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Horses' health at risk from long-distance travel

10 December 2015
Journeys of longer than 20 hours associated with severe pathologies.

The first-ever study of horses travelling the common route between Sydney and Perth has found travel can lead to psychological and physical exhaustion, as well as death.

The number of individual horse movements is ... probably more than two million a year in Australia.
Barbara Paladino

Horses transported in a truck studied by Barbara Paladino not on the Sydney-Perth route. Credit Barbara Paladino.

The first-ever study of horses travelling cross-country in one of the harshest continents in the world has found lengthy travel can lead to psychological and physical exhaustion, as well as death.

The research has expanded on studies done on horses driven to abattoirs, to focus on transport of horses for commercial activities in Australia. Lead researcher with the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science, Barbara Paladino, a qualified equine veterinarian, said horses travelled more than any other animal but there had been a lack of statistics and analysis.

“There are horses that travel twice a week,” said Ms Paladino, a lecturer in animal husbandry at the University of Bari, Italy and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Dr Gary Muscatello.

“The number of individual horse movements is difficult to estimate but is very high – probably more than two million a year in Australia alone, since there is a quarter of a million horses registered on the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.”

The new research is published today in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Animals.

The study analysed reports over a two-year period of 180 journeys, transporting 1650 horses between Perth and Sydney (about 4000 km taking three-and-a-half-days). The trips consisted of four stages: Sydney-Melbourne (10 hours), Melbourne-Adelaide (8.5 hours), Adelaide-Kalgoorlie (24 hours) and Kalgoorlie-Perth (6 hours). After each stage, horses were given a 12-hour rest.

It identified 46 cases of transport-related health issues. This included four horses that died or were humanely destroyed and another that died two days after travel, although the cause of death of the fifth horse was unknown.

Of those horses suffering transport-related health issues, just over one in two comprised respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, followed pyrexia (fever) in almost one fifth, then traumatic injuries (15%), and death (12%).

Injuries were often associated with the beginning of trips and journeys of longer than 20 hours were found to be associated with severe pathologies, such as colic, pneumonia and death.

The study noted more could be done to bring standards in Australia in line with best practice in many parts of the world such as in the European Union, which has specific requirements when travel exceeds eight hours. In comparison, the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock lists overall maximum journey and minimum rest periods.

Ms Paladino said good quality vehicles, horse-handling skills and driving skills were important factors in reducing the incidence of injuries.

“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 said.

“Transportation may be a human-related risk to horses but it may also be a horse-related risk to humans and it is vital that it is managed carefully.”

The paper, ‘Health problems and risk factors associated with long haul transport of horses in Australia’, was published in Animals on 10 December 2015.

Vivienne Reiner

Media and PR Adviser