Shipping horses over long distances can be a daunting but rewarding undertaking. Many breeders, trainers, exporters and equestrians eventually find themselves needing to transport a horse over a long distance via air or land travel.

Even settled horse owners may need to ship their horses long-haul as a result of a relocation. Knowing how to prepare your horse for long-haul shipping can save you some stress and protect the health and well-being of your horse.

For the purposes of this guide, long-haul travel is defined as transporting your horse to a new location for more than 12 hours in a trailer or any duration of travel on an airplane.

During these extended trips, horses must stand for long hours in a small moving box that shifts constantly, tolerate temperature and weather changes, and adapt to changes in their routine and social grouping.

These kinds of events are major stressors to horses, both physically and psychologically. It is up to you as their caregiver to prepare your horse and plan their trip to ensure an easy transition to their new environment.

Shipping Horses Long Distances

Long-distance travel with a horse may involve land, air or water. The most common shipping method is road transport in a trailer towed by a vehicle.

However, every year an estimated 30,000 horses are flown around the world in specially designed equine airplanes. [22] Horses may also be transported on trains or ships, but these methods are not as common.

The shipping method you choose will depend on the following factors:

  • Distance
  • Budget
  • Suitability of the horse for travel
  • Availability and timeline

Distance

The first factor to consider is where and how far your horse needs to travel. Does some or all of the journey involve transportation over large bodies of water or challenging terrain?

Will shipping the horse over land extend the journey compared to air travel? Are direct flights possible, or is your destination far away from suitable airports?

If you are importing a horse from overseas (i.e. travelling between Europe and North America), flying is your only option. However, if you are travelling within the continent, you may have the option of shipping over land or by air.

Some distances are too long or challenging to traverse with a vehicle and trailer. In these circumstances, flying may be your only option.

Image: Horses prepare for loading onto a specialized equine aircraft.Transporting Horses by Airplane | Mad Barn USA

Budget

Which form of transportation is within your budget? If trailering your horse, the cost of the trip will depend on the distance to be travelled, the number of horses being transported, and current fuel prices.

Shipping companies also adjust their prices to reflect insurance costs, wear and tear to the vehicle and trailer, toll costs incurred along the route and the driver’s total travel time.

If flying your horse, expect to pay higher prices since air travel is more expensive and more people are required to make the trip. Flying with a horse requires a pilot, a co-pilot, one or more flight grooms to care for horses, and other staff involved in organizing the flight.

These costs can add up quickly but may be made more economical by putting as many horses on the plane as possible. Some cargo planes can hold between 15 – 20 horses, while other specialized aircraft can hold up to 87 horses. Splitting costs is at the discretion of the shipper, but most companies will try to fill their capacity to reduce costs for the client.

Airplane tickets for horses cost anywhere between $5,000 to $30,000 for flights within the United States. If you need a private charter, flights can cost upwards of $100,000.

Extra Costs

Depending on local and international guidelines, you may also need to factor in quarantine costs at your horse’s destination. Shipped horses may be quarantined in a biosecurity facility to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Horses may also need veterinary examinations or blood tests to ensure they do not have any communicable diseases before being released from quarantine.

The costs of quarantine and required veterinary exams are the responsibility of the horse owner. If you are flying with your horse, expect to spend $2,000 to $10,000 on quarantine expenses.

Also, prepare an emergency fund in case your horse’s trip is disrupted, or they need unexpected veterinary care while being shipped.

Suitability of Horse for Travel

When deciding how to transport your horse, consider your horse’s general demeanour and past experiences with travel. Also, consider their overall health, body condition and any special care needs.

Does trailering tend to cause your horse a lot of stress? Are they generally tolerant of loud noises and strange people, or do they have an anxious temperament?

Considerations for Air Travel

Both travel by air and trailering over land can be stressful for horses. But some horses benefit from shorter-duration trips and may be better off being flown to their destination.

Keep in mind that horses are herd-based prey animals and are naturally wary of new surroundings and changes in routine. Travelling by air involves bringing your horse to new, noisy facilities away from their normal social grouping and with unfamiliar human handlers.

Depending on governmental regulations, your horse may have to remain in quarantine with no turnout for several days upon arrival, undergoing blood tests to ensure they do not have any communicable diseases.

Staff working at these facilities are knowledgeable about horse care, but they are new people that your horse does not know. Some horses may be better off travelling by land to avoid the additional stress.

Considerations for Land Travel

Long-duration land travel comes with its own set of risks and complications. Horses travelling by trailer can spend more time in a small space without freedom of movement, increasing the risk of colic. [1]

The movement of a trailer also requires a great amount of effort for a horse to remain balanced and standing. Studies show that horses standing in a moving trailer have an increased heart rate, as well as stronger and more frequent muscle contractions. [2]

The energy that a horse expends to keep their balance in a trailer means they are spending more calories over the duration of the trip. At the same time, horses usually reduce their hay intake on long trailer rides.

The increased calorie expenditure and decreased caloric intake can lead to significant weight loss in some horses during long trailer rides. [3]

Although horses also experience weight loss on flights, the duration of flights is often shorter, limiting the total effect on body composition. [3]

Senior Horses

Older horses that need to lie down often may struggle with long trailer rides. Most horses will not feel safe enough to lie down in a trailer, so may try to remain standing longer than they are used to.

Limiting their time lying down can cause soreness and muscle stiffness, as well as other signs of sleep deprivation. If your senior horse would be better suited to a shorter trip, flying may be a better choice.

Availability and Timeline

Regardless of your preferred shipping method, you may not have all options available to you based on your timeline and the availability of shippers.

Horses being transported for breeding, sales, and relocation may have a more flexible timeline for arriving at their destination than high-level equestrians travelling for competition.

Some equine transport flights occur on a regular schedule between major airports in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Flights to other smaller airports may be privately chartered or coordinated based on demand, such as before a big competition or event.

If a flight is not available on your required timeline, a by-land shipper may be the only option. Not only are there more ground transportation services available but also it is cheaper to privately charter a trailer if there are no previously scheduled trips that match your itinerary.

To reduce costs and maximize their income, long-distance shippers will wait to fill as many spots on their vehicle as possible. You may have to delay your departure until other owners are ready to ship their horses along the same route or pay a higher price for expedited travel.

Consider whether you are willing and able to wait or need to pay a higher premium for a convenient date.

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Selecting a Shipper

Whether you are shipping your horse via land transport or by air, take the time to pick a preferred shipper. Different shipping companies offer different services and may have varying protocols regarding rest breaks, feed provision and equipment used.

Talk to several potential shippers and discuss your horse’s needs to help remove stress for both you and your horse.

Stopping For Breaks

If you decide to ship your horse via land transport (in a trailer attached to a truck or other large vehicle), ask your shipper how frequently they stop for breaks, how long those breaks are and whether horses have opportunities to get off the trailer.

Feed and Water Breaks

Ask your shipper how often they stop to feed and water the horses. When trailering a horse, your shipper should stop and park the trailer every four hours to allow horses to urinate and drink.

Horses urinate approximately six times a day. To urinate, they must assume a “squatting” position that may be challenging to balance in a moving trailer.

Horses may retain their urine if they feel they cannot safely squat to pee, introducing the risk of kidney issues and pain from a distended bladder. [5][6]

Overnight Breaks

Depending on the shipper, the distance of travel, and availability, some shippers will stop overnight at trusted facilities to give horses and drivers respite on long hauls.

Overnight breaks are much-needed by some horses. Shipping is physically exhausting, and if your horse needs opportunities to lie down, they may do better with an overnight stay.

However, overnight stays may not be an option if you are on a tight schedule. Stopping overnight only extends the duration of the trip and exposes your horse to new, unfamiliar environments.

Loading & Unloading

Unloading the horse and loading them back onto the trailer may not be an option if the horse does not load well. Loading stress can increase cortisol levels and leave horses more susceptible to infection. [4]

Most shippers will refuse to unload and load horses that do not walk onto the trailer well. A horse refusing to load can become aggressive or dangerous quickly. To avoid stress for handlers and horses, some owners choose to keep the horse on the trailer and forgo the break.

Biosecurity

Finally, every barn your horse stops at along their route increases the risk of disease transmission if biosecurity protocols are not in place.

Even if proper biosecurity measures are being implemented, mistakes and lapses in adherence can happen. The risk is always present introducing a horse into a new environment with new horses or other disease vectors.

Trailer Loading Positions & Stalls

Ask your shipper about the type of trailer and loading positions they use for shipping your horse.

Studies indicate that horses retain their balance easier if they are facing away from the direction of travel (backward) or at an angle. [7][8]

Standing vs. Box Stalls

If your shipper uses box stalls, your horse can orient themselves freely to compensate for the changes in balance as the trailer moves.

However, if your shipper ships with standing stalls, your horse does not have the freedom to move their body how they wish to retain balance.

Slant or Straight Load

Ask your shipper if their trailer is slant or straight load. With a slant load trailer, the horse is confined to standing on an angle, making it easier for them to remain balanced.

With a straight load trailer, your horse cannot move positions to accommodate balance changes. For this reason, it is not recommended to ship horses long distances in straight load trailers. [7][8]

How to Prepare Your Horse for Long Trips

After selecting your method of travel and your shipper, it’s time to prepare them for their trip. There are several important steps you can take to keep your horse healthy, happy and safe while on the move.

Six major concerns when shipping horses over long distances are:

  • Colic and gut issues
  • Stiffness and pain
  • Respiratory issues
  • Immune system compromise
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Preparing for climate changes

Colic & Gut Problems

Horses are at risk of colic and other gut issues when travelling long distances. Colic may occur due to changes in feeding, dehydration, impaction, or ulcer-related pain. [9]

Several management practices can help reduce the risk of colic and digestive disorders before shipping your horse.

Hydration

Horses are very particular animals, and the stress of transportation over long distances can discourage them from drinking water. [11] Horses may also drink less water if it has an unfamiliar smell or taste or if their electrolyte balance is disrupted.

Make sure your horse has constant access to clean, fresh water while on the trailer. If this is not possible, ask your shipper to offer your horse fresh water whenever they stop (at least every four hours).

Your horse should be given an opportunity to drink as much water as they want during and after their journey.

Hydrating your horse before a long-distance trip will improve gut motility (the transport of feed through the gastrointestinal tract). Adequate hydration lubricates feed and prevents dry feces from obstructing the intestines. [10]

Encouraging Water Intake

One method to hydrate your horse before long-haul transport is to feed them very soupy hay cubes or beet pulp the day before the trip.

While you do not want to fill your horse’s gut with too much bulk before a long trip, feeding a soaked mash will provide high moisture content and act as a water reservoir in the gut to keep them hydrated for longer.

You can also feed extra salt and electrolytes in the days leading up to their departure. The sodium in salt and electrolytes will trigger a thirst response, encouraging the horse to consume more water. [12]

Encourage your horse to drink more by only offering them lukewarm water instead of cold. Horses will choose cold water over lukewarm but will drink more volume if only lukewarm water is offered. [13]

You can further encourage water intake with flavourings, such as apple juice or other additives. Most horses will drink more if the water is slightly flavoured. [11]

If you know your horse has a history of dehydration or colic, ask your veterinarian about administering intravenous fluids the night before the trip. This will be an additional cost but may prevent impaction and dehydration. [11]

Turnout

Horses move very little during a long-haul trip, which can increase the risk of colic. Movement is crucial for avoiding colic because it promotes the transit of feed through the intestines. [14]

To mitigate this risk, allow your horse ample turnout on the days before and after a long trip.

Gastric Ulcers

Trailer trips are stressful for horses, significantly increasing the risk of gastric ulcers. You can prevent ulcers and the pain they cause by feeding your horse appropriately before, during, and after their travel.

Prior to and after transporting your horse, feed a gut support supplement, such as Mad Barn’s Visceral+. Visceral+ is recommended by veterinarians and trusted by high-performance athletes to help maintain gastric and hindgut health and support the immune system.

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During the trip, ensure your horse has constant access to hay. Forage intake helps to buffer stomach acid and provides a protective barrier for the sensitive walls of the non-glandular stomach. [15]

After the trip, monitor your horse for common signs of ulcers. Gastric ulcers affect the majority of performance horses and are frequently triggered by changes in the environment, routine and social grouping. Consult a veterinarian if you think your horse has developed ulcers.

Feeding Grain

Horses travelling long distances will likely be on the trailer for their normal feeding times. Ideally, your horse’s feeding program would be kept as consistent as possible while on the road to minimize the risk of gut disturbances.

However, this is not always possible. Most commercial shippers will not feed horses grain or supplements on the road and only provide hay in a hay net.

If your horse requires medications or supplements that cannot be missed, make sure to choose a shipper that provides this service. You may have to pay extra for horses with special care needs.

Stiffness and Pain

Senior horses may experience stiffness or pain during extended travel. If your horse is older or has joint issues, such as arthritis, ask you veterinarian about prophylactic anti-inflammatories.

Appropriate use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), such as Flunixin (Banamine) or Phenylbutazone (bute), can help your horse remain pain-free in transit. Some horses are also given NSAIDs after their trip to alleviate muscle stiffness.

Before administering NSAIDs, contact your veterinarian to discuss dosage intervals and safety. Long-term use of high-dosage NSAIDs can cause side effects.

A balanced diet with adequate antioxidants and Vitamin E will also support muscle recovery following a long trip in a moving trailer. [9]

Respiratory Issues

Horses transported long distances are at risk of respiratory issues, especially shipping fever.

The stress of travel suppresses the immune system which makes it harder to fight bacteria in the airways and lungs. In addition, keeping their heads elevated for prolonged periods impairs the natural mucous-clearing processes resulting in more foreign matter reaching the lower airways and lungs. [23]

In an observational study of over 800 horses on 81 flights arriving in Hong Kong by air, 11% of horses were found to have shipping fever and roughly 60% of flights had at least one horse affected. [24]

Several management strategies can help reduce the risk of shipping fever including:

  • Allowing several opportunities for the horse to lower their head to ground level
  • Minimizing dust by choosing low-dust bedding & providing steamed hay, if possible
  • Ensuring your horse is up-to-date on vaccines

Supplementation with spirulina, a blue-green algae that provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support may also be beneficial. Anecdotal reports show reduced coughing, headshaking and sneezing in horses with recurrent respiratory issues. [25]

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Compromised Immune System

Traveling long distances can also impair your horse’s immune defenses and increase the risk of contracting an infection. Stress is a major factor in the diminished immune response seen in horses on the road.

Stress results in higher levels of the hormone cortisol in the horse`s bloodstream, which can decrease their ability to fight infections.

There are steps you can take to boost your horse’s immune system to fight off any infections it may be exposed to. The best way to support immune function is to feed a balanced diet with adequate vitamins, minerals, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants.

Protein

Horses that do not get enough protein in their diet may have an impaired immune response. The amino acids lysine, histidine, and arginine are particularly important for the proper function of immune system cells. [17]

Ensure your horse is fed a diet with adequate sources of high-quality protein. Alfalfa hay is a popular option for increasing the protein content of the equine diet.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Feeding horses omega-3 fatty acids can support inflammatory regulation and a healthy immune system. [16] Omega-3s are also associated with joint health, a calm demeanour and a reduced stress response.

Flaxseed, camelina oil, algae, and cold water fish oils are source of omega-3’s, while corn, soy, canola and other plant oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids.

Mad Barn’s w-3 Oil is enriched with the omega-3 fatty acids DHA, as well as natural Vitamin E. It is also a dense source of calories for performance horses. Consider feeding w-3 oil to horses prior to and after a long-haul trip.

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Antioxidants

Antioxidants such as selenium, vitamin c and vitamin E are crucial for supporting your horse`s immune system. These antioxidants are often undersupplied in the horse’s diet and need to be supplemented to prevent deficiencies. [18]

Feed a complete vitamin and mineral supplement, such as Mad Barn’s Omneity®, to ensure your horse’s nutritional requirements are met. Omneity® is formulated to balance a wide range of forages and contains all of the micronutrients needed to support immune health, hoof quality and overall well-being.

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Sleep Disturbance

Horses, like humans, can experience jetlag and sleep deprivation with travel. [26]

Sleep disturbances can arise from changes in the circadian (daily) rhythm of hormones such as melatonin and cortisol. Changes in the environment can also make horses hypervigilant and less able to sleep as they adjust to new conditions. [27]

Sleep-deprived horses are at risk of collapsing from fatigue, causing injuries especially to the fetlock, knee and face.

If possible, consider making adjustments to the bedding, lighting, ambient noise, temperature, and air quality in the horse’s environment to encourage sleep.

Preparing for Temperature Changes

When winter arrives in North America, many horse owners ship their horses for showing or training to warmer climates in the southern United States. These horses may then be shipped back up north at the end of the winter season.

These abrupt changes in temperature and environment can impact your horse’s appetite, water intake, and activity levels. Changes in feed provision also leave travelling horses them susceptible to dehydration, ulcers, and colic. [19]

There are measures you can take to prepare your horse for trips to new climates so you can prevent health issues before they occur.

Cold to Warm Climates

If you are a Canadian equestrian who heads to Florida every winter, the warmer weather is often a welcome change.

However, a sudden introduction to a warm climate can increase your horse’s risk of colic. In hot weather, horses tend to decrease their voluntary activity level, moving less around their paddock and preferring to stand still.

It’s also important to keep your horse cool and prevent heat stress or dehydration when first acclimating to warm temperatures. Provide fresh, clean water at all times and encourage your horse to drink to avoid dehydration.

Consider clipping your horse before they leave. Woolly winter coats hold significant heat, making the horse sweat in warm environments. Excessive sweating can result in significant water and electrolyte loss, leaving horses susceptible to dehydration and muscle cramps. [19]

Ensure they are turned out in a light or white fly sheet that reflects the sun and helps keep your horse cool.

Turn your horse out in paddocks with a shelter or trees that provide shade to give your horse respite during the hottest hours of the day. In really hot weather, turn your horse out at night and keep them in a temperature-controlled barn during the day when the sun is shining.

Warm to Cold Climates

Preparing your horse for a sudden drop in temperature is equally important. When horses suddenly move from warm climates to colder ones, they move less in their field and drink less water, also contributing to colic risk.

Encourage your horse to move around by taking them for a light lunge or hand walk every day. Make sure your horse is drinking enough water by providing lukewarm water and feeding salt to promote thirst.

If your horse has been in a warm climate, they will not have a thick fur coat to keep them warm. They will also burn more energy trying to maintain a stable body temperature.

Use blankets as needed and monitor your horse for signs of weight loss. You may need to add weight to your horse`s blanket system to keep them warm and happy.

Travel Documentation

Domestic and international travel with horses can cause diseases to spread, compromising equine health and welfare and causing financial losses.

To reduce the risk of spreading diseases, most countries require documentation to show recent veterinary exams before horses are imported or exported.

The communicable diseases of greatest concern are: [28]

For most countries, veterinary certificates must show that the horse is: [28]

  • Free from evidence of a communicable disease
  • No known exposure to a communicable disease
  • No vaccinations given within 14 days of travel
  • Tested negative for Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) via Coggins test or ELISA
  • Has not been in a country affected by equine metritis

Depending on the origin and destination, regulations differ for when the veterinary exam needs to be performed relative to travel.

Requirements also vary if your horse is relocating permanently or planning to re-enter the country of origin within 30 – 90 days.

Always check with your vet and local authorities to ensure you adhere to the required timeframes.

Assessing Fitness for Transport

Federal guidelines also stipulate that the horse must be fit for travel before being loaded. Anyone responsible for loading, transporting and unloading horses should be familiar with the animal transport requirements.

In Canada, the National Farm Animal Care Council provides guidelines for equine care during transport which are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Determining fitness for transport is the responsibility of the horse owner and anyone transporting the horse. The driver has the right to refuse a horse they deem unfit.

Except for veterinary care as advised by a veterinarian, a horse should be considered unfit for transport if: [29]

  • Fracture or severe injury
  • Sick or diseased (ex: strangles, herpes virus, pneumonia)
  • Shows signs of fever
  • Severe lameness (ie requires assistance to rise)
  • Acute frostbite
  • Colic
  • Signs of exhaustion, dehydration, systemic shock or imminent death
  • Extremely thin
  • Weak
  • Non-ambulatory
  • In the last 10% of gestation period
  • Has given birth in the last 48 hours
  • Shows signs of general nervous system disorders (ex: rabies)
  • Uterine, vaginal or rectal prolapse
  • Laboured breathing

If you are unsure if your horse is fit for travel, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Failure to comply with regulations can result in fines or prosecution.

Summary

Shipping long distances, whether by land or by air, can open the world to you and your equine companion. Thoroughly researching different modes of transportation and shipping companies will reduce stress for you and your horse.

Prepare your horse in advance by ensuring they are hydrated, healthy, and fed a balanced diet. Domestic and international travel requires correct documentation and adhering to local and federal guidelines. If you are unsure about best practices for travelling with your horse, do not hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian.

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References

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  2. Giovagnoli, G. et al. Transport stress in horses: an electromyographic study on balance preservation.Livestock Production Science. 2002.
  3. Padalino, B. Effects of the different transport phases on equine health status, behavior, and welfare: A review.The Journal of Vet Behaviour. 2015.
  4. Stull, C. Responses of horses to trailer design, duration, and floor area during commercial transportation to slaughter. J of Animal Sci. 1999. View Summary
  5. Padalino, B. et al. A Survey on Transport Management Practices Associated with Injuries and Health Problems in Horses. PLoS One. 2016. View Summary
  6. Holt, E. and Pearson, H. Urolithiasis in the horse — A review of 13 cases. Equine Vet J. 1984. View Summary
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  8. Clark, D. et al. The effect of orientation during trailer transport on heart rate, cortisol and balance in horses. Applied Animal Beh Sci. 1993.
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  10. Plummer, A. Impactions of the Small and Large Intestines. Vet Clinics: Equine Prac. 2009. View Summary
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  12. Jansson, A. and Dahlborn, K. Effects of feeding frequency and voluntary salt intake on fluid and electrolyte regulation in athletic horses. Journal of Applied Phys. 1999. View Summary
  13. Schott, H. Fluid Therapy for Colic and Diarrhea: Tricks That Can Be Used In the Field. Department of Large Animal Sci. 2012.
  14. Hillyer, M. et al. Case control study to identify risk factors for simple colonic obstruction and distension colic in horses. Equine Vet J. 2010. View Summary
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  16. Daly, J. et al. Effect of dietary protein and amino acids on immune function. Critical Care Med. 1990.
  17. Williams, C. Antioxidant supplementation to the exercising horse. R Bras Zootec. 2010.
  18. Keller, G. et al. Tracking the Impact of Weather on Equine Activity While Pastured.Journal of Vet Equine Sci. 2022. View Summary
  19. Flaminio, J. and Rush, B. Fluid and Electrolyte Balance in Endurance Horses.Vet Clinics of NA: Equine Prac. 1998. View Summary
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  21. When Horses Fly: New Study to Help Develop Health and Well-Being Guidelines for Air-Transported Horses. Morris Animal Foundation. 2020
  22. Racklyeft, D.J. et al. Towards an understanding of equine pleuropneumonia: factors relevant for control. Aust Vet J. 2008. View Summary
  23. Hurley, M.J. et al. The incidence and risk factors for shipping fever in horses transported by air to Hong Kong: Results from a 2-year prospective study . Vet J. 2016. View Summary
  24. Kellon, Eleanor Use of the Herb Gynostemma Pentaphyllum and the Blue-green Algae Spirulina Platensis in Horses. Equine Congress. 2006.
  25. Tortonese, D.J. and Short, R.V. Biological rhythms, jetlag and performance in Thoroughbred racehorses. Equine Vet J. 2012. View Summary
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