The gold standard for equine transportation has been truck and trailer for some time now, but many trainers elect a different option when moving their stables across the country—or even the world.
Flying isn’t always a viable choice, but when it is, trainers say their horses not only arrive more quickly, but also fresher and in better condition.
Tim Dutta, of the The Dutta Corporation, based out of North Salem, N.Y., is experienced with flying some of the world’s most accomplished equine competitors. Along with Peden Bloodstock, Dutta will be responsible for shipping the more than 800 horses that will compete at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. Dutta has also shipped top show jumpers such as Sapphire and Quick Study, horses that fly more than five times a year.
Dutta believes that flying is a much better option for most horses, simply due to the amount of time and stress saved.
“A flight from Gladstone, N.J., to San Diego, Calif., is about 4½ hours. Compare that to four or five days of truck travel,” said Dutta. “Think about how you feel driving to California versus flying.
“The biggest problem with long-haul shipping is managing stress. The quicker the horse is back in their own environment, the lesser the chances of shipping fever or gas colic,” he continued.
Kate Considine, owner of hunter/jumper show barn Willow Brook Stables, Lakeview Terrace, Calif., agrees that the time saved by flying is worth it.
“It’s a bit more money—$1,000 to $1,500 more—but it’s 12 hours door-to-door to fly them,” said Considine. “One of my horses was ridden and had a lesson on Friday, got on the plane Saturday morning, and was here with me on Saturday afternoon.”
Event rider Jennifer Wooten-Dafoe also frequently flies her top event horse, The Good Witch, from her home in Buellton, Calif., to various events through the country.
“I have flown myself, [The Good Witch] and my groom the past five times I have competed on the East Coast,” Wooten-Dafoe said. “It really came down to optimizing [The Good Witch’s] performance, convenience and funding. Every trip I would budget time and expenses, and the option to fly always made more sense.”
Dutta describes the flying process as fairly straightforward.
Typically, the shipping agent receives the details on the horse and then contacts the horse’s veterinarian to make sure all the paperwork is in order and to confirm that the horse is in compliance with international health requirements, if necessary. Additionally, the shipping agent will prepare the papers that must go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for endorsement and verification. The only required paperwork for a domestic flight is an interstate regulatory health certificate, valid for 30 days.
Once the paper trail is complete, horses travel via ground transportation to their respective airport. For international travel, U.S. law requires that horses remain in pre-export isolation for five hours or more in order to establish the horse’s health status before the flight. In order to minimize stress, Dutta recommends doubling this time.
“We always try to keep them in pre-export for 10 hours. This way the horses are rested, their body temperature can return to normal, and we can get to know the horse and their groom,” Dutta said.
In order to board the plane, horses first load into shipping containers, which look like large portable stalls. These containers can be configured in various arrangements, so that up to four horses may travel in one container. Typically, two horses are shipped in a crate.
Horses that are flying should be comfortable with other horses in close proximity and not act aggressively toward others. Additionally, they should be able to stand quietly in a small space for an extended period of time.
There is much debate over how to care for a horse during the flight.
“Feeding is a personal idea to most people,” said Dutta. “We try to keep them on their schedule. At 36,000 feet, they don’t know the difference.”
Dutta typically will feed following the owner’s instructions, along with feeding a mash. Some commercial shippers, however, choose to only feed hay during flights.
“Hydration is really the most important thing, though. Some horses drink water, some don’t. We try every angle to get them to drink,” Dutta said.
For horses that won’t drink plain water, there are multiple other options, including water mixed with apple juice, placing carrots at the bottom of the bucket, or Gatorade.
Opinions also vary regarding the use of wraps and blankets in flight.
“Some of the top horses fly naked—with nothing on,” said Dutta. “Others fly like they’re going to the moon. I personally like to wrap and use bell boots, so if they step on themselves, they won’t puncture themselves or tear up their shoes.”
Because of the temperature fluctuations that can occur during flight, most shippers agree that it’s best to ship without blankets. Horses can regulate their temperatures quite easily in the cold, but not nearly as well in hotter environments.
Flying may be less stressful for the horse than hauling, but the practice isn’t risk free. Like horses shipped by truck, horses shipped by plane are vulnerable to colic, claustrophobia and shipping fever.
Considine believes these risks are minimal, compared to hauling, however.
“When they get off a truck after a long trip, they’re still dried up and shrunken in, no matter how long you’ve been traveling,” she said. “Flying is so easy. I’ve never had one get sick flying.”
“I’ve seen one gas colic in 25 years,” Dutta added. “Most horses are very comfortable both during and after flight.
Ulcers, related to plane travel, are a particular issue for show horses. Most veterinarians recommend administering anti-ulcer medications the day prior to travel and suggest continuing to give them while en route.
Considine follows this practice; she administers two doses of anti-ulcer medication the day before flying and continues with the medication until the day after the horse arrives.
Wooten-Dafoe counteracts the physical and mental signs of flying-related stress by making sure that The Good Witch, a 14-year-old Irish-bred mare, is taken care of during the time before and after she steps on the plane.
“I really try to make sure that she gets a lot of chances to stretch and move before shipping on a plane,” Wooten-Dafoe said.
“Once we arrive to our destination, she begins walking, hand grazing and even a light spin on the longe line to shake off any stiffness she might has developed during travel. The hardest thing is when they have to stand on a pallet for 15 or more hours, which happens when you travel internationally,” she continued.
Dutta’s post-flight recommendations vary depending on the horse’s fitness level. Like Wooten-Dafoe, he also recommends a light hand walk in order to prevent muscles from cramping.
For the first 72 hours post-flight, Dutta also recommends keeping a close watch on the horse’s vital signs, such as temperature and bowel movements.
Horses traveling internationally are subject to additional stress due to the quarantine process.
While geldings are subject to a three-day long quarantine at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stallions and mares must go through a more intensive quarantine that involves being tested for contagious equine metritis, an equine sexually transmitted disease.
Horses from non-CEM areas, such as South America, are subject to a seven-day USDA quarantine, but mares and stallions from Europe must go to a CEM-quarantine facility for a more extended period.
James Lala, who owns a CEM quarantine facility in Wellington, Fla., believes that stress levels while horses are in quarantine are relatively low; however, horses do show signs of stress from their travels once they arrive.
“Some will come in skinny or running a temperature or with a fungus,” Lala said. “They spend three days in quarantine in Miami [Fla.], so they can be a little nervous or keyed up.”
In order to ease the transition, Lala is particular about what his recent arrivals eat.
“Our feed is different than European feed, so we feed a bland, light feed at first, with a bran mash, and then feed whatever the owner prefers,” he said. Lala also feeds timothy hay to help horses gain weight without the additional protein contained in other hay varietals.
Once at CEM quarantine, stallions stay for 36 days. During that time, stallions will live cover two mares, typically owned by the quarantine facility, so they can be tested for CEM. In the case of a positive test, a stallion must stay in quarantine, be treated for the disease and then be retested at a later date. Mares are quarantined for 14 days.
While in Lala’s quarantine, owners are free to come ride and exercise their horses as much as they like, although this practice isn’t allowed in some states. This helps minimize stress, as horses are able to establish a regular routine.
- Use competent companies.
- Know your horse.
- Give the shipper all the details as to how to take care of your horse effectively.
- Keep transfer time from stable-to-stable as brief as possible.
- Don’t ship your horse if he’s not healthy.