Do you remember your first flight?
The stuffy atmosphere of the cabin, the weird thumps as you taxi along the runway and a whoosh as you take to the air, leaving your stomach a couple of seconds behind…
Horses manage to adapt to many unfamiliar and unnatural experiences thanks to the trust they place in us yet, as increasing numbers of equine travellers criss-cross the globe each year, perhaps we should be asking: ‘Could our horses’ experience of flying be enhanced?’ Dr Barbara Padalino of Bologna University, who has carded out extensive research on the transport of horses by road, has now shifted her focus to equine air travel to investigate whether we are ensuring optimum conditions to protect our horses’ health, performance and welfare.
In 1924, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flew Nico the bull from Rotterdam to Paris and became the first airline to commercially transport animals. In the early 1930s, the transport of horses began, and the number of equine travellers is now second only to that of people. Equine passengers may vary as much as their human counterparts, both as regards temperament and physical attributes (age, height, weight and so on), yet current protocols are predominantly based on the experience of industry players and focus on air safety and cargo requirements rather than on the animals themselves. Dr Padalino, together with colleagues from New Zealand, has embarked upon a wide-ranging study that aims to collect journey data and investigate links between a variety of animal characteristics and the incidence of negative outcomes. She talks this month to Horsense as she starts this ‘journey’ that may profoundly influence the way our horses will travel in the future.
Dr Padallno, the transport of equines on commercial flights has a long history, why did you choose to do conduct this study now?
On the one hand, very few scientific studies have investigated the effects of transport by air while, on the other hand, this method is becoming increasingly common for top equestrian athletes – without considering the number of live horses shipped for slaughter, especially to China and Japan. My research into the consequences of transport by road showed that long journeys, over 20/24 hours, expose horses to the risk of disease such as shipping fever (non-contagious bacterial pleuropneumonia associated with travel). So, one of the conclusions from my previous research suggested limiting such long road trips in favour of air travel.
Air transport appears to be less stressful. Although take-off and landing are both stressful events, during the journey the horse’s neck is free, which is already an advantage, and throughout the flight, the animal can be closely monitored. Moreover, water and feed can be managed more efficiently as access to the horse is easier and practically constant. That said, to recommend a choice, it is necessary to fully know the consequences of this choice. Thus, with the support of the Animal Transport Association (ATA), a non-profit organization that deals with the welfare of animals during transport, we decided to collect the data required to better understand the effects of transport by air with the aim of improving the horses’ experience. Current protocols are based on the guidelines of the International Al Transport Association (IATA) that are updated annually but are, however, based more on experience than on scientific evidence.
What is the incidence of the diseases you referred to earlier when horses are moved by air, and can such problems generally be resolved swiftly at the end of the trip?
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. While early diagnosis is certainly an important question when dealing with such pathologies to diminish the risk of long-term illness, in extreme cases they may be fatal and can, in any case, seriously compromise the performance of sport horses.
Can you outline how your research will be conducted and what operators will be involved?
The idea is to collect data over a year on at least 200/250 journeys and with two to six horses each time, we thus hope to reach a total of roughly a thousand animals. The study data will be collected on intercontinental routes between Europe and the United States, South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand and in all directions given that one of the factors we with to evaluate is the possible impact of the temperature changes to which the horse is subjected when moving to another hemisphere. This is a prospective study, so the participating horses will be followed for the duration of the trip and after arrival, inducing during any quarantine period. The analysis will be based on a questionnaire and data gathered directly on the horses and mainly concerning the behaviour of the animal and a basic clinical examination, i.e., respiratory and heart rate and other simple observations that can be managed by the various professionals I am training to carry out this type of data collection.
Will your subjects include both horses with previous experience of air travel and first-time travellers?
Yes. With the involvement of horse owners, we will collect behavioural data relating to the horse prior to the trip to determine not only if the animal has already travelled by plane but also, for example, if it has problems getting on the trailer if it is curious or scares easily as well as its level of trust in people. One hypothesis is that there is an association between the horse’s temperament and past experiences and the possibility of developing problems related to air transport.
Will other data be collected during the flight?
As soon as the horse arrives at the airport, the air groom or the veterinarian will become involved to carry out an initial assessment of the animal’s health and behaviour. During the following phase, that is, during the flight, the professional will record how much water the horse has drunk and how much he has eaten and will observe the horse to detect any signs of distress and then compile a report one hour before landing. Then, as I mentioned before, the conclusive data will concern the management of the quarantine, including such information as to whether the horse has been stabled and if it has been exercised or not.
Will different breeds be studied, including Quarter Horses?
It is highly likely that we will also have data for Quarter Horses since they often travel, frequently for exportation from America. One advantage that this breed has is that being mesomorphic and, therefore, relatively compact, it is less likely to suffer in the confined spaces of the jet stalls currently used than, for example, a Hanoverian. In fact, one of the aspects we wish to review is the space available to each animal and consider varying it according to the weight of the horse. The present system doesn’t make much sense as it envisages a fixed number of square metres per horse even though the horses’ weight may vary between 400 and 800 kilos.
In the current conditions, are there any choices that can make the journey less stressful for our horse?
Certainly, being transported by air means the horse will experience some totally unfamiliar situations, especially in the loading and unloading phases when the jet stalls are moved using hydraulic lifts thus creating the same sensation we experience in a lift. In my opinion, travelling with a companion that offers some psychological support can help, and this aspect should be considered when deciding whether a horse will travel alone or not.
Dr Padalino, what support did you receive to undertake this Important research?
I designed the study in collaboration with Dr Riley and Dr Cogger of Massey University (New Zealand) and Prot. Nanri Costa of the University of Bologna. Our contribution concerns the scientific part of this research, including the statistical analysis of the data and the drafting of the interpretation. However, without the contribution of sponsors from within the industry and the collaboration of professionals operating in this business as well as the consent of the horse owners, this study would not have been possible. The project is organized under the patronage of the Animal Transportation Association and has been awarded funding by the Morris Animal Foundation ($70,000) and it is sponsored by European Horse Services ($10,000). Other sponsors include New Zealand Bloodstock, World Horse Welfare and Hobday Equestrian Enterprises (South Africa), Global Horse Transport, and Amstel Horsehotel.
Disclaimer: This article originally appeared in the Horsense #36 publication. We do not claim any copyright or ownership of this article. We’re merely republishing it for interest’s sake.