The physical and psychological condition of horses arriving in Italy is sufficient evidence of their suffering but there is also much scientific evidence.
Research into the transport of other species shows that suffering is both physical and psychological and severe. Horses are no less sensitive than other farmed animals and it follows that they also suffer similarly. There is strong evidence that long-distance transportation causes acute suffering in all animals.
The first problem is inevitably dehydration. The RSPCA has researched the outcome of this cruel and unnecessary deprivation. Microscopic inspection of the kidneys of calves who died while being transported reveals tissue degeneration. This may also be due in part to alteration of blood flow to and within the kidneys and other peripheral organs, which can occur as a result of psychological stress. Research has also shown there are changes in white blood cells, indicative of immune system suppression, leading to increased susceptibility to disease and infection (32).
In one study, the chronic hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels) observed in young calves after a journey of just 300 km was still present up to two weeks later, indicating the profound degree of stress experienced (32).
Research shows that dehydration takes place in pigs after just six hours in transit. The EU Scientific Veterinary Committee (SVC) Report (1992) on the transport of farmed animals points out that pigs drink 18 to 20 times a day, indicating the need for all pigs to have constant access to water during transit. The report goes on to say that pigs will tend not to eat or drink whilst the vehicles are in motion for as long as 24 hours. If they do eat whilst on the move, they are inclined to vomit afterwards. Despite this knowledge of acute suffering, the welfare of these animals is overridden for commercial interests.
A number of stress factors has been identified as being capable of compromising the immune system of animals. They include extremes of heat and cold, crowding, mixing with unfamiliar animals and noise. Horses are subjected to all these stresses and more.
It is important to underline just how profound is the physiological stress which occurs to horses during long-distance transport. “Many research institutes are in possession of clinical data, illustrating that horses being transported by air or road for long hauls, suffer from travel stress and related disease. The respiratory system is primarily affected, with symptoms varying from dehydration to full-blown shipping fever, which can have fatal consequences.” (22)
Dehydration can be a major problem in horses: “As in all animals, the horse is susceptible to dehydration (i.e. loss of body fluids) which can in itself cause death.” The inadequate supply of water on these long journeys and the horses’ frequent refusal to drink because of acute stress, ensures that suffering from dehydration is commonplace (16).
According to the Journal of Animal Science: “As the duration of the transport increases, especially beyond 27 hours in summer conditions, muscle fatigue and dehydration become major physiological concern.” (29). The horses transported to Italy, of course, can travel for three times longer than this period and temperatures in summer can be intensely hot.
A horse is a large animal and needs to drink a considerable amount of water. The Manual of Horsemanship says: “The body of an adult horse is 60 to 70 per cent water and although a horse can lose almost all his body fat and half the body protein and survive; a 20 per cent loss of water can prove fatal. As a rough guide, horses drink 27 to 54 litres a day, but may need more in hot weather.” (19)
Even if water is available for the horses, which is often not the case in those exported from Poland for slaughter, it is not provided in anything like this quantity. Even when water is provided, the horses may not want to drink because of the conditions they endure, says the Equine Veterinary Journal:
“Transportation, strange surroundings and a change in management may all combine to reduce water intake. And in addition, horses may lose fluids via sweating, urination, evaporative loss via the respiratory system and faeces.” (25)
Water retention can also cause problems for the horse: ”Horses should also be closely watched as some will not urinate in a
horsebox. Retention of urine can lead very quickly to serious health problems.” (18)
Horses exported are often not fed at all at rest stops and if they are, the small amounts of hay with which they are provided, has little nutritional content. Those who are positioned in such a way that they are not facing the slats through which the hay is pushed - and those who have collapsed - may be unable to reach what little feed there is. John Kohnke, author of Feeding and Nutrition in Horses states:
“Horses are ‘continuous’ eaters like the rat and deer, they have no storage capacity in the stomach and no gall bladder. When stabled or confined, horses should be provided with small feeds on a regular basis. Stabled horses should be fed at least 2-3 times daily” (17). It is highly unlikely that any of the horses on the road to Italy are fed three times a day or even twice.
Horses in transit can find it extremely difficult to keep their balance. Captain M. Horrace Hayes, author of Veterinary Notes for Horse Owners states;
“If the horse is going to maintain its balance when travelling it must straddle all four limbs. If apprehensive or claustrophobic it may not do this. If the limbs are not straddled the horse will tend to fall either to the left or to the right, especially when going around corners, and may lean against the side of the trailer and kick” (21)
Overcrowding can add to the horses difficulty in remaining balanced, according to the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science:
“High stocking densities create a situation of constant struggle for the horses. Decreasing density would reduce the overall stressfulness of long distance transport by allowing the horses some manoeuvring room to avoid aggressive horses, to stand in a more comfortable position, to adopt their preferred orientation and perhaps to allow them to rest during periods when the truck is stopped” (24).
Slaughter trucks are inevitably overloaded so that horses do not have a choice of where to stand and some are tethered so tightly that they can barely move. The failure to remove excreta from the trucks compounds the problem by making the floor slippery and difficult to gain a foot hold.
Horses have rarely been socialised before they are loaded into trucks at the markets in Poland. This can cause fatal injuries due to fighting, according to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association:
“Horses can become seriously injured as the result of fighting in small confined pens. Mixing horses that are unfamiliar with each other in the holding pens is probably a major cause of injuries to horses during marketing and transport. The worst fights often occur shortly after mixing groups of horses that do not know each other” (27). Listening to the tension, aggression and fear which emanates from the inside of trucks in Polish markets which have just been loaded for the journey to Italy, is a clear indication of this.
Some of the transporters used for horses destined for slaughter are in notoriously bad condition and many are unsuitable for journeys of any length. This adds to the chance of severe injury occurring, according to the Journal of Animal Science:
“The design of trailers for transporting horses unequivocally affects their physiological responses and frequency of injuries.” (29)
The Equine Veterinary Journal is clear that travelling for all horses is stressful, even under the best conditions. Those exported for slaughter are particularly at risk and undergo extreme stress because all the individual components that constitute this condition are present:
“Horses are subjected to many potential stressors during transport, including variations in temperature, humidity, air quality, vibration and restricted feed and water intake” (26).
It has to be remembered that the journey times to which Polish horses are subjected are amongst the longest anywhere. All the problems identified by research are clearly applicable to them.
Simply the act of transport itself produces high levels of stress, according to the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
“Transportation of horses by road has been shown to be stressful and affect animals negatively through a variety of means that potentially compromises long term-welfare, including diarrhoea, significant increases in adrenacortical function and weight loss. Travel orientation that causes anxiety to the animals during transport might increase the severity and occurrence of these affects. The mere act of maintaining balance is an additional source of stress in horses.” (23)
The Journal of Animal Science also found stress to be an important factor in the transportation of horses: “Horses undergoing 24-hours of transportation in hot, summer conditions, showed physiological responses that included changes in stress indices, body weight and rectal temperatures (31).”
These major changes were noted after just 24 hours, which gives some indication of the levels of stress after 80 or 90 hours on the road.
A major illness that arises in horses during transportation is pulmonary infection and pneumonia, according to the Equine Veterinary Journal:
“Transport has been shown to alter respiratory immune responses in horses possibly due to an increase in endogenous glucocorticoid hormone release. Noxious gases in the transporter environment may be partially responsible for transport related pulmonary disease.” (26)
These findings are confirmed by the Journal of Comparative Pathology:
“Transportation is believed to play a major role in equine respiratory infections. Pulmonary defence mechanisms may be adversely affected by stress and airborne pathogens of irritants may be inhaled.
“It is suggested that transport predisposes the upper respiratory tract and the lower airways to invasion by the bacterium, with episodic pyrexia and acute pneumonia.” (30)
And there are other problems, according to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association:
“Transport in general is a stressor in horses that can, for example, lead to salmonellosis, high heart rates and changes in plasma ascorbic acid and serum cortisol concentrations.” (28)
Dr Theo G Antikas, DVM, Aristotelian U Physiology Department (Greece), and Secretary General of the Hellenic Pony Club, has identified other problems (see also Call for Moratorium):
“There is a statistically significant rise in gastrin levels in horses during long periods of transportation, which leads to gastric ulcer formation. Gastrin is a hormone (over) secreted under stress, and results in overproduction of gastric acid (HCL).” (20)
Scientific experiments to study the affects of transportation of horses have been carried out on horses who were fit and healthy prior to loading. Even these animals clearly suffer extensively when subjected to extended transport - and usually that is deemed to be 24 hours. However, it has been observed that in Polish markets, many of the horses are unfit, stressed and exhausted before even being loaded into slaughter trucks. They start their journey to death already in a lamentable state - dehydrated, sometimes lame, old or diseased. It is not surprising, then, that horses often die before they reach the abattoirs in Italy and those who do survive the horrendous journey are usually in an appalling state on arrival.