"The tendency has been to attribute loading avoidance tactics by the horse to "eccentricity"" Sharon Cregier.
The problems with forward facing horse transport
The research (1) pointed out that:
"The transport of animals causes more episodes of acute stress than any other common husbandry practice The standard horse trailer requiring the horse to face the direction of travel contradicts the horses' behavioural, physiological and physical needs. It limits the horse's ability to maintain its balance off its forequarters, lower its head to clear its respiratory tract, avoid contact in its hind area, and for certain male horses, urinate at will."
"Standard horse trailers are built with the same concept used to transport dead weight. The live cargo, like any solid equipment, is expected to remain stationary in transit."
"...when travelling forwards the horse could not maintain a natural stance...it would resist the forward motion as the trailer floor moved from under it. The horse adopted a high head carriage, transferring its weight to the rear and fragile sacroiliac joint or toss its head up and down or side to side continually trying to look behind itself and spreading its hindlegs and sometimes forelegs outside of its ribcage in an effort not to fall."
"...storage cabinets (were placed) directly beneath the horses' heads. The horses were tethered high during transit. Heavy metal restraining barriers and kick boards after two weeks' use of the transport recorded scramble and kick marks...many slant-load trailers carry similar marks of distress."
A further report went into these problems in much greater detail (2) listing the vulnerability of the horse's head, neck, chest, thorax and hindquarters during braking and changes of direction and the continuous strain of having their head high and their weight shifted towards the hindquarters.
The problem with rear facing transport
There has been growing disquiet about the number of accidents and incidents there are which involve rear facing trailers and horseboxes. The Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service Animal Rescue Team expressed their fears on the local news: BBC News
"We have concerns as we are being mobilised to a disproportionate number of incidents involving this design of horsebox where the horse is getting trapped in this way." Anton Phillips.
Since then, there have continued to be regular calls to horses that have attempted to jump over the partition at the back of the horsebox and then been unable to extricate themselves. The Animal Rescue Team, aided by the vet, then have to heavily sedate the horse before being able to cut the horse out.
Rear facing horses continue to be an attractive choice for many horse owners and hirers. Not only do they look nice but they are lighter and more economical to drive than HGV horseboxes and the driver does not need an HGV licence. This is all fine for a horse that loads and travels well but even the most calm horse can get into trouble.
There are several things that responsible owners and hiring companies can take to render their vehicles much safer. Barriers can be retro-fiited to prevent the horse from jumping over the rear partition. . Here are a couple of examples of horse boxes that I have seen with really good retro-fits.
I contacted Sharon Cregier (Ph.D., F.I.A.S.H. (Hon., Edin.)), following some comments she made on the Friends of the Hampshire Animal Rescue Facebook page concerning a recent incident. She highlighted the fact that although her research, and that of others, stated that horses were far more comfortable travelling backwards, vehicles were not being designed in the same way as indicated in the research. She replied saying:
"Your observation about current practices in rear-facing trailers and horseboxes is correct. I do feel for the manufacturers as they have to give the customer what the customer wants. But the current practices do not resemble the original, which was platform load, ramp unload, in design and use."Looking through the original research (often quoted as support for travelling horses backwards), it appears that the manufacturers have failed to take into account vital details in the research concerning the optimum head position of the horse and the best place to tie them up so the horses are in just as much discomfort as they would be in a front facing horsebox or trailer. Moreover horses seem to be more inclined (and more able in this position) to complain about it by attempting to clamber over the back partition.
The research makes it clear that horses needed to have freedom from high head restraint and freedom to balance in a natural position, along with supression of mechanical noise and flickering light. This means that the back partition needs to be low enought to allow them to do this AND that they need to be tied up at wither level with the rope pillar style.
The question is though whether there would be far less emergency situations in the first place if we made these changes? What if horseboxes and trailers were re-designed to allow horses to travel in a natural stance, and to be able to clear their respiratory tract? Would owners have the confidence to tie them up in the way suggested by the research, pillar style?
There is certainly room for a lot more research in this area and for a forum to be created with vehicle designers, the rescue services, horse trainers and owners.
From a loading point of view there are changes I would always like to see in the current design of rear facing lorries which would make loading and loading practice with difficult loaders much safer.
High internal doors to discourage the horse from thinking about leaping out of the box. Some horseboxes have no internal doors at all and if the horse is in the right hand position in the box then he only only needs to step over once in order to put an enormous weight on the ramp with a real risk of injury. High doors mean that the horse can be full enclosed before the ramp goes up; so many horse loading problems are caused by people feeling that they need to slam the ramp up in a hurry.
(1) The Welfare of Horses During Transport S. Cregier and O. Holmes (International Equine Science Meeting 2008, University of Regensburg, Germany.)
(2) Reducing Equine Hauling Stress; A Review Sharon Cregier, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science
Volume 2, Issue 6, Pages 186–198, November–December, 1982