New study to help develop health and well-being guidelines for air-transported horses

Tens of thousands of horses are transported by air every year, yet very little is known about how stressors on planes increase their risk of harm. Italian researchers have set out to learn more.

Whether traveling by road, sea, or air, horses are one of the most frequently transported domestic animals. In fact, an estimated 30,000 horses are transported, on average, every year. But despite this frequency of transportation, it’s known that stressors associated with equine transport increase their risk of injury, disease, and poor welfare. For instance, a recent study of horses transported by air on 81 flights to Hong Kong found that for every 100 horses flown, about 11% developed pneumonia. On 60% of the flights, at least one horse was affected.

Unfortunately, data on this topic is limited — until now. Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers at Italy’s Università di Bologna are studying how horses are managed when transported in planes to identify factors that increase or decrease the risk of health and behavioral problems. What the team learns will help develop equine transport protocols for national and global agencies.

The team is gathering data on about 2,000 horses flying to and from Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia. Researchers are working with horse caretakers, air cargo operators, flight grooms, and veterinarians to fill out surveys that will determine the incidence of health and behavioral problems observed.

Survey questions are tailored to an expert’s respective role. For example, veterinarians are asked about horse body condition, heart rate, and alertness – among other observations – before, during, and after a journey. Data is collected from departure to five days post-arrival, within the window of time when symptoms usually reveal themselves. Horses that develop health issues will be treated in accordance with regulations within each jurisdiction.

In addition to improving horse health, the study may provide economic benefits to horse caretakers. Costs to transport a horse by air within the United States alone usually range from $5,000 to $30,000, but private charters may cost up to $100,000. That is a significant investment for animals that could develop travel-related illness and/or welfare issues during or shortly after travel.