Flying Horses: What to Consider

Horses flying overseas travel in air stables, lightweight aluminium boxes designed to carry the animals safely during the flight.

Photo: Dirk Caremans/FEI

By Amy Kelly, BVSc, and Chris Riggs, BVSc, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVS, MRCVS, of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Department of Veterinary Clinical Services

The international transport of horses by air is becoming increasingly common. With the appeal of international racing meets, high-level equestrian competitions, and the import and export of sales and breeding stock growing steadily, elite horses are becoming gold-status frequent flyers.

At airports worldwide, horses are loaded into dedicated air stables in preparation for their flight. Air stables are lightweight aluminium boxes designed to carry up to three horses safely during the flight. Once the horses are contained within the air stables they are transported to and loaded onto the plane via a hydraulic lift. Most horses are very accepting of this process; however, nervous or claustrophobic horses might require mild sedation to ensure they load into the air stable and onto the plane safely.

The horses are monitored closely throughout the flight, with refreshments coming in the form of hay and water offered at regular intervals by the flying grooms. Veterinary emergencies that occur on the ground—such as colic, choke, and lacerations—can also happen in the air. Therefore, the in-flight groom must have the appropriate facilities and equipment to manage these problems should they arise. Sometimes a veterinarian will fly with the horses, providing the option of giving more comprehensive and immediate medical treatment if the need arises.

Perhaps the most important disease to consider when flying horses is shipping fever, which affects approximately 10% of horses traveling by air to a greater or lesser extent.

Shipping fever is a respiratory disease of horses associated with transport over long distances by road, rail, sea, or air. Affected horses typically develop a fever initially, followed by other clinical signs as the condition progresses, including loss of appetite, lethargy, coughing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, and a stiff gait or reluctance to move. Severe cases can result in death.

Detecting and treating shipping fever early is crucial. On long haul flights horses can show signs while in transit. Immediate treatment with appropriate antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs increases their chances of a favorable outcome. Alternatively, signs of shipping fever might first appear in the days following air travel; thus, it is important to take your horse’s temperature regularly after arrival and monitor him for any signs of fever. Analysis of routine blood samples taken over the first few days after a long-haul flight is also helpful to detect early signs of disease.

Researchers have determined that certain risk factors that can contribute to shipping fever development, including the stress of long distance travel, confinement in adverse environmental conditions, an elevated head position, and pre-existing respiratory disease.

Advances in equine air travel aim to minimize these risk factors. Air stables have improved in design to allow better ventilation, which, combined with strict temperature control in-flight, reduces environmental risk factors. Whenever possible, horses are encouraged to eat from the ground, to lower their heads during the flight and help drain fluid from the respiratory tract. A thorough veterinary examination prior to flying also helps ensure the horse is fit for travel and not suffering from any pre-existing conditions. Veterinarians sometimes administer prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics and other drugs to healthy horses in advance of flying, although currently there is no scientific evidence to support this practice.

These days, flying horses around the world is an everyday occurrence. As an owner it is important to be mindful of the associated risks and understand how to best prepare and care for your horse before and after air travel. The grooms and in-flight veterinarian will do their best to ensure your horse arrives safely at its destination.

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