Every week planes loaded with horses fly back and forth between North America, Europe, and beyond. What’s it really like flying with horses? We went behind the scenes with Brook Ledge and Horse America to find out.
Q: What’s it really like flying with horses?
It’s hard enough to pack yourself for an extended overseas trip. But most of us don’t realize that every week in America, horses are flying between the U.S. and Europe, South America, and beyond to new homes and competition venues all around the world. Even if you’re familiar with the process, there’s still plenty of things the average equestrian doesn’t know about the high-flying world of equine air travel.
Here are just a handful, courtesy of Dr. Scarlette Gotwals, a veterinarian and the Operations Manager for Horse America, the air-travel sister-company for Brook Ledge Horse Transportation.
1. Horses travel with their own flight grooms, but they still get plenty of “me” time.
“People think that the grooms want to sit with the horses, but the truth of the matter is, they do best when they’re left totally alone,” explains Dr. Gotwals. “The grooms check them every 1-2 hours, but as long as they’re okay, it’s better that they’re not over-stimulated.”
2. Many horses will sleep during the flight.
Especially on overnight flights, the horses will snooze standing up while they travel. Therefore, Dr. Gotwals notes, it’s best for the grooms to keep things as quiet as they can.
3. Horses are sometimes tied more securely for takeoff and landing.
Once the horses are settled and the plane is at altitude, however, the horses are allowed to drop their heads to eat hay and drink water. “We don’t want them reaching up for hay,” says Dr. Gotwals. “Because when they reach up to eat, they’re getting hay stubble in their airways, which they can’t clear unless they’re allowed to lower their heads.”
(c) Ashley Neuhof
4. Grooms carry oxygen containers with them when they go down to check the horses.
On most large, 747 airplanes, the grooms will have a normal passenger area for sitting and even a kitchenette for preparing food during the flight. When they get up from their normal seats, however, they carry oxygen tanks and masks along with them in case the plane suddenly depressurizes.
5. Eek! But what about the horses?
No, horses don’t wear giant oxygen masks. But in the case of a depressurization situation onboard, pilots carrying horses are trained to drop altitudes quickly in order to restore oxygen to the plane. There’s also lots of extra space in the cargo area, meaning that, as a rule, the horses typically have more oxygen to work with than the passengers above.
6. Horses get their own, special flight plans.
Most horse pallet shipments are situated above the wing-area in the most stable section of the plane in order to reduce the feeling of turbulence—and that’s not all. “Pilots are also required to do slow ascents and slow descents,” explains Dr. Gotwals. “Usually, when the horses are in the plane, though, they’re comfortable. Even turbulence is usually just a gentle swaying motion, as opposed to that bumpy feeling that the horses get when traveling over road [in a trailer].”
(c) Ashley Neuhof
7. They also travel with their own luggage.
Each flying horse comes equipped with his or her own, specially curated flight bag, containing medications, extra blanket layers, and anything else they might need for the trip, and also for quarantine on either end of their journey.
8. Blanketing is serious business.
“The last thing we ever want to happen is that the horses sweat,” says Dr. Gotwals. The shipping area is typically maintained at 45-50 degrees (warmer than the temperature in the cargo hold), and since the horses are held in closed jet-stalls, often next to other horses, most do not require a blanket. Occasionally, a light or fleece layer may be appropriate, but heavier blankets are sent in a horse’s flight bag to use after arrival.
(c) Ashley Neuhof
9. Horses don’t get grain on the flight, even for very long trips.
“Generally we don’t give them grain near the time of the flight because of the increased risk of impaction,” explains Dr. Gotwals, adding that the horses will typically be grained the evening or morning before they fly, and then again when they arrive in quarantine.
10. Horses **may** get jetlagged too.
When it comes to flying horses, “I honestly don’t know if they do or not,” says Dr. Gotwals. “I will tell you, with the horses that are on the plane longer, those horses typically come in the stall, paw around and roll, and then they’ll get up and drink—sometimes as much as a whole bucket of water. Then they go to sleep. Six to eight hours later, the horses are usually pretty sleepy, but then by the next day, they’re typically back with it. I could call that jetlag, or they could just be tired!”
For more horse shipping tips, check out our Ask The Shipper series!