Feeding Horses On The Move

Published in Horses and People Magazine

Transporting horses

By Mariette van den Berg, BAppSc. (Hons), MSc (Equine nutrition)


Transporting horses is recorded to occur as far back in history as 3500 years. Horses were transported by sea and confined in boxes below deck or were placed in slings on the deck of the boat. Even at that time, it was recognized that transport for horses was a stressful event that came with obvious health risks and a high mortality rate.  Nowadays, horses can travel by a variety of vehicles. Horses may travel by road in a float or truck going to their local competition or are flown all over the world. Although today’s vehicles are safer and have more comfort for horses, traveling can still be stressful for horses. Research has shown that horses respond differently to being transported. Some horses cope well with traveling while others suffer stress, dehydration, pleuropneumonia (travel sickness) or even colic. Proper planning of your horse’s nutritional and water needs before, during and after transport will lower the risks of inducing stress and reduce health problems.

General health & fitness

A horse should be fit for traveling, unless the horse needs to be transported to an equine hospital or vet for treatment.  Transport can suppress the horse’s immune response causing various health problems. Horses may lose weight or develop an infection while traveling long distances (6hr or more). It is advised to have your horse in an acceptable body condition before traveling long distances. Monitor rectal temperature morning and evening for at least 2 to 3 days before the long journey to be able to observe abnormalities in body temperature. Never travel with a horse that is developing a temperature close to the planned trip. Horses that are sensitive to dust and develop allergies may need to be treated. Only use medication when necessary and advised by your veterinarian.

Training your horse to be accustomed to transport will reduce stress. Research has shown that excising horses that frequently travel have a lesser amount of stress and health problems. However, intensively trained horses that are transported over long distance may develop tying up. It is advised to gradually reduce the amount of exercise (7-5 days) and sweet/hard feeds before traveling long distance.

Before transport

Wherever the journey takes you and your horse, short or long distance, careful planning is crucial. This involves all the general transportation preparation of route, rest stops, documents, vehicle safety, equipment as well as your horse’s feed and water.

It is best to take enough feeds and water that your horse is familiar with. Horses may refuse new feeds when traveling or transported to a new facility. Storage containers for water can alter the taste of the water. Adding a flavour to the water such as apple juice or mint may help with masking the taste. Give your horse water that is flavoured in advanced so that your horse is used to the taste and won’t notice any change while traveling.

Water and electrolytes

Water and electrolyte intake is important to prevent dehydration and reduce the risk of impaction colic. Especially if you are traveling in hot and humid conditions, horses sweat more. Allow your horse to drink plenty of water before travelling and offer frequently while traveling over long distance. Some horses don’t like to drink on the float or truck even if water is flavoured. To avoid dehydration offer these horses hay that is soaked in water or wet feeds (mash) to increase water intake.

Adding an electrolyte mix to the water will help with restoring electrolyte balance. Flavouring the water may assist if horses refuse water with electrolyte mix. Electrolytes can also be mixed into a small amount of wet feed or made into a paste and given orally by syringe. Try not to force drinking but frequently offer water or feed mix while traveling. The best way to offer water is to hang up a bucket. You can extend a piece of stretchy rubber over the top of a bucket and cut a hole in it. This will help reduce spillage and the horse will be able to drink when it wants to. However there are commercial drinking buckets available specially design for floats and trucks. If it is not possible to hang up a bucket for water, try to offer water in buckets on the ground so that the horse can stretch his neck.


Feeding your horse on the move may assist with increasing water intake and reducing stress. Especially hay (grass and/or legume mix) will help with keeping the horse occupied and ensures healthy gut function. If a horse is being fed dry hay, water should be provided if the journey is over two hours long. You can also provide hay that is soaked in water.  Hay can be offered in a hay bag that can be hanged in the float or truck. Hang the hay bag not too high or too low to avoid high neck position or getting legs and hooves stuck.

Horses during transportation utilize metabolic energy pathways similar to those of exercise to maintain balance in the float, truck or container. Depending on conditioning, age, previous experience, and conditions and duration of the transport, horses will have different energy needs while traveling. This is an important consideration in performance horses, particularly if they are expected to perform upon arrival.

Try to feed your horse at the normal feeding times when stationary, but feed less while traveling. Feeding too much concentrate in one meal may induce digestive problems. Offer small amounts of hard feed or mash in a bucket that can be placed on the ground so your horse can stretch his neck.

During traveling

Horses that travel are generally tied up by their head collars so that they are fixed in an unnatural head-held high position. In nature horses have most of the times their heads down while grazing, but when they traveling in a float, truck or container they are prevented from doing so. This will affect the clearance of mucus from the airways, as well as causing bacteria to descend towards the lung. This increases the risk of pleuropneumonia, commonly referred to as travel sickness. Pleuropneumonia is a bacterial infection that affects both lungs and extends into the pleural space surrounding the lungs.  Horses that are transported for more then 8-12hrs have a higher risk of developing travel sickness.  At rest stops, horses should be allowed to put their heads down and to drink and eat.

After a journey

Research on immunological responses in horses undergoing transport concluded that there are significant differences in immunity of transported horses. It takes approximately 24 hours for a horse to recover from transport stress. This means that even after traveling horses may develop health problems like infectious disease. Horses should show interest in food and water within 2 to 3 hours after unloading. If horses are not eating or not drinking check their temperature and weight and examine your horse for any lameness or injuries. Contact a veterinarian if your horse is showing signs of a temperature, serious injury or colic. Prepare a contact list of veterinarians of the region that you are traveling to.

Horses that are transported by air or sea may be also affected by a jet lag like people. It appears that long journeys over several time zones can affect horses negatively. Not surprisingly, horses need several days to recover from these long journeys before continuing their training and competing.

Although most research is done on long-distance equine transport, it is also applicable for short distance traveling as any short trip can become very long and complicated journey. Therefore plan your travels to ensure your horse’s welfare.

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