New Study into Horse Transport Finds Horses Travel Better Backwards

Image credit: Shelly Busby

With the UAE’s competition season now in full swing, a new study has highlighted the stress and balance issues associated with transport and long journeys, and the findings could not only improve your result on show-day, but seriously impact your horse’s long-term health.

Researchers at the University of Bologna in Italy and Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia came together to study horses in transit. They found that horses facing backwards and standing in wider ‘bays’ show less signs of stress and balance related behaviours, than those transported facing forwards and in smaller bays.

Using 26 mares, aged four to 20-years-old, the researchers set out to evaluate the effects of bay size and direction of travel, by comparing behavioural, physiological, laboratory and gastroscopy parameters between horses which were both transported and confined.

Initially 12 of the horses were confined overnight in an area of 148cm by 71cm without food, before all the horses undertook a 12-hour identical overnight road trip of 880km in Australia.

The study used horses placed both rear facing and forward facing, in a mix of both larger and more confined bays.

Bay size ranged from a conventional 1.9m by 0.76m, to 1.9m by 1m and the largest at 1.9m by 1.12m. 

Before, during and after, both the confinement study and the long-distance journey, the horses’ behaviour was studied, as were blood samples and gastroscopies.

Results showed that balance related behaviours were observed less in the horses travelling facing the rear and in larger bays.

Those traveling in a forward direction and in smaller bays showed more balance and stress related behaviours, higher rectal temperatures, higher heart rates and higher gastric ulcer scores.

Researchers told, “findings suggest that transportation in a rear-facing position and in wider bays might reduce the impact of transport on horse health and welfare, and monitoring behaviour in transit and physiological measurements after transportation should be recommended.”

The study found that the horses in basic non-transit confinement were inactive, often resting a leg and ‘showing a demeanour typical of sleep.’

“In contrast, horses during transport did not show any behaviours consistent with sleeping; they did not rest on three legs or stretch their body,” they told the online platform. In fact, the horses in transit showed balance or stress behaviours almost every four seconds.

“These observations suggest that during 12 hours’ transportation, rear-facing position and wider bays may reduce the impact of transport on horse health and welfare. Transportation is considered stressful because horses are confined in a small space. however, in our study, horses showed a different behavioural repertoire during confinement and transportation,” they added.

“This, is the first study to report animal-based evidence suggesting that horses travelling in a wide bay of 1.9 square metres are better able to balance, minimising the implications of transport on behaviour, health and welfare. As behaviour was more sensitive than haematology, biochemistry or plasma cortisol for assessing the emotional status of the animals in transit, video-cameras for observing the behaviour of horses during transportation are strongly recommended.”

To read the full study by Barbara Padalino of the University of Bologna and Sharanne L Raidal from Charles Sturt University, please click on the images below.