Long distance travel is often routine for many competition horses, causing stress because the horse must make extreme adjustments in its behavior and management of its physiologic systems in order to cope with the environment.
There are three forms of stressors associated with transport. Physical stressors (loading and unloading, vibration, head posture, lack of movement), psychological stressors (separation from the herd, confinement, strange environments) and environmental stressors that include changes in temperature and humidity, dust, ventilation and even changes in light levels.
In a study of horses who were experienced travellers, researchers at the University of California at Davis looked at the impact of 24 hours of long-distance travel. They monitored the horses both during transit and in the recovery period 24 hours after travel. They found that the horses lost an average of six percent of body weight and hematocrit and total protein (used as indicators of dehydration) increased during travel.
Weight loss was thought to be due to sweat loss as well as decreased gut fill, and the blood work confirmed that the level of dehydration increased with time traveled. Most horses regained 50 percent of the weight lost within 24 hours of arrival at their destination.
Other studies have shown that horses can lose significant amounts of fluid and electrolytes from sweating during transport – possibly as much as that lost completing the traditional endurance day of a three-day-event (roads and tracks, steeplechase and cross country) during a 10-hour journey.
Giving excessive levels of electrolytes during transport may be detrimental. A better approach to ensuring horses stay hydrated is to provide adequate electrolytes in the days running up to travel and to ensure horses are drinking properly before departure. Then on arrival administration of electrolytes can continue. It is also important to make sure that the electrolyte provides large enough amounts of sodium, chloride and potassium per serving to have an impact on electrolyte status.
Other proven methods for horses who do not drink during transit include feeding soaked hay, adding water to any grain meals to create soups and putting a handful of grain in a water bucket to tempt drinking. For horses who tend not to drink in strange locations, add something like apple juice to their water at home and then do the same at the new location to mask any unusual taste. (Untreated water should also always be made available.)
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