It is that time of year again, when the global show jumping circuit makes the annual migration from all over the world, back to the United States. Namely to Wellington, Florida for the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Thousands of sport horses will travel all over the world every year to get to destination competitions on the global show jumping circuit. How do they get there? They fly of course! The only way this happens is through the well-run business of equine air transportation, and with the dedicated teams who manage every aspect of the horses’ wellbeing.
The journey begins like any other, the equines load onto trailers and travel from farms to one of the major airports with specialized facilities for livestock transportation. One of the most travelled routes is between Amsterdam in The Netherlands and Miami, Florida. Another major hub is The Ark at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The $65 million facility has 48 state of the art stalls, 24 hour reception center and a speciality quarantine facility for import/export horses. The goal of all sport horse transport is to have the horses travel as smoothly as possible so that once they are off the plane, they can perform at their full potential at the destination competition.
Upon arrival to the airport, the horses are loaded into specialized containers for the flight. Owners can opt for coach, business or first class for the precious four legged cargo. The smaller horses can fly three to a container, and the larger show jumpers will fly “business” with some extra leg room. Flying frequently with the horses is Mary Elizabeth Kent, business manager and director of Laura Kraut LLC. Ms. Kent states that it is quite comfortable for smaller horses to ship three to a container, with the larger horses fitting nicely in a two stall. Once the horses are secure in the containers, the boxes are lifted into the cargo bay of the airplane. The Boeing 747 is a popular model in equine air travel as the upper deck is well designed for human passengers (vets, grooms, farm managers), while the lower deck fits horses and cargo efficiently. In terms of cost, owners can expect to pay in the four figures per stall for transatlantic flights.
In addition to individual attendants from the respective farms, the airlines have specialized assistants who are trained to coordinate and fly with equestrian passengers. On a recent MartinAir cargo flight from Amsterdam to Miami, two attendants were on board in addition to other personnel. Kevin Nairne, founder of horse snack company Kelcie’s Treats who flew with the horses, noted that the grooms aboard the airlines likely spend more than 50% of their time flying all over the world with these animals.
Despite what some might think, most competition horses are very good flyers – some even nap on the flight! However, horses are not sedated as they need to remain alert enough to balance on all fours. Just like a precious package, the horses have quite a bit of padding, with leg wraps to offer compression and protection, and halters lined with fluffy wool. The in-flight snack of choice is of course carrots, which also helps the horses stay comfortable, as chewing equalizes their ear pressure.
Just like their human teammates, they are accustomed to a life on the road as traveling athletes. Even so, these horses are meticulously monitored in-flight to ensure they are comfortable, calm and have plenty of hay and water during the journey. Jet lag for horses is generally not an issue; however, the FEI (International Federation of Equestrian Sport) Code of Conduct for equine welfare requires appropriate rest period between travel and competition, depending on length of the trip.
This jet set lifestyle may seem glamorous, but it also takes an incredible amount of planning and teamwork to ensure these valuable athletes arrive safely and in top form. The logistics for a horse’s travel is certainly a bit more complicated than a human’s, given the sheer volume of the passenger (a sport horse weighs 1,100 pounds on average), and also due to the quarantine regulations. Upon arrival in Miami for example, the shipping agent Lazcar will greet the plane, handle unloading the horses, and the transport to USDA quarantine where the animals are required to stay for 48 hours to make sure no surprise illness made the journey with them. Once released, the horses will be shipped in a trailer to their destination barns, and so begins the next round of competition and training.