Flying Horses

For humans, it seems a fairly simple process to take a plane trip, with the most complicated portion involving transportation to the airport or the wait in security lines. But what must transpire to get a horse aboard a jet and fly him thousands of miles to a foreign land? As a team veterinarian for the United States Equestrian Federation's (USEF) endurance squad, I accompanied the horses from New York to Dubai for the 2005 World Championship endurance race. Our team had the good fortune to work with a capable agent, Paul Weygand of Mersant International shipping company, who ensured that our horses arrived in great shape. The details of equine air transport rely on arrangements made by the shipping agent and how flights are contracted. No matter the country to which the horses will travel, the process is similar, with certain caveats important to safe travel and good health for the horses.

This article is not meant to be a promotion for Mersant, simply a personal account of a successful overseas flight that might help others better understand what goes into air transportation of horses.

The Details

"A horse owner wishing to ship a horse overseas should contact a specialist firm like Mersant," says Weygand of the initial steps.

The specialist will need to know where the horse is going and when it needs to arrive. The agent advises the owner of the shipping requirements and services he/she can provide. Some trips might require a pre-export isolation period (which can be 30 days), so an exporter should factor that into the plans. Since economy is achieved by shipping in groups, a horse owner might find it better to wait until a group shipment becomes available, which is not always immediate.

From the United States, export facilities located near major airports include New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Weygand says, "Export may also be conducted through other ports with the acquiescence of the USDA."

Paying attention to details relieves some of the stress on horses during air transport. The details of care begin in the weeks and days preceding a horse's departure from the home farm. Your shipping company will provide you with a detailed outline of all health requirements for the destination country, including necessary inoculations and blood tests to screen for communicable diseases, along with a timetable for these procedures.

Weygand summarizes health requirements for sending a horse from the United States to another country by saying, "Testing requirements do vary. All member countries of the European Union (EU) share the same requirements, so that provides consistency among at least one very large block of countries. EIA (equine infectious anemia) testing is universally required (Coggins test). Many countries similarly require testing of blood titers for vesicular stomatitis, equine viral arteritis, piroplasmosis, leptospirosis, and a few other relatively obscure diseases. Influenza and encephalitis vaccinations are required within certain time specifications." (See sidebar on page 90 for a discussion of necessary health requirements to ready your horse for international travel.)

Pre-Transport Quarantine

The actual journey starts with the horse being shipped by van from the home or quarantine facility to the holding area at the airport, where he is quarantined prior to being loaded in the shipping crate. Weygand explains, "For exports from the U.S., the horse must be brought to a USDA- approved export facility and stabled there for a minimum of five hours. The purpose is to give the USDA veterinarian a place and time to examine each horse for obvious signs of communicable disease or illness, and to determine that the animal presented for export is indeed the one identified by the health certificate."

This is in addition to the initial required veterinary exam and health certificate that accompanies the travel documents to the airport. The quarantine stalls are purposefully designed with high walls to eliminate direct contact or visibility between horses. Separation of contact between buddy horses might cause some anxiety and stress, but the export facility and handlers do a great job of providing care.

Enplaning a Horse

"From the quarantine area, the horse is transported by van to the airport or aircraft, depending on proximity," says Weygand. "Finally, the horse is loaded into the air container (like a packing crate) and onto the aircraft."

Although the flight time from New York City to Dubai took only 16 hours, including a stop in Sweden, the entire journey from leaving the home farm to arriving at the event venue took over 24 hours. So, one must consider feed and hydration status through this lengthy period and also the degree of stress incurred by every individual. In each container, it helps to stall horses next to compatible companions to limit bickering, and so that each horse has another horse to rely on for emotional security. A well-traveled horse is a good role model for the uninitiated.

Because horses flown in airplanes are confined in tight quarters for a lengthy time, any horse undergoing this experience should be well acclimated to a stall environment. Also, they should be able to stand quietly next to other horses without feeling claustrophobic or displaying aggressive behavior.

It is critical when a horse is moved from a shipping van into an air container that he is well halter-broke, will load easily into a trailer-sized stall, and that he is willing back straight into a narrow space.

When asked about training specifics for handling horses when loading them into the vans or shipping crates, Weygand succinctly comments, "That could be answered in a book. But above all, if you can find it, patience."

Professional handlers have ways of dealing with fractious or resistant horses. The rails between horse stalls can be opened to lead a horse in forward, then turn him around. But, each step that requires additional moving and turning in small spaces increases the risk for injury. It is best if each horse tolerates fine-tuned movement in any direction by a handler's guidance.

Shipping Container Logistics

Midge Leitch, VMD, owner of the Londonderry Equine Clinic in Cochranville, Pa., has traversed the world for the past two decades with the United States Equestrian Team (USET) horses. From her experiences, she offers some sage advice: "The shipping containers resemble horse trailers without a hitch or wheels more than anything else, and each can hold three horses in side-by-side single stalls or two horses in 'double stalls.' The containers are enclosed so it can get fairly hot in the containers in the cargo bay. Consequently, leg wraps and sheets are generally a bad idea since leg bandages hold in heat and might get wet with sweat or splattered urine."

Weygand adds, "Wraps on the rear limbs are risky because if they fall down, it can be very difficult to reach that area to remove them. In one-third of stall configurations, there is precious little extra room for a person to move alongside. However, leg protection is still a goal, so well-designed boots can be a good alternative, and I believe bell boots might be the single most useful piece of leg protection."

Your horse's travel halter should be light and comfortable, as it will remain on him for the duration of the trip. You might want to even consider using a padded halter.

The pilot will attempt to keep the cargo bay at a constant temperature when asked. A comfortable temperature is around 63°F, although sometimes this temperature is kept colder at 50-55°F, depending on the cargo, the plane, and the pilot.

Weygand says, "Optimal temperature between 45-55° (F) helps reduce bacteria proliferation and other health risks from developing quickly in the horses' environment and lessens the chance that the horses will become overheated. Three horses in an aluminum box produce a fair bit of heat.

"Shipping fever (pleuropneumonia) is the most common problem experienced by flying horses," he adds.

Trouble Spots

The biggest emotional and physical concern for flying horses centers upon just a few events:

1) The jostling of the containers as they are lifted from the tarmac into the belly of the plane, then slid along the floor of the plane on rollers to be locked into the designated spot, and when unloaded similarly at the arrival end. This container movement and bouncing is probably the scariest part of the journey for the horses, and each handles it differently.

2) The take-offs and landings. In a cargo plane, the take-offs and landings are relatively benign since a cargo jet is so weighted down it must leave the ground and head back to earth at a far gentler incline than what we experience on a passenger jet. A careful pilot will put the plane down and brake so gently that the horses will hardly know they've been up or down in the air. While en route in the sky, there is little muscular effort to balance unless the plane enters turbulent air. The small container provides the horses with sufficient room to stamp and move, but also gives them something to lean on in the event of rapid acceleration or deceleration.

Professional grooms will accompany a shipment of horses, and it is these capable people who assist in loading and unloading the horses, who offer water and food en route, and in general look after the well-being of the horses during the journey.

"We try to maintain a ratio of one groom per container, or group of three horses," Weygand says. "For shipments exceeding four containers, we might allow the ratio to increase as by that point we have at least four competent individuals on board to deal with emergencies."

As for on-board crises, Weygand confidently remarks, "If I were to think of the number of horses that we have shipped that experienced a serious injury or problem, it might be one in 750. And each case has been completely different from the other, some not even related directly to the transport.

"The grooms also handle the paperwork and passport documents on both the departure and receiving end. Our nine horses on this journey to Dubai had two grooms and myself."

Weygand explains about the different types of transport jets: "Grooms have relatively free access to the horses on strictly cargo aircraft, while on the combi-planes (carrying part cargo, part human passengers), they must be given permission and are accompanied by airline personnel to enter the cargo hold."

If personnel are allowed in the cargo hold during take-off and landing, the grooms can offer carrots or peppermints to reassure the horses during these periods. On our cargo jet, we were not permitted down below at these times, yet the horses managed just fine without us. When we descended the stairs immediately once airborne or having landed, we were greeted by the sight of contented horses munching on hay as if they were tucked in at home in a quiet box stall.

What and How to Feed

Common sense suggests that it's a good idea to withhold grain several days prior to shipping. Weygand concurs with this strategy: "Hay and water seem best."

Grain is a highly fermentable feed that can create gas buildup in the bowel, with the potential for gas colic.

Anti-ulcer medications, when appropriate, should be started the day before transit, then given daily while en route.

Excellent quality hay should be provided in a hay bag, and extra hay can accompany your horse with a simple request to the shipper. Weygand comments, "One doesn't want to suddenly change feeds, but for all the horses that have flown, I've not heard about a horse suffering a huge digestive upset after arrival, although I am sure it has happened."

Try to provide the least dusty hay possible to reduce insult to your horse's respiratory tract and immune system.

Hydration is key to safe long-distance travel. When possible, it's a good idea to have your veterinarian stomach tube your horse with water and electrolytes prior to embarking on the journey. Weygand notes that electrolytes can improve water intake during intercontinental transit.

While on board, water is offered by the grooms as often as possible, although there might be limited amounts until the supply is replenished at connecting points en route. Light exercise or hand walking in the days preceding travel keeps muscle tissues loose and blood flowing to minimize the incidence of tying-up syndrome.

Leitch remarks, "Avoiding a strenuous day of training just prior to shipment will help to ensure that your horse is well- rested for his trip."

Once your horse has arrived at his destination, he will undergo some of the same wear and tear you feel with jet lag and changes in diurnal (daily) rhythms.

So, the more you can do in advance to minimize the stress of travel and to maintain his food and water intake, the less likely the journey will have adverse effects on his performance.

The Best Laid Plans

Some situations cannot be planned for since one never knows the kind of cargo that is transported on a flight. Leitch tells an interesting story about one such happenstance. After several uneventful trips, she figured she "had the air travel thing under control."

Then, a surprise: "I was advised that not only was the aircraft carrying our load of sensitive, large, powerful, and very valuable horses, but they were also loading on a few crates of tigers!

"That gave pause for thought," she continues, "Should the tigers be loaded in the front of the plane relative to the horses where perhaps the horses couldn't see the tigers but would surely smell them since air flows from the front of the plane to the back? What would they do if they smelled a large carnivorous cat that could survive easily on horseflesh? Or, was it worth the risk of putting the horses in front where the tigers could smell and hear them? I decided that roaring tigers would be worse than somewhat nervous horses and so opted to have the tigers in the front of the plane."

It was a tricky call, but she got it right, and none of the horses were worse for wear by the end of the trip.

All's Well...

Fortunately for me, the flight carrying our National Team horses to Dubai was transporting crates of human food and supplies for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, all of which were non-lethal to horses. Ours arrived half a world away in good shape, and in better form than had they been hauled over land across the country.


Some of the timing on the following recommendations will vary depending on the state of origin and to which country you are sending your horse, but this list gives you an idea of general requirements and regulations for temporary export to the European Union. For permanent export, there might be additional and more stringent requirements.

Midge Leitch, VMD, owner of the Londonderry Equine Clinic in Conchranville, Pa., suggests, "The shipper should collaborate with the horse owner's veterinarian and then the paperwork should be conducted between the two of them, with the owner advised of any actions on their part that are necessary to expedite the process."

Horse Passport (Fédération Equestre Internationale, FEI) Make sure all the paperwork is in order, all vaccine booster information is entered, signed, and stamped on appropriate pages, and check that you comply with influenza vaccine timing requirements. If there is a need for updated changes on your horse's passport, make sure you have this done prior to travel.

Coggins Test (agar gel immunodiffusion, AGID, method only) should be current and negative within 90 days prior to overseas shipment.

Health Certificate This must be current to travel state-to-state to reach the export airport. Most states require a health exam within 10-30 days prior to entering that state. These regulations vary between states, so check with your veterinarian. The certificate should include the negative Coggins test accession number and date, the horse's rectal temperature, as well as his color and markings. Health papers must be submitted to the USDA Federal Office for endorsement within 10 days of export.

Vaccine Boosters It is best to check with your shipping agent regarding type and administration; however some general rules are helpful:

  • Eastern and Western equine encephalitis vaccines at least 30 days, but no more than six months, prior to export. Caution: Do not give any product with Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) as that is prohibited overseas and a horse vaccinated for VEE is not allowed to enter within six months of vaccination!
  • Vaccination against West Nile virus (WNV) is not required, but if it is administered, the primary and secondary vaccination must have been given at least 21, and no more than 42, days apart and the secondary or any subsequent booster vaccinations must be given at least 30 days before departure. It is best to discuss specific requirements for different countries with your shipping agent. For entry into some countries, a horse that has been in a state with evidence of WNV within the previous six months must be treated with an insect repellent effective against WNV vectors 15 days immediately prior export.
  • Rhinopneumonitis vaccine is not required, but it is suggested.

The following are not required for entry to European Union, but are required for an FEI passport:

  • An influenza booster must be given within 60 days before, and at least 14 days prior to export, provided the horse has been previously immunized with an appropriate primary vaccination program.

All influenza vaccinations must be recorded in the FEI Passport, and twice yearly boosters are now required. If no previous vaccination history exists, then the horse should be vaccinated twice, at a minimum 21-day interval, and no more than 92 days apart, with the secondary vaccination given at least 14 days before export.

Laboratory Tests These are done in consultation with your shipping agent and often include:

  • Negative blood test for vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) within 10 days of export.

Pre-testing Having horses tested prior to departure (whether leaving the United States or coming in) is money well spent. These tests should be performed at the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, for dourine (a potentially fatal veneral disease), glanders (a bacterial infection contagious to humans, by the complement fixation, CF test), and piroplasmosis (by the competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, c-ELISA method). EIA (Coggins by AGID) is also tested prior to departure. These are the diseases for which the horse will be tested on return and pre-testing will demonstrate any positive titers or peculiarities in the horse's blood beforehand.

Intact Stallions They must have a negative blood test or virus isolation for equine viral arteritis (EVA) within 21 days of export.

Brand Inspection Within many Western states, brand inspection is required. Inquire locally as to requirements for a brand inspection card for travel more than 75 miles from home.--Dr. Nancy Loving


Paul Weygand of Mersant International shipping company summarizes the varied times of quarantine depending on which diseases are being guarded against:

"All horses are held in quarantine while being tested for dourine, glanders, piroplasmosis, and EIA (equine infectious anemia). Horses are released upon completion of these tests with negative results, and can be released in less than three days. Horses from counties where Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) and/or screwworms exist must be quarantined for seven full days. Horses that originate from countries where African horse sickness exists will be held for a full 60 days."

In addition, there are specialized rules concerning import or return to the United States:

Health Certificate The horse must be inspected on the premises of origin and found free of evidence of communicable disease and, in so far as can be determined, free of exposure to disease during the 60 days preceding export to the United States.

Vaccines The horse has not been vaccinated with a live, attenuated, or inactivated vaccine during the last 14 days preceding import.

"Clean" Premises The horse, in so far as can be determined, has not been on a premises where African horse sickness, dourine, glanders, surra, epizootic lymphangitis, ulcerative lymphangitis, equine piroplasmosis, VEE, EIA, contagious equine metritis, or vesicular stomatitis has occurred during the 60 days preceding import.

Country of Origin The horse has not been in a country where CEM is known to exist, nor had any contact, breeding or otherwise, with horses from such a country during the 12 months preceding exportation.

Pests The horse has been examined and found to be free of ectoparasites (i.e., ticks).--Dr. Nancy Loving

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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