How horses travel by air across the world

01 February 2014, at 12:00am

John Periam has been finding out what’s involved in getting horses to competition venues in different parts of the world, speaking to one of the major firms involved and an accompanying vet

MOST of us take flying for granted: we arrive at the airport, proceed through check-in, leave our baggage, then clear immigration and security, and wait to be called to our departure bay ready for our flight.

We rely on the skills of the pilot and his first officer to get us to our destination whilst being looked after by the cabin crew. It can be a long-haul flight or a short-haul flight but our safety is of the utmost importance to the airline concerned and the air traffic controllers who take us through the controlled air space getting us there on time. 

Have you ever thought what it would be like if you were a horse making your way to a top international event the other side of the world? The idea of this feature is to give you some background to what happens.

The man who knows it all and provides one of the most respected air transport organisations is Henry Bullen of Peden Bloodstock, based in Hampshire. His company was responsible for the transport into the UK for most the Olympic Horses in 2012. In 2010 he transported over 450 horses to Lexington in Kentucky for The World Equestrian Games. He is a man with a wealth of experience and knowledge in his subject.

I spoke to Tina Cook, one of the UK’s top Event Riders and Olympic Medallist, who is used to transporting her horses around the globe. “Henry is a true professional and I have the utmost faith in him knowing that all will be done to secure a safe veterinary-free flight. From the minute my horses leave our stables at Findon in Sussex to the time they get to their destination I have no concerns at all.

“Henry is very approachable, knowing about all aspects of horsemanship, having been a rider himself. He has his veterinary contacts on hand and provides his own grooms to travel with the horses. The airlines he uses are experienced in what they do even to the extent of the pilots avoiding turbulence on route so the horses get a stress-free environment.” This is a glowing comment from Tina and every other rider I have spoken to says the same.

How did it all start, I asked Henry? “I have been involved for about 22 years, joining my father who founded the company. After several years of building cross-country courses linked to some landscape gardening, he asked me to join him. It has been a case of the family training me within the business so I worked in Germany for a year and a half before returning to the UK to run the office here. 

“My father was an Olympic Event rider representing the country in 1960 and 1964 and he got involved in horse transport during that time, being one of its pioneers. In those days it was different as there were a lot of smaller airfields and the regulations as such were totally different from what they are today.”

Today, Peden Bloodstock is transporting horses every day of the week to all corners of the globe to meet their clients’ requirements. It could be to Dubai or to South Africa and distance is no object to them. A short trip within the UK is as important as a long-haul flight to the USA.

“Eventing is the mainstay of our business as the logistics often involve a larger number of horses – that is not to say we don’t transport show jumpers and dressage horses. Racehorses need to be transported also and we work with many of the top stables.”

Pedens has its own team of professional flying grooms who are employed by the company full-time to fly with horses. They are very highly skilled and can monitor the requirements of each horse on flight.

Henry said, “The horses are looked after very well indeed – we like to think that they are treated like a first class passenger in Club Class on British Airways. The take-offs and landings can cause a lot of stress linked to the noise of the aircraft. Travelling on cargo aircraft, the crew make sure the take- offs and landings are less steep, and do their utmost to limit brake pressure on landing.

“The pilots also try to monitor bad weather and fly around any storms; they of course want to limit flying time but unlike a passenger aircraft we have more flexibility as we are not working to a specific slot time.”

Veterinary support plays an important role on some flights as some horse owners request they travel with their horses. Recently, Suzanne Duncan from the Arundel Equine Hospital took a 15-hour flight to South Africa with some horses which included a mixture of warmbloods, Arabs, racehorses and yearlings.

Each horse was accompanied by its own set of export health papers. These had been completed by LVIs and included a pre-export health check to ensure that all the horses were fit for transport, and free from infectious disease and that the appropriate blood tests/swabs had been carried out.

“It took about 2-3 hours to load all the horses and thanks to the expertise of the flying grooms it all went smoothly,” said Suzanne. “Take-off was the most exciting part as we listened to engine noise mixed with the clatter of hooves. This lasted for a few minutes before they returned to eating their hay.

“Our duties comprised mainly of sedating those that started to get a bit fresh. There is sometimes a possibility of horses jumping out or turning themselves over in their stalls. Thanks to the expertise of the grooms this was monitored well.”

Plenty to worry about...

Other things to worry about are overheating, dehydration and the length of time the horse’s head is up. Horses need to be able to lower their head and neck to drain mucus from their lungs. This could result, if not done, in shipping sickness resulting in pleuropneumonia. Water is offered frequently and they fly without rugs and bandages, wearing legwraps and tail guards instead.

Flight time for this trip was 15 hours: four hours to Libya, a two-hour stop-over, then nine hours to Cape Town. On arrival they were transferred to the waiting horseboxes alongside their corresponding paperwork before making their way to quarantine.

Most UK airports will fly horses but there are preferred ones such as Stansted, Prestwick, including Amsterdam or Luxemburg in Europe where they cater more for freight aircraft. They are limited in which airline they can use and prefer to work with these. Flying fare-paying passengers and horses on the same flight is very rare, hence the use of freight airlines.

I asked Henry about any amusing experience that came to mind. “We had an occasion that a horse went on a European flight and on touchdown the groom opened the doors and asked the captain if he had landed at the right airport. After a slight pause the captain realised that he had not checked his documentation to find that it had been changed at the last minute.”

Back in Hampshire Henry has a staff of eight and a young family to support. “It is an interesting job and one that has many challenges but on the whole we are delighted to be doing what we do. Keeping our name to the fore as a trustworthy and established company has paid off over many years and with more competition we have retained our name for providing a service that is not equalled.

“I have two young children and it would be nice to see them follow on but perhaps they will want a proper job”, he added. n My thanks go to Henry Bullen of Peden Bloodstock, Suzanne Duncan, Air Team Images and Peter Nixon for use of their images.