George Winegar, past president, Robert D. Campball award winner, and a member of Animal Transportation Association since its inception, gave an overview of historical horse transport at sea (remember that we as humanity have shipped by sea for much longer than we have shipped by trailer (150 years) and air (75 years).
The Ancient Romans first developed horse shipping, and improved techniques were made by the Arabic peoples in the time of the Bible (remember that these were ships powered by oars or sail.) Ships were built for this purpose and designed with stalls to hold horses. Some even had slings to support the horses in case of rough seas and could move 20-30 horses per trip. Some lifted horses like cargo with slings onto the ship; some loaded and unloaded directly from the beach; some loaded the horses through a door in the hull. Some, when unloading, pushed horses off the ship and let them swim for the beach
The use of the horse for Cavalry changed the importance from being ridden and pulling carts to direct action in warfare and made them even more important. (Many of us have heard the quote, “The success of man has been borne on the backs of our horses.” It is truer than I can convey here.) Thus, the Italians had the capacity to ship up to 100 horses for short transport in the Mediterranean documented before 1000 B.C. By the French invasion of England in 1066 (represented on the Bayeaux Tapestry) the Normans invaded with 2,000 to 3,000 horses for this campaign. After winning the war, they continued to import horses for improving bloodlines of their breeds.
Of course we know that by the time of the Spanish, French, and English colonial periods, horse transport by sea was extremely common. Shipping during this time had significant logistical obstacles. Consider the logistics of calculating the correct amount of water, hay, and feed for even a short trip with 20 horses across the ocean.
Many millions of horses were shipped for the two World Wars, using what had been learned over the centuries before and adapted to steam- and diesel-powered ships that shortened the trip.
Interestingly, there are no U.S. regulations that specify space requirements for horses in air transports (that is normally configured by the shipper based on the variety of horses’ size and temperaments) but there are for sea transport. And there is minimal published research conducted for this subject (Do horses get seasick? Physiological effects? Etc.) because so much of it was done based on what the stevedores’ knew. We do know that there were efforts to increase ventilation in the hold for the horses using windsails and cowls that forced air into the ship – but probably nowhere near the modern requirement of 45 changes of air in the space per HOUR. Horses must have excellent ventilation to prevent respiratory sickness. In modern times, we usually ship by air for small numbers of horses because of these concerns. Contemporary requirements USDA APHIS Part 91 regulations have more specifics on how transport and housing should be done for animals.
Even into the 1970s a shipment of over 100 horses from the UK to Australia (a distance of 12,500 miles) notes that they required their grooms to exercise the horses daily on the top deck. So they had learned that standing in stalls for long periods of time gave problems that could be minimized with exercise. They recommended that 2 horses be held in a pen that was able to hold 7 cattle – recognizing the need for horses to move around. And they had two large desalination processing stations to provide the fresh water needed by the animals as well as for the constant cleaning of the facilities. In 1983, to replace the destroyed livestock on Faulkland Island – a $165,000 shipment (called Noah’s ark) of numerous animals including 20 horses and ponies was coordinated by an ATA member who reported the challenges with having enough hay, water and food for them.
In 2000, WSPA efforts to remove donkeys from Monserratt to St. Lucia involved use of a livestock ship to transport them to a better life.