How do horses get to international competitions?
PRESTIGE EQUESTRIAN events and horse racing are an international industry. Events like the CHIO Aachen, Germany, and the Kentucky Derby, America, attract riders and their mounts from all over the world. For the equestrian events at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, 325 horses from 50 countries traveled to Tokyo. How do the horses arrive at these competitions?
Horse owners have always taken advantage of the latest technology. Horses have been transported by sea since Antiquity. In the 19th century, some racehorses were moved into vans, first pulled by other horses, then by carriages. In 1912, horses traveled across Europe by rail and road for the Stockholm Olympics, which were the first to include the kind of equestrian events seen today. Nowadays, horses travel by plane. After being cuddled in air-conditioned stables, called pallets, they are loaded onto specially configured planes. In flight, the grooms provide them with special hay enriched with water to keep them hydrated. (They also pack tons of luggage, including saddles, shoes, and forks.) Pilots who know they have horses on board try to take off and land more gradually to keep their equine passengers stable.
Preparing for the trip can take months. Animals must have vaccines, export licenses and passports specifying their size and identifiable markings. Biosecurity is taken seriously. An outbreak of the equine herpes virus in Europe this year has led the sport’s governing body, the International Federation of Equestrian Sports, to introduce new health measures. Like their owners, horses must now have their temperature checked and a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test (for equine herpes, not covid-19). Only then can they begin their pre-travel quarantine. Most countries require a certain period of isolation before a flight, although the length of time depends on where the animals have traveled from. For the Tokyo Olympics, horses from around the world were sent to Europe for 60 days of health surveillance followed by seven days of strict quarantine. They were then embarked on 19 Emirates cargo flights from Liege, Belgium, to Tokyo, via Dubai. (Liège is home to Peden Bloodstock, the world’s largest horse transport agent company, and has therefore become a hub for equine transport.) Upon arrival at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, the animals were taken by truck to a purpose-built Olympic equestrian village in Baji Koen, which is also a quarantine bubble, for the duration of the competition.
Horses fly better than humans. They can sleep comfortably in an upright position and they rehydrate quickly. They also seem to handle jet lag well. But moving them is a costly business. A return flight for a horse and its kit from America to Europe can cost $ 25,000 in “business class” (two per pallet), which owners prefer, although a cheaper “economy” ticket. (three shares) may be available. Prices have increased during the pandemic. The owners of course have no guarantee that they will recover their costs in prize money and (later) in stud fees. But sometimes they do. Black Caviar, which was primarily ridden by Luke Nolen, an Australian jockey, regularly flew first class (alone in a paddle) from Melbourne to London to race at Ascot. It cost about $ 50,000 per trip. But as she has won over $ 7 million in prizes during her racing career, horse air fares have paid off.