What You Should Know: Why are horses hurt in trailers? When and how do injuries occur?

Two new studies report statistics of transport-related equine injuries


Why is the ramp of a trailer or van the danger zone? Do owners and handlers–not to mention horses–need more education on trailer loading safety? Many traumatic transport-related injuries to horses occurred during loading. By comparison, but the majority of horses were injured when the truck or trailer carrying them was in motion.

A new research study published in October 2016 analyzes why, when and how sport and recreational horses suffer transport injuries in trailers and vans operated by owners, trainers and designated drivers. More than 200 participants at 12 horse events agreed to assist researchers in detailing their horses’ injuries so that an overview of mishaps during loading, unloading and road travel could be compared.

How would your experience compare? 

Two Open Access research articles are available for all to download and read; primary statistics from the study will be outlined in this article, but links at the end of the article will take you to the download pages.

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You’re rolling down the highway, pulling a trailer load of horses who are munching quietly from their hay bags. The road is clear, the sky is blue, the truck is humming.

First, you hear it, a scuffling sound. Then you feel it: the trailer behind you sways a little.

What was that? You want to pull over, but there’s no shoulder on this stretch of the road. What’s going on back there? Is everyone ok?

We’ve all lived this scenario. That trailer-monitor CCTV idea sounds like a pretty good investment when you hear a scuffle behind you but then it is already too late. Trailer injuries–major and minor–are a common problem for horses on the move in our trailer-centric sports and recreation interests. What are the chances that your horse has been or will be a trailer mishap victim?

Most research on transport injuries to horses covers commercial transport, especially in areas covered by USDA regulations or international animal welfare statutes covering transport on animals to slaughter, such as those in Europe. For private horse transport, research is available on the physiological or stress-inducing effects of hours on a trailer. We know about dehydration, how the direction a horse faces affects its stress level, different types of transport-related respiratory disease, and one study even explored the effect of transport on changes in fecal microbiota.

Considering how much time our horses spend on the road, it seems like we should know a lot more about what happens to their minds and bodies when they’re on board a horse trailer or van. Most of us have seen horses with pastern injuries or leg wounds sustained during loading, or we’ve known horses who were “scramblers” and seemed unable to relax and enjoy even a short haul.

How safe are our horses on board our trailers? If most car accidents occur close to home, what can we say about most horse injuries that are related to hauling?

This year, we have benefitted from a flurry of research surveys published by Australian university researchers who are interested in answering these exact questions. We can’t really make travel safer for horses if we don’t know how likely they are to be injured, what injuries they are likely to sustain, and at what point during the journey the injuries likely occur. Moreover, we need to know more about which trailer types are associated (bumper pull vs gooseneck, straight stall vs slant?) with injury and what role factors like weather, time of day and driver behavior play.

Web-based research surveys are becoming de rigeur in equine research. They allow horse owners to become involved as data providers, and the publication of the resulting study via an Open Access seems only fitting, given the number of people involved in data collection. Comparing the online data with traditional interview-type research of horse owners is an interesting facet of the Australian studies on horse transport injury.

Online research: traumatic vs medical problems in transport

The first study, A Survey on Transport Management Practices Associated with Injuries and Health Problems in Horses by Barbara Padalino et al, was published in the peer-reviewed Open Access journal PLOS ONE last month. 

The researchers tabulated data from 797 validated online surveys filled out by horse owners. Data showed that 45% of transport-related problems consisted of traumatic (cuts, wounds, etc.) rather than medical or muscular conditions (heat stroke, colic, etc.). This broad study showed that horses are more likely to be injured during transport than to become ill with a specific complaint.

The head scratching begins when the data about the horses’ specific health-related injuries or illnesses related to transport are tabulated in relation to data about the owners and the trailers. For instance, horses owned by amateur riders were more likely to develop diarrhea or heat stroke. Horses that were given tranquilizers were also more likely to be injured. The authors remind us that tranquilizers can affect the horse’s proprioception and balance, increasing the risk of falling over at loading and during travel. A higher risk of injuries was also associated with the use of protective horse clothing or legwear. “Protections should be used only on horses completely accustomed to them, they should be properly applied and checked periodically en route, and they should not worn for a long period of time,” the authors advised.

When it came to comparing injuries with the type of trailer, the ubiquitous two-horse straight “bumper pull” trailer appears associated with elevated risk of transport related injuries compared with horse vans and gooseneck trailers, possibly because of the less-stable handling of a bumper-pull setup. Straight stalls also were related to more injuries than slant loads.

Which is the safest way for a horse to face during travel? The authors suggest that “facing backwards”, or not facing the direction of travel, is safer for horses. “Horses tend to lose their balance more easily when facing the direction of travel, in particular at abrupt stops. Their posture when facing in this direction also tends to be more rigid and less relaxed, potentially making them more susceptible to injuries,” they wrote. Padalino’s team explored the idea of how horse owners and professionals are educated about horse safety during loading and transport, and also how we determine “best practices” for horses during transit.

Horse event interviews: Face-to-face data collection

The second study, published last week in the peer-reviewed Open Access journal Animals, surveyed 223 drivers at 12 equestrian events in southeastern Australia. The researchers hoped to interview 15 percent of all drivers at each event they attended.

In the summary, the authors noted that approximately 25 percent (55/223) of participants reported that their horses were injured during transportation. Of these 72 percent were owner classified as horse associated (scrambling, slipping and horse-horse interaction), 11 percent caused by mechanical failure, and six percent related to driver error. Horse injury was not significantly associated with driver age, gender, or experience.

This study found that horses in the care drivers who spoke on mobile phones while driving were likely to have injuries. Transporting horses in older trailers increased the risk of injury, but associating trailer or van type with injury was difficult since the results contained data from 46 different manufactured brands of trailers and 12 models of trucks, with either two or three models. However, the basic two-horse straight-stall horse trailer was the type most commonly used to transport horses to these events.

The type of injury was much easier to tabulate. Over half of the injuries involved the lower limbs (hind limbs 33.9 percent; forelimbs 22.6 percent), with the head/muzzle (14.5 percent), chest (9.7 percent), flank/hindquarter (9.7 percent), neck (6.5 percent) and tail (3.2 percent) less frequently reported sites of trauma.

Most injuries were reported to have occurred while the loaded transportation vehicle was moving (83.6 percent; 46/55), with fewer occurring during unloading (7.3percent; 4/55), loading (3.6 percent; 2/55) and while the loaded vehicle was stationary (3.6 percent; 2/55). Most injuries occurred in the morning (31 of 55). Not all drivers reported having done the standard safety checks before transporting their horses.

Horse behavior was well-documented in the study, with “scrambling” when cornering being the most common behavior. Horse breed was not associated with which horses were injured. Arabians, Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods were the most common breeds owned by the interview subjects.

In the paper’s discussion, the authors state that their statistics show that privately owned horses are just as likely to be injured during transport as slaughter-bound horses shipped in huge semi trailers. Traveling is a potential welfare hazard for horses of all types.

The interviews tell us only about horses in southeastern Australia but it would be interesting to compare this data with similar studies in other parts of the world, or involved with the movement of specific types of horses, as well as to sample much larger numbers of horse owners and drivers.

While the number of horses injured during transport is considerable, it should be considered a new area of study, since the mobile horse is a relatively new phenomenon. While transporting horses privately seem straightforward and dependent largely on the expertise of handlers and drivers, it is a subject with little data behind it, and with virtually no requirement for education, other than the fact that some rigs require a commercial driving license.

If our horses are in motion, we should have statistics about how many hours a year a typical horse spends in a van or trailer, and how much effort is taken to insure that people are taking responsibility for the welfare of horses only after going through proper training. If horse owners can train their horses to overcome fear, or properly de-sensitize horses to transport-related stress triggers, we will be working toward a brighter day for equine welfare. Both these studies from Australia should be encouragement to everyone interested in safer, happier horses on the road.


A Survey on Transport Management Practices Associated with Injuries and Health Problems in Horses Barbara Padalino, Sharanne L. Raidal, Evelyn Hall, Peter Knight, Pietro Celi, Leo Jeffcott, Gary Muscatello PLOS | One Published: September 2, 2016 http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162371

Horse Injury during Non-Commercial Transport: Findings from Researcher-Assisted Intercept Surveys at Southeastern Australian Equestrian Events Christopher B. Riley,Belinda R. Noble,Janis Bridges,Susan J. Hazel and Kirrilly Thompson Animals 2016, 6(11), 65; doi:10.3390/ani6110065

(to download, click on the pdf link in the left sidebar)

Read more about trailer safety on The Jurga Report:

“You Shut It, Right?” Trailer Safety Mishaps Still Hurt Horses 

What Did You Do Saturday Night? First-Person Account of Trailer Wreck Rescue 





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