Horses Above the Clouds

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Shipping Horses By Air

By Tania Millen

Horse transportation is an integral part of Canada’s equine industry, and horses are often trailered long distances when they’re bought or sold, when their owner is relocating, for breeding purposes, or for competition. But for horses traveling across North America or overseas, there is an easier way to get from A to B – horses can fly!

In 1990, Canada’s World Equestrian Games team horses flew in a chartered plane to the inaugural games in Stockholm, Sweden. Some 30 quarantined horses were trailered to Toronto International Airport where a convoy of trucks and horse trailers formed a semicircle around the front of the plane to prevent the possibility of a horse getting loose and charging down the runway. Once tack trunks, buckets, and miscellaneous gear were hand-loaded onto the plane, a narrow, steep, plywood-sided ramp was built, extending from the side of a five-tonne cargo truck up to the plane’s front door. One by one, the horses were led and hazed through the truck, up the rickety ramp, through a people-sized doorway, and along the makeshift plywood floor of the open cargo plane where narrow stalls were constructed around each horse - three abreast across the plane. The loaded horses then waited impatiently with ears brushing the ceiling, while the rest of the horses were individually loaded and their stalls were constructed. With everyone aboard, the doors were closed and the plane taxied to the takeoff line-up where it sat on the tarmac waiting its turn, while horses and their grooms dripped sweat in the muggy heat. 

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In preparation for their flight, horses are loaded into large boxes which are in turn loaded onto the cargo plane by giant elevating lifts and conveyor belts. Photos: Overseas Horse Transport

After a grindingly slow flight, the horses arrived in Europe, deplaned via another rickety ramp, went through customs and vet checks, and were hauled in strange trailers to their new quarters. The whole process took over 24 hours, and it was four days before the horses and their grooms recovered from the ordeal.

Nowadays, horses fly differently. Today, shipping a horse by air is almost as simple as sending a Christmas present to faraway friends. Horses are packaged up into large boxes called pallets, which are then loaded onto cargo planes by giant elevating lifts and conveyor belts. They arrive at their destination as efficiently as passengers on regular flights. The process isn’t quite as simple as dropping your horse off at the nearest courier service office, but the logistics are fairly straightforward.

Although individuals can arrange shipments themselves, it’s simpler and more cost effective to hire a company familiar with the myriad steps involved in the process. Globally, shipping horses by air is big business, with many companies and agents vying for business.

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On board with Quadriga Horse Transport. Compared to other forms of horse transport, flying is less stressful and takes much less time. Photo: Quadriga Horse Transport 

In Canada, Quadriga Horse Transport based near Calgary, Alberta, and Overseas Horse Services, with locations in Calgary and Toronto, Ontario, are main players. They transport horses by road and air, and arrange import, export, and flights for all sorts of four-legged friends from minis to upper level performance horses to the superstars of the Canadian Equestrian Team.

Both companies offer one-stop-shop services, arranging everything from ground transportation to quarantine, blood testing, vaccinations, health papers, airline documentation, and the flights themselves, depending on where the horse is flying to and from, what is required, and what the client needs. 

Unlike 30 years ago, horses fly in specially designed air stalls – commonly known as pallets – and stand three abreast (Economy Class), two abreast (Business Class) or have one whole stall to themselves (First Class). As long as the horse is in an air stall, they can fly on any 747, 757,767 or 777 cargo flight. 

In a typical year, Quadriga Horse Transport arranges 20 to 30 flights, many with more than one horse. “Most popular countries are Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the UK,” says Marc Boyer, company owner. 

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Specially designed air stalls allow horses to travel Business Class (top), Economy Class (bottom), or First Class where they have the pallet stall to themselves. Photos: Overseas Horse Transport

Kenneth Serrien is the Managing Director of Overseas Horse Transport Ltd., which arranges flights for approximately 650 horses each year all over the world, including from Canada to Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and South America, often with stopovers through Europe, Miami, Los Angeles or New York. 

Naturally, horses aren’t just loaded into the cargo hold like a parcel and forgotten about. On every flight there are professional grooms who monitor the horses, feed and water them, respond to emergencies, deal with occasional injured or panicky horses, and know the plane’s emergency procedures.

“Ninety-one percent of the horses that we ship are good travellers, and there are no problems,” says Serrien, adding that it’s usually obvious when the horse is loaded into the pallet if there’ll be problems and at that stage the horse may be tranquilized.

The worldwide horse shipping business has grown immensely since horses first started flying in the 1950s. “If you have the time and money, you can fly your horses to Hong Kong or Europe and stay for three months, or Florida and do the World Equestrian Festival, or California, or to a show in New York,” says Serrien. There are lots of possibilities, and nowadays when people move they are bringing their horses with them. “A lot of people coming from the United Kingdom or moving back there are taking their horses with them.” 

Compared to other means of transport, such as land or sea, the benefits of flying are that it’s less stressful and much shorter time-wise. The downside is cost. Typical costs of importing a horse from Europe to Canada are $12,000 to $18,000 Canadian, while exporting a horse to Europe costs approximately $10,000. Meanwhile, flights from Calgary to Toronto cost about $4,000 and take four hours, while flights from Calgary to Florida cost about $6,000 and take seven hours. For comparison, it takes about three days to truck a horse commercially by ground from Calgary to Florida, and it will probably take a week for the horse to recover. But a horse that flies to Toronto or Florida will be ready to work the next day.

When horse owners are looking for air transport, what do they typically want to know? “Price is always a big question, as is setup of the crate that the horses are in during travel,” says Boyer. “They also ask, “Who looks after the horses during the flight (there is an accredited groom for every two crates on board the flight); who takes care of all the permits and coordination (we do); do I have to pay GST on the horse I bought overseas and am importing (yes, five percent of the purchase price)?”

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At the Calgary International Animal Lounge, this horse is fresh off the airplane and waiting to meet his new owners. Photo: Quadriga Horse Transport

And there’s the inevitable paperwork. Boyer lists the needed documentation: “The CFIA [Canada Food Inspection Agency] Import Permit (the main document for importing a horse that the government issues to allow the horse into the country); Health Certificate (the official document that travels with the horse which shows that they have been cleared by their respective government body and that they meet all health requirements for travel); and Customs (CBSA) paperwork which includes Air Waybill stating the goods being imported/exported and travels with the horses so the airline knows what is on board.”

How is quarantine handled? “CFIA will perform an inspection on quarantine facilities to officially approve them for quarantine purposes. They have strict guidelines than must be followed,” says Boyer. “Import quarantine depends on the sex of the horse, which will determine quarantine period (for example, gelding 7 to 10 days, mare 20 days, stallion up to 90 days). 

“Horses are required to be held separately from all other animals and can have no physical contact with any other horses. They are allowed to leave their stalls and be exercised but must be alone and away from the other horses. Quadriga’s facility is setup with a separate quarantine barn to accommodate these horses and keeps strict biosecurity measures in place.

“Export quarantine is 30 days for all horses and the same rules apply as above. During this period, CFIA does blood testing in order to prepare the health certificate and ensure all EU requirements are met.”

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An imported mare is welcomed to Canada. Photo: Quadriga Horse Transport

Horses can fly almost anywhere in the world, and every cargo airline offers livestock transportation. Horses flying between North America and Europe generally leave from or arrive at one of four main European airports: Luxemburg, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Liege (Belgium). In the USA, there are four approved airports for importing horses: New York (JFK), Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles. However, scheduled international cargo planes only land at two airports in Canada - Calgary and Toronto - so horses flying between Canada and international destinations have to be transported to or from Calgary or Toronto by ground, before or after flights. But if riders want to fly their horses domestically – say from the British Columbia Lower Mainland to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto - there are suitable cargo flights between Toronto and all major airports across the country.

Chartering a cargo plane is another option. For example, if a group of 50 horses need to fly to a specific place – say Calgary’s Spruce Meadows or Langley’s Thunderbird Show Park - they can fly into any airport in Canada that has the capacity to receive them. Most of the airports have stabling facilities so horses can relax before they get on their flight, plus most big airports worldwide have live animal facilities so that paperwork or veterinary problems can be dealt with efficiently.

The Calgary airport welcomes horses from all over the world for tournaments at Spruce Meadows and is well-equipped to handle equine celebrities. “The International Animal Lounge is where the horses stay temporarily when the arrive or before departure,” says Boyer. “It is a mini hotel of sorts where we can monitor the animals 24/7, check vitals, and perform testing prior to and post travel. This is a one-of-a-kind facility in Western Canada. At Quadriga, we also have our own quarantine facility located just north of Calgary with state-of-the-art equipment including a horse water treadmill for exercise while horses are being quarantined.”

So, the next time you want to transport your horse across North America, consider flying. Although it will punch a hole in your bank account, it’ll save time and be much easier on the horse.

Reducing Horses' Stress While Travelling

Advice from a Flying Groom

The transportation of horses via aircraft is big business, as high-value equines are moved between countries and continents for competitions or breeding purposes.

While many of us might worry about our beloved equines boarding the cargo hold of an aircraft, there’s no reason for it to be any more risky for horses than it is for humans, as long as they are well prepared and well looked after, and that’s the job of the flying groom.

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Photo courtesy of FEI/Peden Bloodstock

Flying grooms have many years of experience working with horses of all breeds and temperaments both on the ground and in the air, and they are familiar with all models of aircraft and procedures at airports around the world. 

One particular area of concern is digestive health, with an increased risk of colic often linked to flight. However, Matt Brooks, a “flying groom” for horse transportation specialist Peden Bloodstock based in Germany, says that good planning and a focus on reducing stress can limit risks of digestive issues.

Here’s what Mark told us…

The life of a flying groom…

“Being a flying groom is a great job! We get to spend time with horses and travel around the world. Of course, often we don’t see much of the world and sometimes our stay in another country might be as little as a few hours.

“I’ve been transporting horses for more than 30 years, and have worked as a ‘flying groom’ for around a decade. My job involves looking after the welfare of horses as they board the aircraft and then during the course of the flight and beyond.

“There are very busy times of the year and periods where it’s not so busy. While the summer might be the busiest time of the year for FEI competitions this is actually the quietest time for me. Most travel around Europe for competition is done by road.

“The biggest competitions I’ve worked on were the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and last year’s FEI World Equestrian Games.”

How horses are transported...

“A Boeing 777 can carry up to 75 horses at a time, but this would be the maximum with three horses per stall. For an FEI competition there are just two horses per stall, so there might be between 40 to 50 horses on board.

“With 50 horses there would be around 10 flying grooms and a vet. While we might have specific horses that we have responsibility for, before a flight we always reiterate that we are one team with one focus – to ensure the welfare of all the horses on board. If a colleague is busy with one horse but needs assistance, I’ll be there for him.”

How horses cope with flight...

“It is very rare that horses experience problems when they are on flights. They fare very well and in some ways it’s less disconcerting for them than travelling in a horse box on the road where they can see the world go by and know that they are moving. In an airplane they seem to react as though they are just in a static stall as they can’t see outside and obviously don’t know they are travelling thousands of miles and above the clouds!

can horses go on airplanes, how to ship a horse overseas, quadriga horse transport, shipping horses by air

Images courtesy of FEI/Peden Bloodstock 

“Good planning and the minimization of stress is the key to a safe journey for horses. We always send out a list of requirements to owners, and we would ask them to think about making sure the horse is well looked after ahead of the flight.

“They should bear in mind that the airline will want the horses to be on board two hours before departure and the process can take 90 minutes – with similar amounts of time at the other end.

“So what might be an eight-hour flight from Europe to the USA could well be not far from double that for horses. Ideally their trip to the airport will take this into account.

“They should be well hydrated, of course, and have their own hay and food, such as a mash. They should eat their usual food because that way we know they are keen on it and it is something their digestive system is used to. The food should be easily accessible in their stall.”

How we can minimise risk...

“Colic can be caused by stress, so reducing that is very important. We want quiet and good organization on board when the horses are boarding. Everyone should know where the horse is going and what needs to be done, and there should be no shouting or drama that could spook the horse. Their stall should be nicely organized and not have too much clutter.

“Often they will share the stall with a horse they are already familiar with so that we know they’ll get along.”

How colic presents itself...

“It’s very rare that horses develop problems, but we would suspect colic if the horse begins to look uncomfortable and perhaps starts to thrash around or try to roll. At this point the vet will take a look at them and may sedate them to make them comfortable, reducing their own stress and the risk of others becoming stressed.”

“Horses usually cope extremely well with flight. It never ceases to amaze me how they just accept things. For the horse and the team of people with them the best thing is a boring flight, free of drama!”

Sidebar printed with permission from FEI.

Photo: Overseas Horse Transport