Transport-related problems seen in one in four horses in NZ study

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Around one in four horses whose caregivers were surveyed had exhibited transport-related problem behaviors in the preceding two years, the results of a New Zealand study have shown.

Transported-related problem behaviors are unwanted behaviors shown by horses that can contribute to the injury of horses and their handlers.

Researchers set out to identify risk factors for these behaviors in the hope they would support the development of best practices that minimize their incidence of such problems, and safeguard horses and handlers.

An online cross-sectional survey was designed and distributed to New Zealand equine industry members, generating 1124 valid responses. It is believed to be the first conducted in the country to explore associations between transport-related problems and human and transport management factors.

Respondents were asked whether one of their horses had shown any transported-related problem behaviors during the two previous years, and to describe their equine background and experience, the  way in which they had trained their horses for loading and travelling, the type of aids they used, and the type of vehicle.

An excellent split-door system on an Australian-built float.

At least one horse was reported as showing a problem behavior by almost one out of four of respondents (22.2% of the 1124 respondents) during the previous two years.

Of these 249 reports, 8.4% occurred during pre-loading, 31.3% during loading, 53% while travelling, and 7.3% during unloading.

“Our findings indicate that the use of negative reinforcement and positive punishment as training methods, using a whip or food for loading, and travelling in a straight load trailer/float while offering food were associated with a higher likelihood of transported-related problem behaviors,” the study team reported in the open-access journal Animals.

The research team, Barbara Padalino, Chris Rogers, Danielle Guiver, Janis Bridges and Christopher Riley, cautioned that cross-sectional studies such as this cannot determine causality. Therefore, the findings should be interpreted with caution, and evaluated in further experimental studies.

However, it was clear that education on appropriate training methods for transport, and vehicle selection may reduce the risk of such behaviors in horses.

Among human factors, experience in horse handling and the ability of the horse handler to recognize distress were associated with lower odds of transported-related problem behaviors.

Regarding training for loading and travelling, habituation was confirmed as the preferred method to minimize the prevalence of such problems.

The two-horse straight load trailer was confirmed as the transport vehicle most likely to be associated with a higher likelihood of such issues.

Transport-related problems are common in horses. Scientifically based training methods have been studied since the 1980s and are recommended to reduce the incidence of problems.

Habituation to loading and travelling is one approach to desensitizing horses to their innate fear of transport vehicles. It starts with a series of simulations of loading, staying inside the transport vehicle and unloading until the horse no longer shows anxiety.

Short journeys are then undertaken, initially within the property, and then the duration is progressively increased. This training should be carried out before the first real journey.

Ideally, habituation for transport should start with the foal, following the mare into the truck or trailer.

Another method to habituate or desensitize the horse is to leave a transport vehicle in the paddock and to feed the horse inside it.

To minimize problem behaviours developing in frequent travellers resulting from an association with performance activities, horses should not only experience journeys to official competition, but also to low-stress destinations.

The authors noted that a survey on horse transport management issues in Australia revealed that 38% of respondents reported having at least one horse with transport-related problem behaviors.

Most did not train their horses for loading and travelling, and such behaviors were associated with training methods, forward-facing trailers, and the use of whip and bum (butt) ropes for loading.

In the New Zealand study, researchers found a relationship between these problem behaviors and management-related factors such as horse handling experience, the ability to recognize distress in horses, appropriate transport-related training methods, the use of whip during loading, the type of restraint used in transit, and the use of feeding during loading and en route.

Most of the respondents were women taking care of fewer than five horses on their property, involved with horses as an amateur mainly in equestrian sports or pleasure activities, and moving horses frequently for short distances.

As described in Australia, the transport vehicle most often used was a two-horse straight load trailer, with the horse facing forward, and boots were the most frequently used protective equipment.

“Even though wearing a rug, cross-tying or tying on a short rope en route have been discouraged as inconsistent with best practice, one-third of the respondents applied these practices.

“On the other hand, it is worth highlighting that New Zealanders associated with horse transport appear (based on the survey data) to understand the importance of training horses for loading and travelling.

“The data suggest that New Zealand respondents more commonly train their horses than Australians involved in horse transport (80% versus 40%).

“In particular, habituation and positive reinforcement training were more often used by horse owners/trainers in New Zealand compared to horse owners/trainers in Australia. However, whips and bum ropes were more frequently used as aids to load horses than reported in Australia.”

In New Zealand, one out of three respondents documented feeding their horses en route. This practice was more frequently applied in Australia and may be related to the longer distances generally travelled by horses in Australia.

“Whether feeding en route is or is not best practice, it is still a matter of debate within the literature.”

Overall, the rate of transport-related problem behaviors was lower in New Zealand than in Australia (38.6%).

“This study is the first to confirm an association between less experience (particularly less than five years) in horse handling, and less ability to identify horse distress with higher odds of transport-related problem behaviors.”

The findings of the current study agree with the literature, with the use of a whip at loading increasing twofold the likelihood of transport-related problem behaviors being reported.

“Food has been described as a tool for positive reinforcement recommended to retrain horses with loading problems. In contrast, for the current study the use of food during loading was associated with a higher likelihood of transport-related problem behaviors being reported.

“There are several possible explanations for this finding. A first consideration is that positive reinforcement has been shown to be less effective in the presence of stressors, because learning performance is impaired.

“Secondly, it is possible that respondents may have used food inappropriately to motivate the horse to load rather than as a proper reward given in response to the wanted behavior.

“Finally, it is possible that respondents used food at loading in attempts to minimize transport-related problem behaviors.” That is, positive reinforcement may have been used to treat problem behaviors rather than causing them.

In the study, feeding while travelling, and the use of a long rope for restraint were associated with an increased likelihood of transport-related problem behaviors.

“The effects of the feeding and restraint en route on the risk of transport-related respiratory disease have been evaluated in previous studies.

“No restraint or the use of a long rope, and positioning food at least at the knee level have been recommended to mitigate the risk of transport pneumonia.

This fifth-wheel - or gooseneck - unit has full facilities, carries three horses and drivers don't need a special licence.

“The effects of the type of restraint and feeding en route on transport-related problem behaviors have not previously been described in the literature.

“Many horse owners believe that offering food en route calms horses, and less restraint allows the horse to meet postural corrections when the vehicle is slowing down.

“These practices could have therefore been used in the attempt to reduce the incidence of transport-related problem behaviors and cannot be interpreted as a cause.

“Overall, our findings should be considered preliminary and the effects of travelling with the presence of food, its position and type should also be tested in the future to clarify their effects on transport-related health and behavioral problems.”

In the final analysis, the type of vehicle used for horse transport, the training used for loading and travelling, the use of whip and food during loading, and the presence of food en route remained as the most significant factors associated with transport-related problem behaviors.

These findings highlighted the importance of educating people in charge of moving horses to read horse body language, and understand animal learning principles, they said.

“Unfortunately, there are no evidence-based design standards for the design of horse trailers used for non-commercial transport in New Zealand and most other countries.

“More research is needed to better understand what type of vehicle design may decrease transport stress and transport-related problem behaviors in horses.”

Padalino is with the College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences at the City University of Hong Kong; Rogers, Guiver, Bridges and Riley are with the School of Veterinary Science at New Zealand’s Massey University.

Risk Factors for Transport-Related Problem Behaviors in Horses: A New Zealand Survey
Barbara Padalino, Chris Rogers, Danielle Guiver, Janis Bridges and Christopher Riley
Animals 2018, 8(8), 134; doi:10.3390/ani8080134

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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