The causes of trailer-related injuries in horses

A study found that transport injuries are more common than previously thought and specific driver behaviors increase the risk

A study from Australia suggests that horses may be injured during non-commercial transport more often than previously thought—and certain driver behaviors increase the risk.

A trailer with two horses inside traveling down a road
In a recent study of trailer-related injuries, respondents who indicated that they answered the phone while driving were twice as likely to report that their horses had been injured.

In a collaborative effort between several institutions, researchers surveyed 223 drivers who pulled gooseneck, bumper-pull or other types of horse trailers to 12 different competitions in southeastern Australia. About a quarter of the participating drivers—55 in all—reported having a horse sustain an injury at some time during transport.

“We all hear anecdotes about bad horse [trailer] injuries, but little about the minor injuries,” says Chris Riley, BVSc, PhD, of Massey University. “The key to hazard prevention in rescue organizations such as firefighters is to also identify near misses. This is not yet part of our equestrian culture.”

More than half of the reported injuries involved the lower limbs (56.5 percent). Less frequent injury sites were the head and muzzle (14.5 percent), chest (9.7 percent), flank/hindquarter (9.7 percent), neck (6.5 percent) and tail (3.2 percent). Nearly 84 percent of the injuries were sustained while the trailer was moving, as opposed to during loading or unloading or when the trailer was stationary.

The respondents attributed 72.7 percent of injuries to “horse-related factors,” such as scrambling, loss of balance or social conflict. Riley points out, however, that this doesn’t mean these factors can’t be controlled.

“There is a difference between what people believe is happening and what is actually happening,” he says. “We have done some braking and driving trials with horses in the back of trailers using a number of cameras. It is clear that the vehicles are not designed to neutralize the cornering and braking forces that the horses are subjected to. So what appears, at first, to be horse-associated, is actually the horses not being able to cope with the driver and vehicle inputs to which they are subjected. This means there is an opportunity for us to do further research in this area and make recommendations to the industry about vehicle design that are based on scientific evidence.”

The survey results also suggest that some driver behaviors increase the risk of equine injuries. Respondents who indicated that they answered the phone while driving were twice as likely to report that their horses had been injured. Sleep deprivation may also be a risk factor: Drivers who had less than eight hours sleep the night before the survey were twice as likely to report that their horses had been injured during a trailer ride.

Click here to learn what three things to investigate when your horse is uneasy in the trailer.

“That is not to say that they identified this as a risk factor directly associated with their previous accident,” says Riley. “What it does indicate is that this is a behavior that was associated with someone who reported an accident; 62 percent of trailer drivers had less than eight hours sleep the night before they were surveyed at a horse event. Essentially, this prompts us to ask the question of every incident in future studies and investigate its association further.”

Overall, the study shows that horses transported privately have about the same risk of injury as do slaughter-bound horses.

“Our findings are not an indictment on individual horse owners but our collective attitude toward the safety and welfare of horses in association with non- commercial transportation,” says Riley. “We have put a lot of effort into understanding the socially unpleasant factors associated with transport to slaughter but appear to have limited our inward reflection.”

Reference: Horse injury during non-commercial transport: Findings from researcher-assisted intercept surveys at Southeastern Australian equestrian events,” Animals, November 2016

This article first appeared in EQUUS #379

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