Importing and Exporting Horses: World Travelers

With the advent of the Internet, cheaper airline travel options, and popularity of foreign breeds, more people are importing and exporting horses between countries. But whether home or abroad, purchasing or selling a horse is seldom simple. However, if you know what you are getting into and are prepared to wade through the red tape, foreign money exchange, and long-distance phone calls, expanding your buying or selling options overseas can pay off.

There are several pluses to buying a horse from overseas. One is locating new bloodlines from rare breeds or purpose-bred sport horses that can be introduced into your breeding line. Another plus is that many countries, such as Germany and France, have government-backed studs where breeding and/or training is closely monitored and quality horses are in abundance. Other countries in Europe--Ireland, for example--are farming countries and horses are commodities, therefore many barns will have several horses that you can try out.

Marketing a horse overseas can be beneficial, as many North American breeds, such as the Quarter Horse and the Appaloosa, are still small in number in other countries, yet their popularity is on the rise. A saturated market in the United States could be wide open in foreign lands. Contacting buyers overseas can be done through classified ad websites, equine publications, and contacting foreign breed and sport associations.

You can make contact with sellers in several ways. Barbara Strawson, a dressage rider who recently returned from a year in Germany working and training with Nicole Uphoff, recommends getting in touch with a top trainer in America and ask if they can point you in the right direction.

"It's best to find someone who has connections overseas," Strawson says. "There are many trainers in the United States like this, and many of them are happy to help."

Understand that if you're given a contact, you'll need to remember the trainer when a deal is made. Get it all out in the open by asking the trainer how they would like their commission to be handled in the event of a sale. Some trainers get the fee from the overseas agent, while some prefer to receive the money directly from you.

Many trainers recommend you go to a famous trainer's facility. If this is the case, expect to pay a lot of money as trainers with world-renown are top dealers. If big money isn't your budget, ask your trainer for the name of an agent who does business with smaller brokers who deal in quantity. Agents also deal with amateur riders who are selling their own horses. This agent will select several barns to visit before you arrive. Once you arrive, he will take you to the barns and speak to the farmer or trainer for you.

You also can contact the breed associations directly. The Oldenburg Verband, for example, holds auctions for young horses, breeding horses, and riding horses many times during the year. These horses have been hand-picked by Oldenburg breed experts and pre-vetted. Other associations might be able to make a recommendation of a breed facility or trainer.

"I have heard of people who try to go it alone, without an agent or contact," says Strawson. "I actually had a student who found a horse through the Internet, made contact with the owner, and ended up purchasing the horse. This can work, although it can also be a disaster as there are disreputable people out there who see Americans as soft touches. If you're going to go this route, make sure you get lots of references from the seller."

Whichever buying arrangement you choose, it is important to have someone representing you in Europe, somebody who speaks the language, and someone who has an understanding of the area, the horses, and the people who have trained them. This can be a friend, trainer, agent, or a referred contact.

There are, however, negatives to shopping in Europe. For instance, you can't always find the history of the horse. At a sales barn, a horse can come in from another country. You might not know who last had that horse, when its last shots were, or how it was trained. This might not be a big issue for some people, but keep this in mind as you ask questions. You also might have to wade through lots of not-so-good horses and be able to evaluate a horse very carefully. Finally, it can be expensive to send your horse home. Expect to pay at least $5,000 for shipping and fees.

Importing Your Horse

Once you've found that special horse and he's passed his vet check, it's time to bring him home. This isn't as difficult as it seems. As the paperwork and organization are too complex for the layman to handle, the animal freight forwarder handles all the work associated with importing and exporting horses.

"You must have an agent on both ends," says Lindley Hasenauer, animal freight forwarder with Jet Pets in Los Angeles, Calif. "Your agent on the horse's end will be responsible for making sure pre-testing gets done, they will contact the vet, get the health papers done, and they will coordinate with the arrival agent as to when the horse will get there. The arrival agent gets the permits, books the quarantine, and helps make vanning arrangements to your home. And as the (quarantine) doors are closed to owners, the arrival agent will be your ears and eyes in quarantine."

You can find an agent in a couple ways. The seller or buyer might be able to recommend someone, particularly if they import/export horses all the time. Your agent on the horse's end will contact an agent on the arrival side and the two will coordinate. You can also find an animal agent at the arrival side and they will find an agent for you on the horse's end.

Horses imported to America must be clear of four diseases--dourine (a potentially fatal venereal disease), glanders (a bacterial infection contagious to humans), equine infections anemia (the normal Coggins test required for state-to-state travel), and piroplasmosis (a tick-borne illness).

"It's not required to test the horse before they leave, but you'll be crazy if you don't," says Hasenauer. "You've got to pre-test. If your horse tests positive in America while under quarantine, he will not be permitted to stay and you'll have to go through the expense of sending him back. This can also jeopardize other horses in the same shipment. They, too, can be delayed in quarantine while the horse in question is re-tested."

Piroplasmosis tends to be the biggest sticking point as many horses in South and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, and the Middle East have piroplasmosis antibodies and can test positive. If a horse has been tested for this prior to leaving his country of origin, you'll have a better defense and can insist the horse be rechecked. Testing has also changed, beginning in November of 2004, and glitches in the system have been reported that can create false negatives.

Your agent on the horse's end will organize the shipment. He'll contact a company to haul your horse to the airport and see him onto the airplane. Your agent will select the city nearest you with quarantine facilities as your horse's destination.

Some of the airlines that import horses include KLM (a Dutch airline and the main carrier of horses) and Cargo Lux (an airline working out of Luxembourg). On a KLM flight, the horses are typically flown in a combi-jet (a plane that carriers people in one half and cargo in the other). KLM provides grooms that are actually crew members trained on the operations of the aircraft. Cargo Lux is a cargo airline only with the pilot, co-pilot, and a few crew members as grooms. Owners or private grooms can be accepted to fly along with their horses.

Strawson chose to fly her horses back to the United States via cargo carrier Kalitta Airlines. "We got to travel in crew jump seats, which were similar to business class seats," says Strawson. "It was really comfortable and there was lots of food and drink for the grooms. We could also move back and forth to check on the horses as we wanted to. The horses were a bit nervous after take off and a little bit sweaty, but they soon adjusted to the flight and ate some hay and drank some water."

A seven-by-seven foot box is partitioned into three sections to hold three horses. Due to the contour of the plane, the tallest horse is placed in the middle compartment, and the shorter horses are in the side compartments. The animal freight forwarder can usually find two other horses to share the jet container with your horse. If you choose to have your horse share the container with one horse or none, realize that you're going to spend more money. Make sure you add this price into your shopping budget.

The industry has done a great job in limiting risks, designing good shipping boxes, and offering more jet stalls. Horses usually travel well. They go through the necessary passport procedures in the air, and the grooms must pass through customs on the airplane before they travel off the plane with the horses. The horses are also processed quickly, and are in the quarantine barn within an hour of their arrival.

The horses, still in their containers, are craned off the jet and onto a flatbed pickup truck and taken to the quarantine facility. The horses are then off-loaded onto a ramp and into the quarantine yard. The USDA vet follows the horses off the jet and to the facility, where he oversees their processing.

The horses arrive with identification tags in their manes, but the vet also puts a sticker onto their rumps with their names for further identification. An insecticide is sprayed onto their bodies and swabbed into their nose and ears. Then they are taken into their stalls, where they are offered a bran mash and some timothy hay. Blood is drawn and sent off to the laboratory.

Quarantine usually lasts about three days, which covers the amount of time it takes to process the horses and ship the blood to he Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, to be tested. Mares and stallions are different than geldings or horses under two years of age because reproductively ready horses are tested for contagious equine metritis (CEM), a highly contagious venereal disease that can cause infertility in stallions and mares.

After their initial quarantine, stallions and mares will be moved to another facility where testing for CEM begins. Mares stay for an additional two weeks and stallions stay for at least a month. If a mare or a stallion is in your future, budget in more money and time for imports. Your European and U.S. animal freight forwarders will help you organize this portion of the trip.

If you're lucky enough to live near a quarantine facility, you can go see your horse arriving. Although you can't touch your horse, you might be able to stand behind a fence and watch. If you can't, rest assured he will be cared for. Your agent will see your horse onto a trailer to be shipped to you.

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More