Stress is a natural response of the body when confronted by a situation that is perceived as dangerous. In horses, transportation can cause stress due to the release of chemicals alerting the brain that there is an aspect wrong and they need to be on alert and more aware. The purpose of this paper is to discuss why transportation can be a traumatic experience for horses, and how transportation heightens their anxiety. To start, this paper will look at the stressors that are apparent during the pre-loading and loading phase, and techniques one can use to reduce the amount of anxiety the horse is under. After that, the different stressors while the vehicle is in motion will be examined and what can be done to ensure the horse does not experience anxiety during travel time. It is widely known that when an animal is taken out of their daily environment, especially to be transported in a trailer that they will experience anxiety to some extent due to the rapid change in environment.
“A horse never forgets something that frightens them, ” therefore it is important to learn techniques to reduce this anxiety. Anxiety in the horse does not always begin once the horse is situated on the trailer and in movement to the destination. Quite often, the horse will experience the most stress during the Pre-Loading phase. A study conducted by Yorke et al. (2017), researched that horses have the ability to apply associative learning to transportation. This is where the bulk of their anxiety can stem from, because the horse is able to connect memories and behaviours together. An example of where a horse shows associative behaviour would be when the trainer emits certain actions; packing up equipment used at a horse show will trigger a memory. This in turn will cause the heart rate to become elevated. Once the heart rate is elevated, the adrenal medulla is triggered to produce a hormonal cascade resulting in the secretion of catecholamines, specifically norepinephrine and epinephrine, otherwise known as fight or flight anxiety. Then, the blood pressure of a horse begins to rise as a result of the increased heart rate. Once a horse’s brain has realized there is a reason to be anxious, the next reactions are attempting to flee the scene, refusing to move when coaxed, and acting out in a dangerous manner (ex. Kicking or biting). It is speculated that the level of stress in the horse that is shown during the pre-loading phase can be directly traced to previous experiences a horse has had with transportation as noticed by a barn manager.
A horse trainer of six years states that they use “counter conditioning” on horses that are afraid of any aspect of transportation. Counter conditioning is when the trainer gradually changes the horse’s response to something (ie. Transportation) it fears by training them to associate positive emotions with that fear stimulus. The technique this trainer uses is by giving the horse a reward throughout the process as the horse is exposed to the fear stimulus. The trainer starts the horses off by viewing the trailer at a distance, and every time they view the trailer they get a reward. The fear stimulus is then increased consistently until the horse is fully comfortable with viewing the trailer up close. The most important tip is to keep the horse below its fear threshold. The process will continue step by step until the horse is fully comfortable being around and loaded into the trailer. Another recommendation is start the horse at a young age. This recommendation comes from a barn manager who has had experience equine transportation. They state that in order to ensure anxiety is minimized, start teaching the horse that there is nothing to fear when it comes to a trailer. It is important to have a lot of patience, as some horses are more difficult than others.
When in route to the destination, it is widely known that a horse might not get the opportunity to eat or drink at appropriate intervals, because trainers do not want the hay to cause air contamination; in result this can lead to the inflammation of the airways. Another reason horse owners/trainers do not want their horse to eat or drink while on route is fear of choking due to eating too fast, because of the scary situation of being in an unfamiliar environment that can enhance anxiet. When a horse does not have access to water and a form of feed while travelling, the horse can drop two to five pounds of their body weight due to fluid being lost. Another reason the weight loss can occur while on the road is the reduced calorie intake. When you combine fasting with anxiety, the heightened energy expenditure burns more calories and the fluid lost is due to an increase in sweating.
In order to ensure the horse does not experience weight loss, a horse trainer of six years recommends that the hay is wetted down, or a form of feed in wet form be available. When a trainer wets the hay, it reduces the amount of dust in the air that could cause respiratory inflammation. This feed can be added to the trailer while in transportation so that if the horse is hungry, they have the option to eat. It is also recommended that in order to ensure no weight is loss occurs, Paladion (2015) says that the driver needs to have scheduled break times. On these breaks, the horse needs to have access to feed and water. A break should be scheduled “every 2-4 hours” to ensure the horse does not become overly stressed. The break will allow them a chance to recover. The rest periods should be as long as possible, because when a horse is outside the trailer their anxiety is noticeably reduced.
“The orientation of a horse during travel is very important. ” The horses balance needs to be maintained so an injury does not occur while on the road. A study conducted by Santurtun and Clive (2015) showed that horses who were situated facing the direction of travel (ie. Forward facing) were more prone to losing their balance ultimately causing injury to themselves, when compared with horses travelling backwards. A horse owner of 18 years states that when a horse is faced backwards during transport, it allows the horse more space to move around and be comfortable. When a horse is faced forward, there is no room to move their head which can lead to a variety of issues such as shipping fever which will be discussed later on. Santurtun and Clive (2015) suggest that the results of their study are because of the horses’ body design. A horses’ body is configured to hold upwards of 60% or more of their body weight in the front limbs and neck. Therefore, when a horse is facing frontwards during transport their space is compromised because they can’t shift their weight as needed. Ultimately, it causes the horse to shift the majority of their weight to the hindlegs and back, diminishing the horses’ natural ability to balance itself which can lead to injuries ranging from mild to severe.
Injuries and shipping fever are very common in horses that are transported, specifically due to them being placed in an unusual and confined environment that causes anxiety. These injuries can range from minor to severe, depending on the anxiety level of the horse and the situation that has occurred. There are simple injuries, such as abrasions from the halter rubbing against the skin, tail rubbing and then more serious injuries such as stereotypic behaviour and abrasions. “Vertebral injury…is whiplashed from a rapid stop causing serious muscle and ligaments pulling as the hind legs whip under the horse’s body…trauma to the head and eye area can become stretched causing nonrepairable blindness, ” are some of the most serious injuries that have the ability to occur. Severe injuries can occur for a variety of different reasons; quickly accelerating, prompt breaking, trailer tipping over, just to name a few. A horse owner with 18 years’ experience says that the most common cause of serious injuries is due to prompt breaking, as drivers are sometimes unaware of how long it takes to slow down a trailer. This leads to the horses being thrown up against the front of the trailer. This also causes their heart rate to increase triggering fight or flight instincts. The horse can then get aggressive because they are attempting to flee the vehicle, however they are unable too.
It is also common to see fever and stiffness once the horse is no longer in the trailer. The possible cause of this is shipping fever. Shipping fever is caused when the lungs and pleural cavity become infected, often caused by the stress of travel. When a horse is forced to keep their head in an upwards position for a long period of time, it has an effect on their pulmonary clearance (Padalino 2015). This is because the nasal cavity is not allowed to drain, and the build-up of germs and bacteria causes infection. Another cause of shipping fever is due to the presence of high concentrations of airborne dusts and bacteria, which stems from poor ventilation. When a horse is exposed to these dusts while being in transport, their “pulmonary epithelial barrier can be damaged due to increasing the permeability to bacteria. ”
A few recommendations to reduce the instances of injuries are to ensure your driver is highly qualified. A horse trainer of six years states that they always do a background check on their drivers to ensure that they have experience with horse transportation, and what they would do if a dangerous situation were to arise. It is also recommended by Mansmann and Woodie (1995), that the horse should not have its head firmly tied up inside the vehicle, as when the vehicle rapidly decelerates being tied up too tightly could cause a serious injury to the vertebral column, which would provoke anxiety for all aspects of transportation in the future. The horse should be allowed to move their head in multiple directions to ensure this does not occur. Finally, the horses tail should have a protective bandage around it to reduce tail rubbing, and make sure there is a soft wrapper around the halter as well. This will ensure that simple injuries can be avoided and anxiety can be minimized. To reduce shipping fever, the horse should be allowed to put their head in a downwards motion. This will allow for the sinuses to drain and not have a buildup of mucous. If the mucous is unable to drain from the nasal cavity, then this is where shipping fever starts to set in. It is also important to minimize travel time as much as possible, avoid taking the horse on long trailer trips as the accumulation of dust will become an irritant factor to the horse.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that transportation is a major cause of anxiety in the horse. Stress can be apparent in many physical ways as the brain has been alerted to activate fight or flight mode. The horse can act out in dangerous mannerisms, which is why it is important to learn techniques to minimize transportation anxiety as much as possible. If possible, start training the horses to adapt to a trailer while they are young. There are multiple different techniques of conditioning that a trainer can use if a horse still emits fear of a trailer. While most anxiety comes from loading a horse onto a trailer, anxiety still can be apparent while in motion. Breaks need to be scheduled while on route to the desensitization, in order for the horse to have access to feed and water. A horse should also be rear facing while in the trailer, because this direction provides them with ample room to move their head, shift body weight etc. to reduce anxiety. Simple actions on the owners part can take place, such as wrapping the tail and adding soft padding to the halter which can reduce simple injuries and anxiety from occurring. It is also important to have an experience driver and avoid quick accelerating and rapid deceleration to reduce the chance of serious spinal or optic injuries. These injuries would make the horse anxious of any form of transportation for years to come. It is well known that the change in environment can be stressful on a horse, however if the appropriate measures and training techniques are used, the anxiety of a horse can be minimized as much as possible.
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