June 13, 2023

It All Flies The Same

Horses often join fruit and TVs to travel internationally

Most horse people will never have cause to board a treasured equine on a plane, let alone actually fly right along with it. But for a certain group of professionals, the ins and outs of getting thousands of pounds of horseflesh on and off a flying contraption are routine.

I thought it would be interesting to walk through the process of shipping a horse internationally via air. Procedures vary, depending on the requirements of the receiving country.

First, horses need to have a health certificate similar to the ones most horse owners who ship interstate are familiar with. Vaccinations and testing for international health certificates are contingent upon what the destination country requires, so horses may sometimes have innoculations before and after a flight.

International import and export points in the Eastern United States are John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Miami International Airport. I did a recent export for three horses traveling from Athens, Ga. through Miami to Grand Cayman Island. Here’s what happened.

The Journey

We finished health paperwork, and the horses boarded a trailer leaving Athens after spending 30 days in quarantine at a facility I inspect regularly as an accredited veterinarian with the USDA.
Once my three travelers reached Miami International, they were loaded into aluminum stalls and transported across the tarmac by a van. The stalls were then loaded into the plane with a rolling scissor lift.
The stalls for these three animals fit in a six-by-six-foot expanse. Smaller spaces make for less of a chance for injury. Most horses have no issues walking into the stalls, but some require a light sedative, just like some human fliers do. Trust me, this is a really low-stress way for these horses to travel.

Most of these planes are large cargo haulers carrying anything from fruit to televisions — it all flies the same! The three horses in this story boarded a Boeing 757 in Miami. Their handlers sat in the cockpit for takeoff and landing, but were allowed to spend most of the flight in the back with their equine charges. This was only a one-hour flight, so the horses didn’t need feed or water in the air. Once the plane landed, the escorting team got the horses’ paperwork cleared, and the horses exited the lift and got on a trailer on Grand Cayman.

They traveled to another quarantine facility where they spent three weeks. This was a considerably longer period than the few days they would have spent in quarantine upon arriving in the U.S. from somewhere like the European Union. There’s a good reason for this difference. The Caymans are what we call an immuninaive environment. In other words, they don’t harbor diseases like rabies and Eastern Equine Encephalitis that we see here in the U.S


Just a quick note about quarantine facilities — there’s a team of professionals on staff at each one in the U.S. who adhere to stringent regulations to keep diseases from entering or exiting the country. Horses in these locations get daily vet inspections. Fly, bird and rodent control is a big deal — in fact, a lot of these stables have screens surrounding them to keep out living things that might bring in pathogens. They’re responsible for spotting diseases that have already taken hold in their equine charges, and they have to look for potential carriers like ticks.

Staff often enters the stabling area with full protective equipment, including gloves and booties. Their whole goal is to create an environment where disease can’t get in or out. Things are done not just to protect the horses that are coming in but also the other horses already in country. These quarantine teams are essentially responsible for the entire population of horses in the U.S.

Low Risk Factors

Now, the trip I described above was a smooth one, but I’ve flown enough now with horses that even when there’s a bobble, I can usually smooth things over. For instance, I was helping transport a horse to the the Caymans when he injured his eyelid en route to the airport. The team was on a timeline, and we decided I would suture the small laceration on the plane. So there I was, several miles above Cuba, putting in six sutures. The horse continued its journey with no further setbacks.

When you think about the number of horses that travel in and out of the U.S., it seems pretty incredible that we can pull off events like the World Equestrian Games, which recently took place in Tryon, North Carolina. We didn’t have any new diseases to contend with here after the visiting WEG horses left, and there were no major injuries.

When you consider all the moving pieces in the flying process, it’s amazing how low we’ve whittled the risk factors. So, now that you have some insight into how horses fly, next time you see an FEI event on TV with its gleaming dressage horses or high-flying jumpers, you’ll know a little more about how those athletes got from their home countries into the sandbox or the timed arena.

Article by: Liz Crumbly