International Travel with Horses

    Gina Tranquillo, VMD

    I had the opportunity to travel with horses on a plane outside of the country as the veterinarian on duty. It was definitely a trip to look forward to! Let me take you on the ride with me.

    All personnel met at the farm at 7 am on a relatively mild morning with intermittent rain showers. The horses were a little out of sorts and beside themselves, as they knew something was different about their morning routine. The USDA went through each horse’s records and performed a physical examination to be sure the identifying markings matched. Approximately one hour later, four 18‐wheeler horse vans arrived. Each horse was to ride to the Cincinnati airport in its own box stall. During this trip there were two-year-olds, many colts, a few fillies and two mares. Each horse was loaded on the van one at a time and you could see the apprehension in their eyes at this new adventure, but they all loaded willingly. 

    Once on the road, a little extra time was left in the schedule as the 4 semi’s departed the farm and headed to the airport. This was quite a site going down the highway since it’s not every day you see this type of caravan.

    At the airport, the security officers checked us in and allowed our vehicles access to the area where we would load the horses. Each horse was loaded one at a time into its designated shipping stall. Water and hay were transported with us to ensure an adequate supply for each horse. Similarly aged horses were put in the transport boxes, and as they were secured, each box was loaded on to the plane. Our cargo plane was a 777 Sky Cargo plane operated by Fly Emirates.  

    The plane floor has a roller ball system which is automated. Therefore, each transport box was able to be moved about the plane to its proper location and then locked in place into the floor. The horses were monitored every step of the way, and the whole loading process took about 1‐1.5 hours. Once the horses were all loaded the plane was quickly closed and we were on our way. The horses seem to do much better when in motion, so having them stand too long is not optimal.

    You always hope for a smooth takeoff and landing! During these times all personnel were up front, out of the cargo area of the plane, in a secure seat with seat belts. As soon as the plane took off and was in the air, the transport team that was in charge of the horses’ well‐being during flight made their way back to the cargo area to check on them one at a time. Due to changes in pressure as the plane climbed to a cruising altitude, supplemental oxygen masks were carried to the cargo area for staff as well. The horses were checked to be sure they remained calm and secure. In some cases, a horse needs to be sedated to help alleviate stress and anxiety during travel. The veterinary team is prepared to do this as well as handle any other emergency or problem with regard to horse health. Being prepared is especially important, and acting quickly, intelligently and without anxiety is also imperative.

    As the horses are in flight they are able to warm each other with their neighbor’s body heat. The transport team offers water to them throughout the trip and hay is constantly available. The horses are housed in a transport box in the same position as a trailer ride, therefore, they are in a standing position for the duration of the flight and their eliminations (manure and urination) are monitored to be sure there are no indications of colic, such as impaction, or stress colitis.  

    Once the plane has landed the airport staff is equipped to efficiently discharge each transport box from the plane. The horses are unloaded from the transport box and directly into the horse vans awaiting them at their destination, never setting foot on the tarmac. At our destination we were met by many grooms from the farm. The unloading process was quick and efficient so the horses could be on their way to their new farm, where they could stretch their legs in their spacious stalls.

    After doing two charters with horses I find it to be a rewarding experience for me. It allows me to have new opportunities and a sense of mystery. You do not ever know exactly what can happen during travel, and no matter how prepared you think you are, there is usually an instance that can test your veterinary skills and creativity.