The use of a whip during the loading of horses was one of several factors linked in an Italian study to an increased likelihood of horse injuries during transport.
The findings, reported in the journal Animals, were based on data obtained through an online survey comprising 37 questions that targeted Italian residents with first-hand involvement in the road transport of horses for professional or recreational purposes.
The survey comprised 37 questions aimed at identifying risk factors for equine transport-related problem behaviors and injuries.
Such behaviours include fear and anxiety before loading, refusal to get on the trailer, kicks, and loss of balance during transportation.
Respondents were asked if one of their horses had exhibited transport-related problem behaviors or sustained transport injuries during the two previous years.
They were also asked about their equine background, experience, transport vehicles, and practices.
Problem behaviors were reported by 14.45% of the 148 respondents, who comprised a mix of amateurs and professionals.
The probability of displaying problem behaviours increased by five times if the horse handler was female, by more than three times if the horse handler did not check brakes before transport, by more than five times if the horse handler used a whip at loading, by 13 times if the animal was sedated, and by five times if the vehicle did not have design features for horse protection and the bedding did not consist of shavings.
“Sedatives may be used with the assumption that sedated horses are more manageable and that this could be a good strategy to load them or because horses had transport-related problem behaviours and the owners relied on sedation for those behavioral problems,” Francesca Dai and her fellow researchers reported.
“Although sedation may be used to simplify the loading of the animal, it is well known that it can reduce the ability of the horse to balance.”
Horse injuries were reported by 11.49% of respondents.
Sedation and the use of coercive equipment, such as a whip, for loading were confirmed to be major risk factors for horse injuries.
The probability of a horse sustaining a travel-related injury increased by three times if the horse handler did not check the brakes before transport and if padding on the chest bar was present, by two times if a rubber mat was not present, and by eight times if the horse showed transported-related problem behaviours.
During 50% of the accidents described by respondents, horses and handlers were simultaneously injured.
Horses reported to display problem behaviours in a transport situation were more likely to be injured.
The authors said their study findings should be interpreted with caution because of the small sample size bias and participants’ recall bias.
“Nevertheless, the results are in concordance with the literature, confirming that horse transport is a risk for the horse’s and handler’s health and well-being.”
The study team said further research is needed to identify best management practices to educate equine industry members on how to minimize transport-related problems.
Discussing their findings, the authors noted that half the participants were injured together with their horses.
“The majority of these Italian respondents declared they were injured during the loading or during the trip, suffering rope burns, head injuries, crush injuries, tendon and muscular injuries, soft tissue injuries, dislocations, and sprains.
“The body parts most exposed to injuries were the chest, the back, the legs, and the hands.”
Transportation, they said, can be considered a dangerous practice for people and animals.
They said further studies are needed to investigate how to train and manage horses for transport to reduce transport-related problem behaviours and their important influence on the risk of transport-related injury.
The study team comprised Dai and Michela Minero, with the University of Milan; Martina Zappaterra, Francesca Bocchini and Barbara Padalino, with the University of Bologna; and Christopher Riley, with Massey University in New Zealand.
Dai, F.; Zappaterra, M.; Minero, M.; Bocchini, F.; Riley, C.B.; Padalino, B. Equine Transport-Related Problem Behaviors and Injuries: A Survey of Italian Horse Industry Members. Animals 2021, 11, 223.