Foreign Travel Tips

Travel can broaden your horizons, but crossing international borders can stress horses and owners. The process becomes complex with travel on land, sea, or air. Required quarantines, longer distances, and tests for import and export increase the risk to individual animals, and arriving horses can impact the health of existing equine populations.

For owners who seek to transport horses out of or into the United States, the operation involves planning and orchestration of three crucial elements: logistical, regulatory, and medical. We''ll explain the basics by focusing on transcontinental shipment by air, as horses travel this method most frequently. Travel to Canada or Mexico might be overland, but the operation must still follow the three elements.


To send a horse from here to there, no one just buys a ticket and pops the animal on a plane. Equine passengers travel as live cargo, and timing of their trips requires advance planning.

"There are lots of critical interactions and time constraints," said David Jensen, DVM, of San Marcos Equine Practice, Los Alamos, Calif. "It''s detail-oriented work."

The horse owner engages the services of an agent, who as the consignee arranges for shipping. The agent interacts with the airline that transports such cargo. Following procedures of both origin and destination countries, the agent handles the arrangements for the required pre-export quarantine, veterinary examinations, and tests. This person might accompany the horse through the entire journey, or confirm that the horse is escorted by experienced attendants during the flight.

Export steps as cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) Veterinary Services (VS), start with the customer contacting a local accredited veterinarian. That practitioner is then to contact the APHIS-VS in the state.

Jensen, who handles veterinary duties with horses headed for Japan, recommended that the practitioner immediately contact an agent. "The agent is the central hub," he said. "There are so many interactions that go on, and all this is time-constrained."

The agent oversees the timing of all pre-export steps. Almost all equine cargo travels on scheduled flights, with horses flying on 747 freighters or DC-8 cargo planes.

Scott Swerdlin, DVM, Palm Beach Equine Clinic, regularly processes large shipments of polo ponies. The horses travel in and out of the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, to places such as the United Kingdom or from such places as Argentina.

Swerdlin recommended a project management approach. "I make a list of the date and the time, such as these 30 horses have to have blood drawn by this night by five o''clock, spun down, and I have the Federal Express that has to go out by X time. We do a suspense list, working backwards from when the flights are going out. I do the list down to the hour."

In the United States, horses fly to and from certain airports. Major coastal ports for equine travelers are Miami, New York (JFK), and Los Angeles. Horses also are exported from Lexington and Dallas.

European traffic is handled by major carriers, such as Lufthansa and KLM. (Federal Express occasionally transports equine cargo.) Horses flying to Europe land primarily in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Paris. From there, they can be transported by van to the final destination.

Horse sales lead to much intercontinental travel, with European and Asian buyers purchasing American-bred horses. Cindy Verschoor is a purchasing agent and exporter of Quarter Horses and Paints. Representing Equine Agents, Jefferson City, Tenn., she noted the appeal of Western riding in Europe. "There''s lots of interest in Western horses in Holland. The Dutch buy and import horses to resell there."

The Equine Agents World Wide Web page ( lists requirements for export candidates: Registered, weanling to seven years old, able to pass a veterinary examination, and with proof of Coggins test and all immunizations.

International shipping of equine cargo is expensive, costing more than first-class service for a human passenger. To keep costs down, Verschoor has found savings by using certain routes and seasons. "For a shipment of a few horses, it''s cheaper to fly through Paris, then haul the horse from there. During March through June, many people are clearing out their stock to make room for new foals, and later the amount of shipments slack off. If you can, wait for the best time and look for airfare wars."

She added that the cost of the VAT (value added tax) increases the cost of European shipments.


National regulations require veterinarians to detail the health status of an equine traveler. Each nation''s veterinary services practice preventive medicine to control the introduction of infectious equine diseases. Their regulations reduce the risk of such diseases spreading from one country to another.

Politics influence the movement of horses, and ministries are responsible for enforcing their national regulations. Representatives screen all animals prior to acceptance for export or import.

Import restrictions can become political footballs. In 1996, prior to the Olympic Games in Atlanta, federal and state officials debated the question of banning competition horses which were seropositive for piroplasmosis. This disease is endemic in most parts of the world, and the USDA aimed to keep native horses unexposed. The ensuing flap over allowing waivers resulted in a U.S. quarantine of foreign competitors during the equestrian events.

Other nations label vesicular stomatitis, occurring the last two years in the United States, as a threat to their populations. They specify certain pre-export isolation periods.

The agent, who represents the horse''s owner, must meet all export/import regulations, both of the country of departure and the country of arrival. This requires the completion of all paperwork, and the assurance that papers reach all officials to prevent unnecessary delays.

The agent must be familiar with current regulations, and keep alert for changes. "You need a good agent who''s got connections," said Barry Meyers of U.S. Equine. "A horse can get somewhere and be turned back after a 12-, 15-, or 20-hour plane trip, because the forms are not right for the destination country."

Representatives screen all animals prior to acceptance for import or export. In this country, the USDA-APHIS is the regulatory agency. APHIS enforces laws as published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Specific regulations in CFR Title 9 govern imports and exports.

APHIS tests each horse entering this country for these diseases: EVA, dourine, glanders, and piroplasmosis. Such tests apply to American horses returning home, as a horse which leaves the United States becomes a foreign horse.

Horses undergo quarantine for post-import and pre-export. This isolation permits veterinarians to establish a horse''s health status, and it prevents the animal from contacting other equines of unknown status.

Import quarantine can be as short as 40 hours. Horses from certain countries, or of a certain health status, might be required to undergo a more extended quarantine. Meyers noted, "Arriving from Africa, you go through a 60-day quarantine. There''s only one facility in the U.S. where you''re allowed to do that, and it''s Newburgh. You lose a lot of horse in 60 days, no matter what type he is."

For pre-export, the quarantine requirement varies according to the destination country. The USDA inspects and certifies quarantine facilities that meet stipulations of security and sanitation. Generally, the horse must reside 10 meters from the next equine. Handlers must wear clothing that can be disinfected, including rubber boots for stepping in a disinfectant wash while entering and leaving the stable.

Horses must reside in strict isolation for a period that meets the destination''s requirements. Japan requires seven days'' quarantine; Australia requires 21 days.

Quarantine rules also vary. Each nation can specify the distance a horse must be maintained from other horses in the facility, and the disinfectants used to maintain sanitary conditions within the facility.

Prior to export, an equine practitioner assumes responsibility for completing the horse''s paperwork. He or she completes the APHIS Form 17-140, and/or the destination''s health certificate.

Jensen explained, "The issuing veterinarian--the terminology used in the form 17-140--is the farm veterinarian supervising the quarantine. The endorsing federal veterinarian is the ultimate person who stamps the form."

The issuing veterinarian examines the horse and fills out the appropriate form(s). Member states of the European Union use a single Health Certificate, which includes identification of the horse, origin and destination, and health information.

The identification might be as simple as matching the horse''s description with registration papers, and noting its tattoo, brand, or other identifying marks. The issuing veterinarian answers a series of questions in a health information checklist to certify the non-occurrence of specific diseases in the area of the horse''s origin. Besides the signature and stamp of the federal veterinarian, the owner or agent also signs a declaration about the animal''s transport.

The issuing veterinarian collects samples of the horse''s blood and sends them to a state or other designated laboratory. (The National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, is the only place that can conduct some tests.) A specific destination might impose rigid regulations on the quarantine, testing, and transport, requiring tests for horses from high-risk areas. The veterinarian might have to conduct a battery of tests for a range of diseases. These might include parasitic diseases such as surra (a disease affecting camels and horses, transmitted by biting flies) and dourine (a venereal disease). Viral diseases include African horse sickness, vesicular stomatitis, equine encephalo-myelitis, equine viral arteritis, and equine infectious anemia. Horses also might need to be tested for the bacterial diseases glanders and contagious equine metritis, or the fungal disease epizootic lymphangitis.

As an example, Meyers explained, "With Japan, you satisfy about seven different tests for import. They are Coggins, two types of piroplasmosis, one microscopic blood smear (paratyphoid), EVA, and two strains of vesicular stomatitis." The attending veterinarian has 30 days to complete these tests and certify the horse''s management prior to export. The horse must reside in quarantine for only seven days.

The APHIS-VS office in the state must approve the export. The issuing veterinarian sends the health certificate and test results for review and endorsement. This paperwork then accompanies the animal during shipment.

A nation''s regulations might stipulate specifics for transport from quarantine to the airport. The vehicle must be disinfected with a certain substance, and after loading the horse, sealed to certify that no intrusions have occurred prior to the animal''s arrival at the airport.

Post-import quarantine can be extended for horses of breeding age. To control contagious equine metritis (CEM), specific regulations govern tests for stallions and mares. These apply to horses over the age of 731 days, to breeds other than the Thoroughbred.

The CFR lists nations where CEM exists, or nations which trade horses with a country in which CEM exists without testing for the disease. When arriving from a nation on the CEM list, both must have a negative CEM culture within the last 30 days, a veterinary health certificate, and a USDA import permit. (The importer completes Form 17-129 to apply for the permit. Like the forms to export a horse, this requires details such as identification, origin, destination, and shipping date.)

A stallion from a CEM country goes through a three-day quarantine, tested for the usual four diseases. He then enters the post-entry state CEM quarantine, which requires test breeding to two mares. Mares are cultured and specimens tested negative for CEM before the stallion is approved to be released from quarantine.

In a similar quarantine, mares also are cultured. Culture specimens are collected from the clitoral fossa and clitoral sinuses. The CFR (Title 9, Part 92, Section 301) details the process.

Some Thoroughbreds of breeding age--over 731 days--can skip the post-entry state CEM quarantine. This situation applies to imports from France, Germany, Ireland, or the U.K., with certified daily records of the horse''s activities at a training or racing stable. The CEM culture is obtained and tested negative prior to export.

As outlined in the CFR, special provisions apply to competition horses imported temporarily. In contrast to permanent immigrants, horses showing in the United States can compete while "in quarantine."

A mare or stallion of breeding age can reside in the United States for up to 90 days to compete in specific events. APHIS representatives monitor the horse on the premises of the event. The horse must be stalled separately from other horses.

Alan Leslie, DVM, discussed the enforcement of regulations that allow foreign horses at American shows. "Get the USDA vet on the grounds and find out what he considers necessary. You can set up a tent with a fence around it, posted with a sign to keep people out. The horse isn''t specifically quarantined, because he goes into the same schooling area as other horses."

U.S. agent Tim Dutta and his German partner Guido Klatte handle "frequent flyers," or seasoned equine travelers who cross the Atlantic to and from important international competitions. As a jumper and dressage rider himself, Dutta addresses the needs of horse owners. "We ship probably 95% of the dressage horses in North America, along with show jumpers. I''m a hands-on horse owner who pays the bills on our show horses, and I''m also a consumer."

Prior to the 1996 Olympics, he transported the U.S. horse Peron from Germany to Gladstone, N.J. Dutta shipped the stallion, along with rider Michelle Gibson and Peron''s groom, gratis, to assist this rider in her bid to qualify for the U.S. Equestrian Team. (He estimated that the round trip would have cost $25,000.)

Because Peron was shipped as a competition horse, not a breeding stallion, he was able to go through quarantine in 40 hours. Dutta explained, "Michelle was able to see him in quarantine, and she was made comfortable with his care. She walked him, she took care of his leg wraps, and she made sure he was in good health." While competing at Gladstone, the stallion was monitored by APHIS in accordance with the provisions for competition horses.

Veterinary Care

Equine practitioners maintain the horse''s well-being before departure, during transit, and after arrival. Veterinarians process a great deal of paperwork associated with the horse''s transport.

This professional has to warrant that the horse is fit to travel. During the quarantine period, he or she inspects the horse. Prior to releasing the horse from quar-antine and loading it for transport, the veterinarian signs forms that certify the extent of the horse''s veterinary care and stable management.

At the airport''s holding area, USDA veterinarians receive the horse. These endorsing federal veterinarians review paperwork and supervise the horse until it is loaded onto the aircraft. Horses have a minimum five-hour rest period prior to loading, which also includes a visual inspection of their health and fitness for travel.

Horses are loaded into containers, or large portable stalls, partitioned for three or four horses standing side by side. Verschoor explained, "The horses have to be held five hours in the airport for quarantine, while the USDA veterinarians inspect them. Our responsibility ends when the horse gets on the plane."

The containers holding the horses are loaded into the plane''s cargo area. A plane like a cargo DC-8 can hold a load of 48 horses. Horses might share the flight with any type of cargo, usually merchandise shipped for sale.

Dutta personally handles the horses he ships. He said, "I know the horses on the circuit on a first-hand basis. I know the characteristics of the horse before I get him at the airport, and I know the owner and trainer."

This company picks up horses with its own vans, and provides its own staff to fly with the horses. Dutta added, "We discuss any special needs, whether the horse needs a tranquilizer or extra space in the van. The horse may need certain leg wraps or bell boots, or we may remove the shoes or adjust the halter."

Dutta remarked on Lufthansa''s dedication to horses'' comfort, noting their "impeccable" service. Lufthansa Cargo monitors cabin temperature and pressure from the cockpit, and this airline offers a worldwide route network.

Escorts should manage veterinary care in transit. Dutta said, "We make sure they''re drinking on the plane. We wet the hay with salt, so they eat the hay and they''re forced to drink water. Once the animal gets off the plane, we have a private veterinarian who inspects the horse."

Verschoor noted that horses "take the stress of flying fairly well. The most trouble they have is with the noise. You can tranquilize a horse if you have to, but you want the horse to acclimate to flying.

"We find that shipping boots are more comfortable than bandages. The horse can kick in the container. Using a head bumper depends on the horse, if he''s jerky with his head. The cargo hulls are huge, with the DC-8 having a 15-foot ceiling."

Upon arrival, horses are examined by national veterinarians, usually at the destination airport''s equine facility. Veterinarians review paperwork and treat the passenger for any conditions arising through travel.

Some horses are affected by jet lag. Dutta said, "Horses are just like human beings. Some people fly to Europe better than others. Some can get off a plane and go to work the same day--some take three days to recover."

Thousands of horses traverse the globe every year. With thoughtful planning and attention to details, importers and exporters can successfully ship animals across international borders.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners