conform to Fraser et al. (1975)’s veterinary definition of stress in an animal [4]. Even with regular trips in a horse box/trailer, loading the horse has shown to consistently produce an increased heart rate [17].

Although stress is not a life threatening state and something that unfortunately we all experience as horse owners to finance and keep our horses healthy and sound, over long periods research shows deleterious effects on the horse. These include aggressive or difficult behaviours, inhibition of the immune system, decreased or stunted growth, reduced reproductive capability and increased risk of gastric ulceration, colic and diarrhoea [5]. In the short term during transportation, it also common for the horse to sweat, something we can easily relate to during tense or high pressure situations. This does however, result in dehydration and weight loss at a rate of approximately 2.5kg/hour [6]. Although rehydration upon arrival will minimise the effect on performance, it is predicted that the time taken to regain lost weight can be as much as 3-7 days [6]. There is little evidence to suggest how the loss of weight upon arrival impacts the horse’s performance but something worth considering prior to travel. 

If travelling overnight or even early/late in the day, travel may also interrupt the horse’s natural resting and sleep cycle, one of the biggest causes of poor performance in human athletes due to fatigue, disorientation, lack of energy and loss of appetite arising from changes to sleep and circadian rhythm [15]. Lack of sleep itself can cause stress on the body, particularly in horses as sleep in a recumbent position is essential for complete muscle relaxation. To learn more about the importance of  the horse's sleep, click here.

Respiratory Health

Occurring in almost one third of the horses that experience health problems during transport, respiratory problems are the most common health risk associated with travelling [2]. There are several explanations for this due to altered grazing behaviour, reduced area of confinement and ventilation and airflow restrictions.

As hay can only be fed from a hanging position during travel and it is difficult for the horse to lower his head over a breast bar, natural clearance of the airway through downward grazing is prevented, resulting in a greater chance of respiratory condition [2]. Combined with the trailer or lorry being much smaller than a stable with less ventilation and air space, it will inevitably possess a lower air quality and more harmful respirable particles [2]. Equine athletes exert large amounts of energy during training and competition which means respiratory frequency must also increase. At an elevated load, respiratory frequency and tidal volume (amount of air breathed in) has been shown to increase to 5.2 and 1.4 times the value at rest respectively [13], so any compromised airway due to poor air quality during travel could seriously jeopardise the horse’s health and ability. 

Biochemical Changes

In several studies, it has been observed that horses adopt certain body postures during transport such as hindlegs apart and one foreleg forwards [7,8]. These postures are thought to be adopted to brace themselves and balance as there was a significant increase in these behaviours during movement in the lorry compared to when stationary [9]. Due to this engagement of muscles and bracing affect, it is unsurprising that research shows increased presence of the muscle enzyme creatine kinase [6], an increase in lactate concentration [10] and reduction in calcium [18] at the end of transporting, indicating muscle damage or recent exercise. 

Another biochemical marker; glucose concentration, also peaked at the end of transport [11] despite research proving that a relaxed horse’s muscles are able to work aerobically during transit using only carbohydrates and fat, thus sparing glycogen [19]. This suggests a physiological effort and stress to maintain altered body postures in transit that could perhaps lower performance capabilities upon arrival. As some of these readings were recorded after 3 hours of travel, the findings could be particularly significant for some horse owners after a recent survey showed 58% of British horse owners travelling their horses, arrived, competed and returned within the same day [12]. The research summarised that a 4 hour rest period following three hours travel was required to achieve the previous reference range, reflecting resting levels [18]. This is not dissimilar to human athletes who suffer stiffness, compromised muscle strength and reduced coordination following travel and therefore only perform light exercise on the day that they arrive [15].

To demonstrate how much a horse moves and shuffles to stabilise himself during transit, watch Dr Marlin's video of foot placement on facebook, accessible here.

How can we make sure the effects are minimised?

There are several steps we can take to minimise the stress and discomfort to the horse and make travelling a more positive experience. These include:

1. Travelling with a companion. Horses are sociable animals (most of the time) and having a companion has shown to reduce the stress of travelling (see article below on the effects of using a mirror). If a companion is not an option, you can even try using a mirror to imitate a travel partner.

2.Travel with steamed hay. Steamed hay has been shown to significantly reduce the number of respirable particles which is ideal for an enclosed space such as a trailer or horsebox [14].

3.Open the trailer/box doors as early as possible prior to travel to allow air to clear.

4.Keep all available windows open during transit if the horse permits even when cold or wet to allow through travel of air. It is better for your horse to be rugged with the windows open for their respiratory health.

5.Arrive at your destination with plenty of time to spare before competing. As discussed earlier, research suggests 4 hours rest after a 3 hour journey for baseline biochemical values to return. Anecdotally, it has also been suggested to allow double the journey time for rest upon arrival. Either way, permit plenty of time for the horse to recover. Recovery is key for a good performance!

Monitor your horse

“Monitoring of the horses’ behaviour and health, during and after travel, are important practices – to identify animals that are developing a transport-related disease – and provide prompt assistance,”     Ms Paladino (2015)

Other than listening to your horse’s movement and having a look through a window or grooms door, CCTV is commonly used in horseboxes for the driver and passengers to keep an eye on the horse during transit. Video footage is a great way to monitor stance and movement in response to driving and to ensure the horse continues to eat and does not become stressed. 

Trackener Life can also be used to monitor the horse when travelling. Thanks to detection of travel when the horse is immobile but the GPS is moving, an app on your phone allows automatic recording of your horse’s travel, logging the time spent in transit, the day and time of journey and the horse’s heart rate throughout. As proven in research, Trackener has found an increased heart rate during loading, transit and unloading with particular peaks when getting on and off the lorry. Below shows a horse travelling between 10am and 10.30am as indicated by the changes in speed in the top graph. During transit, the heart rate averages at 45 bpm for this horse who at rest averages at 40 bpm. Unique insights like this can help you understand at what point in the journey your horse becomes fractious or anxious and if this settles after a certain amount of time. This may help you improve your route plan next time or identify when stops need to be made for your horse’s comfort. To read more about the product, click here.

In conclusion, it would appear that there will always be some effect of travelling on the horse regardless of frequency of travel and habituation to a lorry or trailer. Predominantly because of the motion of a horsebox and the horse's need to stabilise and balance. Nevertheless, for a horse who becomes well accustomed to travel and remains relatively calm,  energy reserves may remain more in tact and replenish with enough time given for recovery before competition. As each horse is so unique, the effects are likely to differ enormously. Until more research is conducted, the true extent remains unknown.

Written by Ruth Box BSc, EEBW @ruth_box6910 Email Ruth

Further Reading


[1] Padalino, B. (2015). Effects of the different transport phases on equine health status, behavior, and welfare: A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(3), 272-282.

[2] Padalino, B., Hall, E., Raidal, S., Celi, P., Knight, P., Jeffcott, L. & Muscatello, G. (2015) Health problems and risk factors associated with long haul transport of horses in Australia. Animals. 5 (4), 1296-1310.

[3] Leadon, D., Waran, N., Herholz, C., & Klay, M. (2008). Veterinary management of horse transport. Veterinaria Italiana, 44(1), 149-63.

[4] Fraser, D., Fraser, A. F., & Ritchie, J. S. D. (1975). The term “stress” in a veterinary context. British Veterinary Journal, 131(6), 653-662.

[5] Malinowski (2004)

[6] Leadon - Leadon, D. P. (1999). Horse Transport: History, Current Practices, the Future and Veterinary Recommendations. RIRDC. file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/99-073.pdf

[7] Waran, N. K., & Cuddeford, D. (1995). Effects of loading and transport on the heart rate and behaviour of horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 43(2), 71-81.

[8] Giovagnoli, G., Trabalza Marinucci, M., Bolla, A. and Borghese, A. (2001) Transport stress in horses: an electromyographic study on balance preservation. Livestock Production Science 73 (2-3): 247 – 254.
[9] Smith, B. L., Jones, J. H., Hornof, W. J., Miles, J. A., Longworth, K. E., & Willits, N. H. (1996). Effects of road transport on indices of stress in horses. Equine veterinary journal, 28(6), 446-454.
[10] Stull, C. L., & Rodiek, A. V. (2002). Effects of cross‐tying horses during 24 h of road transport. Equine veterinary journal, 34(6), 550-555. Accessible at:
[11] Werner, M., & Gallo, C. (2008). Effects of transport, lairage and stunning on the concentrations of some blood constituents in horses destined for slaughter. Livestock Science, 115(1), 94-98.
[12] Boden, L. A., Parkin, T. D., Yates, J., Mellor, D., & Kao, R. R. (2013). An online survey of horse-owners in Great Britain. BMC veterinary research, 9(1), 188.
[13] LAFORTUNA, C. L., & Saibene, F. (1991). Mechanics of breathing in horses at rest and during exercise. Journal of experimental biology, 155(1), 245-259. 
[14] Blundell, E. L., Adjei, L. J., & Brigden, C. V. (2012). The effect of steaming and soaking treatments on respirable dust content of hay and the potential environmental polluting impact of the waste water produced. In Forages and grazing in horse nutrition (pp. 125-128). Wageningen Academic Publishers, Wageningen.
[15] Reilly, T., & Edwards, B. (2007). Altered sleep–wake cycles and physical performance in athletes. Physiology & behavior, 90(2-3), 274-284. 
[16] Stewart, M., Foster, T. M., & Waas, J. R. (2003). The effects of air transport on the behaviour and heart rate of horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 80(2), 143-160.
[17] Tateo, A., Padalino, B., Boccaccio, M., Maggiolino, A., & Centoducati, P. (2012). Transport stress in horses: Effects of two different distances. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7(1), 33-42.
[18] Padalino, B., De Palo, P., Laudadio, V., 2004. Il ruolo del calcio nella rabdomiolisi del trottatore. ODV 25, 29-34
[19] Stull, C.L., 1997. Physiology, balance, and management of horses during transportation. Proceedings of Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference, 10–12 January 1997, Alberta, Canada
[20] Baucus, K. L., Ralston, S. L., Nockels, C. F., McKinnon, A. O., & Squires, E. L. (1990). Effects of transportation on early embryonic death in mares. Journal of animal science, 68(2), 345-351.