Air Horse One: An American Thoroughbred In England

Sep 28, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Three months ago, I wrote about my next big adventure with my young gelding, Sig. I took a military assignment in the United Kingdom and decided to bring him with me on this next chapter. In the immediate aftermath of that blog came a whirlwind of to-do items: packing up and moving my household across the Atlantic Ocean, making arrangements for Sig’s travel, taking on a new job, and all that other adulting stuff.

I am happy to say we both made it safely and are settling in well. I arrived in early June, and Sig went into his 30-day mandatory quarantine at a local farm in the Lexington, Kentucky, area. While he enjoyed his vacation in a beautiful Bluegrass field, I took care of all those pesky grown-up things like finding a house to rent, buying a car, attending multiple military training courses for work, and finalizing a livery yard (boarding farm) for him to live.

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Blogger Lindsey Colburn and her 7-year-old Thoroughbred “Sig” heading out for their first ride upon being reunited in England. Photos Courtesy of Lindsey Colburn

Planning Sig’s Move

I know horses travel around the world all the time, but I have never imported (or exported) one before myself. As a result, everything felt overwhelming— from where I should start, to how I would finance it, to timelines— and I knew I needed professional help.

After speaking with some friends and professionals in the industry, I hired Horse America (the international transport branch of Brook Ledge) to coordinate Sig’s journey. They handled all the quarantine arrangements, veterinary paperwork, testing and other requirements, as well as transport to the airport and the flight itself. I am forever grateful for their hard work and personal attention they provided to Sig while I was already out of country. I am also so grateful for my wonderful friend, Ashley Watts of Liftoff Equestrian in Versailles, Kentucky, who provided me photos and updates while Sig was away in quarantine.

Ready for Takeoff

One hard lesson I learned is that flying horses is not at all like booking a ticket on a commercial airline. There is no guaranteed timeline, and I was at the mercy of the carrier and other people wanting to fly horses to vaguely the same part of the world. It was even more complicated as an individual customer with a single horse, because I was at the mercy of waiting for an air stall to fill before we could lock in a date. Most air stalls fly with three horses per air stall to make things more affordable for the owners, but for a higher fee can go with two horses (horsey business class). Sig was supposed to fly mid-July but was delayed over a week the first time. Then when it came time for the next one out, we had another potential delay because the third horse dropped off the flight. At that point it was my decision to wait another week or two (or three?) before another three-horse pallet could be locked in or fly him in a half-stall instead for an additional fee.

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Sig and his traveling companion waiting on a trailer to board their air stall at New York’s JFK Airport. This is the moment when you start to worry about whether the wrong bay horse might show up on your doorstep.

I was not interested in waiting again or risking another last-minute delay, so I elected to fly him “business class.” He was loaded on a truck and made the first leg of the journey from Kentucky to New York to lay over one day and then load on the flight to Belgium. Or, as it turned out, wait another three days because the inbound flight from Europe was canceled (broken jet, something I know well enough from being in the Air Force). I received the mildly upsetting news that the entire timeline was being pushed back while the carrier examined how to get the backed-up cargo out. I knew Sig was safe and traveling well thus far, but the unknowns were still making me nervous.

Sig was supposed to fly on a Thursday morning; he actually took off on Saturday night. I was thrilled to see photos of him on the trailer to the airport and enjoying some pre-flight snacks in his stall at “The ARK,” the animal terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. This was really happening! Unfortunately, it was happening in the middle of the night in the U.K., so I was not going to be sleeping.

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British hacking uniform. There are lots of roads to ride on around here.

My Horse America rep passed me his flight info, and I spent the next seven hours constantly refreshing the flight radar online. I had to convince myself it was going well, and the flight was still in the air. It was quite surreal to think of my little Siggy on an airplane. Knowing him though, he was enjoying the catered meals and first-class experience. Food? His favorite. Even at 35,000 feet.

The flight went smoothly and landed at Liège in Belgium early Sunday morning, July 25. After I got some sleep, I called the U.K.-based transport company, John Parker International, to coordinate Sig’s travel from Belgium to England. However, since the inbound flight was so badly delayed, Sig missed the shared lorry out of Belgium to the U.K. As a result, I had to make another potentially expensive decision to either have a dedicated lorry pick Sig up and deliver or wait another four to five days for a larger truck to fill with UK-bound horses. Knowing he was in a stall at the Liège airport, I decided to spring for the dedicated transport. This put me well out of my original travel budget. However, it felt like the right thing to do, and when he arrived the following morning, I was glad I did it.

A New Home in England

Sig arrived so quickly that he was well ahead of schedule, and I missed his arrival to his new home at Anvil Park Stud. Sadly, there are no “Welcome to England!” lorry off-loading photos or videos. Clearly, I am just as amateurish as a blogger as I am a rider.

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Sig has high standards, having lived in the famed Kentucky bluegrass, but he seems to approve of this lush British grass as well.

Sig handled his trip brilliantly and arrived looking very well, albeit slightly confused. He seemed happy to see me, and I know I was thrilled to see him after so nearly two months apart. He settled into his stall quickly and, after some downtime, I took him for a hand walk around the yard. Sig got his first real look at his new British home and first taste of English grass. He was so quiet and professional that the yard staff was complimenting him, and I felt so proud of how he handled the journey.

Sig started getting turned out the next day and gradually over the next week or two eventually worked up to the usual 24/7 turnout schedule that the yard likes to keep here in the summer months. He adjusted easily to the new feed and the new environment, thanks to the supportive and relaxed atmosphere at Anvil Park.

I visited every day to groom and hand walk him more around the property, and catch up on lost time. He settled so quickly that after only three days I decided to hop on him. As soon as he saw me approaching with tack in hand, he whinnied. Cue “heart melting” reaction GIF because that’s exactly how I felt in that moment. Off we went, and this 7-year-old Thoroughbred fresh off the plane was walking around on the buckle the entire time, like he had lived there for years.

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Living in the U.K. means learning to hack on narrow roads—sometimes past, if not to, a local pub.

That ride, and every ride since, has been completely foot-perfect. After Sig got his feet done by the handy in-house farrier, we were able to start some fitness work and bringing him back after his near two-month vacation. He hadn’t lost anything in terms of his education or work ethic; he was feeling great and all those buttons that we had worked hard to install were still there. One of the most gratifying parts of bringing him over was knowing that we could pick right up where we left off. I was smiling ear to ear on that first ride and haven’t stopped.

For the past several weeks, we’ve experienced a lot of firsts here in England. Sig has learned to hack on the local country roads quietly and deals with traffic like an old pro. We have observed the jumping and dressage shows held onsite. We’ve had our first dressage lesson with a U.K. Grand Prix rider, and I learned so much about what I have to do to balance and prepare Sig for jumping bigger in the future. We also just had our first jumping clinic with another U.K.-based grand prix jumper rider. We’ve had some very fun grid schools, and a lovely afternoon with the ladies and lots of cavaletti at the yard’s monthly “Poles and Pimms.”

The poles were great fun, but the Pimms was even better. I highly recommend.

Most importantly, people all around the yard have fallen in love with Sig, his quiet nature, excellent manners, athleticism and versatility. He has made me an unbelievably proud horse mom in so many ways. He has been quite the ambassador for American horses abroad, especially the American Thoroughbred.

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Hanging out and watching one of the regular jumper shows held at Anvil Park Stud.

I have been so completely in awe of Sig throughout this journey thus far. I was already so grateful for him for just handling the trip like a pro, but every day since his arrival he’s shown me just how generous he is and how big a heart he has. He jumped around all the impressive show jumps in the outdoor (full show set as they hold competitions almost weekly) and did not bat an eye. When we had our recent jumping clinic, I stated my goal was for Sig to become a solid 1.0-meter jumper one day. That is my “reasonable” dream given my career and lack of focus on competition.

But Sig was so great in that clinic that the jumps got up to 1.10-1.15 meters, which I haven’t jumped in years, and he tackled it with total confidence. The clinician was very pleased and said with some work (mainly me not riding like a monkey), he could be a 1.15-meter horse. Maybe we reach that one day, maybe we don’t, but it was so incredibly gratifying to hear that and to accomplish what we did just in that first clinic.

Sig is making my dreams come true. I often wonder what I did to deserve this special boy, and I never want to take a moment with him for granted.

Despite the cost, I am so thankful I brought Sig with me. He has been my rock, as recent world events have kept us extremely busy at work. This horse traveled 4,000 miles across an ocean, been on planes, trucks and ferries, and has gotten more “life experience” in the past couple of months than in his entire lifetime. And through all the changes, he has remained my same sweet baby Sig. I cannot express my excitement for our future here, and I look forward to chronicling our adventures across the pond.

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Sig meets a neighbor.

Stay tuned for more dressage and jumping clinic reports, hacking adventures, a fun American-to-British horse dictionary, and “An American Amateur Makes a Fool of Herself Abroad” blog entries. This is going to be one incredible ride.


Lindsey Colburn is an active duty Air Force officer who grew up riding in the hunter and equitation divisions in the New England during her junior years. After college, she rode and trained foxhunters professionally in Middleburg, Virginia, prior to joining the military. She currently is stationed in the United Kingdom having moved overseas from Lexington, Kentucky,  in July 2021 with her young jumper, Sibelius MB (“Sig”).

 

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