Significant numbers of New Zealand horses injured in road transport, study finds

An incident involving the rollover of a truck containing three horses. The horses sustained minor wounds to the limbs. Photo: Riley et al.
An incident involving the rollover of a truck containing three horses. The horses sustained minor wounds to the limbs. Photo: Riley et al.

Concerns over the number of horse injuries related to road transport in New Zealand have been voiced by researchers, following a survey of more than 1100 equestrians.

Christopher Riley and his fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, set out to explore injuries sustained by horses during road transport in the country and factors that may be involved.

More than 1100 New Zealand equestrian participants, solicited through horse organisations, were surveyed online on their horse transport experiences and equine industry activities. Each was required to be over 16 and to have organised or provided transport for one or more horses during the two years before completing the survey.

Of the 1133 survey participants, 201, or 17.7%, reported at least one horse injured during road transport during the two years covered by the survey.

The researchers found that 81% of the injuries occurred in transit, or when transported with one other horse (39%), or more than one other horse (21%).

Most often, the hindlimbs, the head, or the forelimbs were injured. Shallow cuts or wounds were most common, representing 62.1% of injuries. Injuries ranged from bruises to severe trauma.

Information was provided by respondents on 196 horses injured in 193 incidents. One horse was injured before loading, 19 during loading, 137 during the journey (that’s 71% of the horses), and 12 during unloading. The remaining respondents did not know at what stage of the journey the injury had occurred, or did not enter a response.

Among the 193 incidents, 13.5% resulted in injury at the beginning of the journey, 46.6% in the middle of the journey, and 10.9% at the end of the trip.

Six horse incidents described in the survey resulted in euthanasia.

Factors associated with injury included horses used for Eventing, not always checking the fitness of horses for transport, the use of a tail guard or bandage, a stallion guard in the vehicle, loose bedding on the floor, and behavioural problems.

The study team said road transport of horses posed a significant welfare issue, as shown by studies around the world. “Overall, this survey identified a significant number of injuries and related euthanasia in horses transported by road in New Zealand,” the researchers said.

Their work, they said, contributed to the growing recognition that the road transport of horses poses a significant welfare concern that requires a concerted response by the equine industry, both commercial and non-commercial.

Discussing their findings, the authors said the horse level incidence of injury for New Zealand respondents’ horses (8.9%) was comparable with a yearly average of 4.5% reported in a smaller sample of non-commercial interviewees in an Australian study, and with 11.5% by Italian respondents.

However, the New Zealand incident rate was significantly lower than the 45% recorded for Australian respondents to similarly designed online surveys.

The overall rate of injury found in a United Kingdom survey of non-commercial horse transport was similar (8.1%), but the timeframe covered was not stated in this work.

In comparison, injury rates reported for commercial long-haul road shipment in Australia are much lower, at 0.18% per year.

Most injuries in the New Zealand survey were perceived as minor, the authors noted, which may explain the limited involvement of veterinarians in assessment and treatment.

“It is likely that veterinary treatment was sought only for injuries perceived as complex or severe by respondents.”

Most respondents treated equine transport-related injuries without veterinary assistance or did not treat them. “This finding is consistent with a previous cross-sectional survey of equine wounds in New Zealand that found 58% of horse owners did not seek professional veterinary assistance for injured horses.

“The lack of veterinary consultation and treatment of injured horses is a possible welfare concern, as owners often fail to observe or recognise the significance of health conditions affecting their horses.”

The researchers noted that equipment such as poll protectors, leg bandages, tail bandages or bags, and blankets are often used to protect horses during transport. However, evidence of their effectiveness in preventing injury is lacking. “For example, in the current study, using a tail bandage or guard as a protective device was associated with increased odds of injury.”

The use of shavings or sawdust was associated with an increased odds of injury compared to rubber matting, but others have found an increased association with rubber matting, the authors noted.

“Surfaces that are loose or slippery are more likely to cause difficulty in maintaining footing when cornering or braking. Flooring is a vehicle design feature that requires further objective scrutiny,” they said.

They said it was unsurprising they found a strong association between injury and behavioural problems, as perceived by respondents. Further research should focus on the definition of behavioural problems that are transport-specific, they said, including differentiating those that are responses to driving practices from those that are associated with poor adaptation to the transport vehicle environment.

“This will enable suitable recommendations for foundation training of both horses and drivers for transport.”

They continued: “Studies such as ours can identify specific areas for targeted prospective research and intervention. However, injuries to horses associated with transport by road should always be considered within a broader context of driver education and well-being and horse training, management, handling, and welfare.”

The study team comprised Riley, Chris Rogers and Danielle Guiver, all with New Zealand’s Massey University; Kirrilly Thompson, with the University of Newcastle in Australia; and Barbara Padalino, with the University of Bologna in Italy.

Riley, C.B.; Rogers, C.W.; Thompson, K.R.; Guiver, D.; Padalino, B. A Survey-Based Analysis of Injuries to Horses Associated with Transport by Road in New Zealand. Animals 2022, 12, 259.

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

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