International Horse Movement

Governing officials are exploring ways to reduce hurdles for horses crossing country lines.

Horses on the move require a host of care considerations to keep them safe and healthy. You protect them with shipping boots and head bumper, along with current vaccinations and careful disinfection efforts. But when it comes to moving horses across international borders, the picture becomes a whole lot bigger than simply safeguarding your own horse. Suddenly the responsibility falls on you and your veterinarian to protect an entire nation’s horses, and heeding vaccine, blood test, health certificate, and quarantine requirements becomes very important. While these government requisites are necessary, veterinarians note they can pose significant obstacles for international trade or movement of high-level equestrian sport horses. With the help of major worldwide equine competition and health organizations, however, international equine movement might be on the brink of a major breakthrough. 

Biosecurity & Regulatory Medicine

Biosecurity is all about ensuring traveling horses are free of disease and that their caretakers have taken all necessary measures to prevent disease spread. 

Scott Leibsle, DVM, deputy state veterinarian of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, in Boise, says horses crossing international borders must be accompanied by a detailed passport, international health certificates, and test and vaccination records as required by the importing country. Passport and health certificates are the same no matter where horses travel, but the tests and vaccinations required can vary considerably depending on the destination. 

Quarantine periods upon arrival in the destination country range from seven to 30 days and, in some cases, can be much longer, he says. (For instance, horses coming from countries where African horse sickness [AHS] is endemic [native] must stay in quarantine 60 days following arrival on U.S. soil.) But before the horse can even ship, there are the vaccination requirements to consider. The USDA requires a three-week delay between live or modified-live vaccine administration and date of transport. 

“Theoretically, the vaccine is not going to make the horse contagious, but the government wants to make sure the horses are not going to have a reaction to it or get sicker because of it,” Leibsle says. “Transportation is one of the greatest stresses a horse can endure—especially if it’s a long-distance transport like international travel often is. That’s hard on the immune system, and the horse is more likely to be susceptible to disease at that time.” 

Diseases: Entrance Denied

Each importing country has its own set of established diseases in its equine population. The goal is to not add to that list and to prevent rare diseases from becoming endemic, says Peter Timoney, PhD, FRCVS, professor and former department chair and director of the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. 

The United States, for example, is particularly concerned about AHS—which has never been documented on the mainland—as well as equine infectious anemia (EIA), contagious equine metritis (CEM), dourine, and glanders, Leibsle says. So the test, vaccine, and quarantine requirements are mainly for preventing the introduction of these specific diseases to U.S. horses. 

The diseases for which veterinarians screen can vary significantly even in countries in very close proximity to one another and with very similar climates, Timoney says. For instance, in 2011 the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) and the World Health Organization for Animals (OIE, Office International des Epizooties) hosted a meeting of representatives from more than 20 South and Central American countries to explore the feasibility of facilitating sport horse import and export.

“The difference in import requirements among these countries was considerable,” Timoney says. “Some of them required testing for as many as 19 different infections, whereas others required testing for a much more limited number of diseases.”

Types of testing can also vary, says FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke, MA, Vet MB, MBA, MCIM, MRCVS, TD. Different countries might require different kinds of tests for the same disease, sometimes requiring owners to provide several different negative results for a single infection as they pass from one country to another. 

Transportation is one of the greatest stresses a horse can endure.

Scott Leibsle

Negative Health Impacts 

Despite officials’ intentions to protect with these time-tested quarantine methods, these requirements can cause problems, too. Frequently, officials quarantine horses in either private stables or quarantine centers where the grooms and riders are not allowed access. “This can be unfair as the horse and rider prepare for competition,” says Cooke. “The lack of (horse and rider) training (while at such facilities) is clearly negative for an equine athlete at this level.”

He also notes that if horses’ regular caretakers are not able to monitor the kind and quantity of food given at quarantine centers, abrupt feed changes could occur that can upset horses’ digestive systems. 

Economics 101

Streamlining international horse movement isn’t just a matter of improving equine welfare and reducing logistical headaches; it also involves supporting host countries’ economies. Allowing quality horses into the country and hosting prestigious sporting events just makes good economic sense, Timoney says.

High-level horses competing at FEI events are often hopping from one country to another for various competitions in very short periods of time. Having to check import requirements for each country at each step is frustrating, laborious, and unfair, especially when trying to qualify for particular events, says Cooke. And according to Timoney, it can dissuade competitors from even trying. In some cases, he says, those involved just won’t make the effort to get the horse into a country because it’s too complicated, risky, and/or costly. 

Timoney says that, generally speaking, governments want this to improve. And as Cooke works with the OIE to revise equine movement regulations, he says he’s seeing resounding support. And with reason: International FEI events bring in millions of dollars’ worth of commerce to a host country, and barring the horses’ entry can prevent this. But animal health officials also know that economic benefit would be completely overshadowed by economic loss if they let a major equine disease slip into their country. So overall, governments are open to ideas, Cooke says, but they’re still looking for the reassurance that their home herds—and the other horses competing at their event—will be protected.

High-Tech Horse Tracking

Just as UPS can follow your package as it travels the globe, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) and government officials can follow your horse. Microchips, which have become mandatory for all FEI competing horses, are the first step in high-tech equine tracking, says Graeme Cooke, MA, Vet MB, MBA, MCIM, MRCVS, TD, FEI veterinary director. The Internet now makes it possible to have an online database of horse movement that is accessible worldwide.“With this kind of system we can see that the horse moves to this country to compete; it does compete; it goes home,” Cooke says.

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Competing in Emerging Countries

Many (but not all) of the more complex import requirements are actually in countries with emerging economies, says Cooke. This can be particularly challenging when these nations are hosting major events like the Olympics. Case in point: At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China’s import and export regulations were so stringent that the organizers ultimately moved the equestrian events to Hong Kong. 

The upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, could possibly cause massive headaches for organizers as well. Brazil’s regulatory requirements, including lengthy vaccination lists and long quarantines, have spurred the FEI and the OIE to act quickly in hopes of improving the system. As was noted at the 2011 FEI/OIE meeting, requirements among South American countries are very inconsistent; even transporting from one neighboring country to another can be difficult. “In some cases it’s actually easier to just export the horse to a more distant country and then import it back to the neighboring country, to avoid excessive quarantines,” says Cooke. “And some countries are asking horses to go to great lengths to prove they are free from a disease that the importing country already has.”

High-Health, High-Performance

While it makes sense for importing countries to have specific requirements that vary according to the country of origin, it’s also logical for them to consider the reason for import and the kind of horse.

“The horses involved at this level of competition are not just your everyday horse; they are horses that are very well--supervised and have an extremely high level of health,” says Cooke. “And they are only in the country for a few days and stay among other horses of the same level of health within the competition circuit. They don’t mix in with the local populations.”

The FEI has therefore promoted the concept of the “high-health, high--performance” sport horse that it believes deserves special recognition by import authorities. In essence, says Cooke, these animals should benefit from an expedited import process that recognizes the horse’s purpose and high health status. 

It’s important to note that sport horses aren’t the only ones country-hopping in the 21st century—racehorses are frequent flyers as well. But international racing is not organized under the same kind of governing structure as international equestrian sport, Cooke says. Even so, the International Federation of Horseracing (IFH), which acts on behalf of individual national racing federations, has recently become active in the FEI’s international movement effort. Representatives of IFH participate in the FEI’s working groups and contribute to the high--performance discussion.

Cooke notes that officials are still determining what exactly “high-health, high-performance” means for these horses. Recent discussions at the 2013 FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne raised questions about which horses at which level of FEI events, which disciplines, and which racehorses could qualify for the special status. 

Take-Home Message

Transporting horses internationally requires significant planning, paperwork, and biosecurity controls that can vary significantly from one country to the next. The FEI and the OIE are working toward harmonizing the import/export process and promoting ways to facilitate short-term movement of select sport horses in and out of countries for events. Although there will always be specific import/export regulations to prevent equine disease spread internationally, officials say the horse community can expect to see changes to policies that streamline requirements while protecting horses’ health and welfare.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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