What it Takes To Ship Competition Horses Overseas

Horses travel all over the world to compete, but their connections must follow strict government protocol to ensure they don't spread diseases.

Photo: Jon Stroud/FEI

Packing up and heading to a horse show often feels like a bigger production than all the riding, training, grooming, and tack cleaning require to get there in the first place.

Did we pack the grooming tote? Where are my lucky socks? We did load the horse, right?

Now imagine packing up and heading to a horse show taking place an ocean away. That’s exactly what many of the international riders entered at the 2017 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, taking place April 26-30 at Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park are doing. And not only do these riders have to remember all their and their horses’ gear on the first trip, they also have to navigate a host of government regulations for importing a horse to the United States.

What’s involved in that complex process? We went straight to the source to find out. Allen E. Page, DVM, PhD, veterinary medical officer for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) National Import Export Service, who’s based in Frankfort, Kentucky, explained the steps to and rules and regulations surrounding equine import for competition.

The majority of horses that fly to North America for competitions hail from Europe, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, South America, Page said. As such, and while specific exceptions and different rules apply to horses coming from other countries, he focused on the regulations for importing horses from Europe, Japan, and South America.

Pro Tip: Don’t Go It Alone

First and foremost, hiring a horse broker to oversee a horse’s trip is a common practice.

“While it’s possible, in theory, not to use a broker, it’s extremely difficult,” Page said. “They arrange all the logistics of shipping a horse—securing the health certificates from the exporting country; arranging any pretesting they want to do; arranging the flight; arranging the ground transportation from the farm to the flight; arranging people to load the horse onto the flight; dealing with Customs and Border Protection, and the USDA when the horse arrives.

“They handle all the logistics that people don’t know goes into shipping a horse,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s an individual decision whether to use a broker; however, brokers are well-versed in making a complicated endeavor a smoother, easier venture for all involved.

Healthy Horses Only

The United States already has plenty of diseases horse owners here have to worry about. Needless to say, the USDA takes every precaution to prevent a foreign horse from bringing another ailment into the country with them.

Page said the USDA doesn’t require horses to undergo a pre-export isolation period before traveling to the United States. Rather, they handle the quarantine once horses arrive in the United States, but before they’re released into the country. During that quarantine, each horse must test negative for:

European horses imported for racing walk the shedrow at a USDA import and quarantine facility to maintain fitness before the competition.

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Allen Page

  • Equine infectious anemia;
  • Both of piroplasmosis’ causative agents—Theileria equi and Babesia caballi;
  • Glanders; and
  • Dourine.

Should a horse test positive for any of those diseases, authorities will hold all the other horses shipped alongside the positive animal in quarantine until the horse in question tests negative on a retest. If the horse in question continues to test positive and depending on the disease at hand, the entire shipment of horses will be returned to their country of origin or steps mandated by the government of the country of origin will be taken to eliminate the disease risk.

“That’s the worst-case scenario for everyone,” Page said. “Thankfully, it’s rare this occurs.”

To prevent such a situation from occurring, most brokers conduct pretesting, Page said. Blood samples from horses scheduled to travel are collected and sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL), in Ames Iowa, to ensure horses test negative for the diseases in question.

The notable exception between horses being imported temporarily for competition and on a permanent basis is testing for contagious equine metritis (CEM). Intact (not castrated or ovariectomized) horses imported specifically for competitions, such as the Rolex Kentucky Event, aren’t required to undergo CEM testing or quarantine, because they’re issued a waiver from that requirement. Horses being imported permanently must be tested—this includes a test breeding for stallions—and quarantined for an additional span of time before they’re permitted to enter the general equine population. Page said that if a horse imported for a competition ends up staying in the United States permanently (if he or she’s sold during the trip, for example), the horse must return to an approved facility for CEM testing and quarantine.

Meanwhile, the USDA does not require that horses receive specific vaccines prior to temporary import. It does, however, prohibit any vaccination within 14 days of shipment to the U.S., Page said.

Coming to America

Once the horse’s health certificate is secured and pretesting—if it’s being carried out—is complete, the horse is loaded on the plane and the journey begins.

“In the U.S., we have four main equine import centers: New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles,” Page said. “The Rolex horses usually come in through Chicago or New York and van to Kentucky.”

Page said horses typically travel with hay, sometimes grain, and water to help keep them happy and healthy during the flight. But they must leave those rations behind when they leave the plane, he said.

“Leftover hay is usually destroyed, along with the bedding they come with and any opened grain,” he said. This is because it hasn’t been inspected by APHIS’s Plant Protection Quarantine Service and could be contaminated.

Hay generally isn’t shipped over; however unopened bags of grain with manufacturer tags are brought over regularly. After the Plant Protection Quarantine Service inspects them, they can be shipped to the horse’s destination.

Once the horses are off the plane, “they either have to be observed by APHIS personnel at all times or they have to travel under APHIS serial-numbered tamper-proof seals,” Page said. “So, when the Breeders’ Cup came to Keeneland Race Course, in Lexington, we had a group at the airport in Louisville receiving horses, and a group at Keeneland. The group in Louisville would seal them (in the trailer) with the forms they travel with, and when they got to us, we made sure the seals were intact.”

Once they reach the import center (either one of the permanent centers or a temporary set-up just for that completion), the horses must go through an examination and disinfection protocol carried out by an accredited veterinarian and observed by a USDA veterinarian.

Injuries Happen

Equine injuries are always a risk during sporting events, but just because one occurs to a foreign horse doesn’t mean USDA regulations can go out the window.

Allen E. Page, DVM, PhD, veterinary medical officer for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) National Import Export Service, who’s based in Frankfort, Kentucky, said it’s a team effort when an international horse sustains an injury. He recalled how multiple groups came together when a foreign horse was injured at an American event.

“We were able to work with the clinic to maintain the requirements of the health certificate” keeping the horse separate from North American animals, Page said. “We also worked with the broker, because (the process) had to be approved on an emergency basis and overseen by the USDA.

“I went to the equine hospital and made sure they disinfected everything where that horse was going to be,” he said. “That horse actually required surgery, so they heavily disinfected the anesthesia stall, the recovery stall, the surgical suite, the barn (which was separate from all other horses). That horse was held separately and had separate caretakers from the hospital patients.”

As a result, the horse maintained the separation requirements and was deemed sound and healthy enough to travel back to the country of origin with the rest of the team horses.

“The system worked,” Page said. “Everyone got involved to put the welfare of the horse first … and maintained its ability to go back home.”

Erica Larson

“Their feet are picked and they either walk through or have their feet sprayed with a disinfectant,” Page said. “All horses are sprayed with a pesticide—which includes wiping it in their ears and nostrils and getting it up in their inguinal areas. If they come from a foot-and-mouth disease country (which, competition and racing horses usually don’t) they would be wiped down in vinegar.

“The veterinarian will do an exam on them, run their hands over them to check them for ticks (which can potentially carry diseases), take the horse’s temperature, and then collect our blood samples for testing,” he said. “Those are then sent off to NVSL where it takes them 24 hours to run the samples.”

The horse must remain in quarantine for a minimum of 42 hours, and tests on all the horses in the shipment must come back negative before any horse is released. If a horse must clear quarantine in the minimum time allowed (to return to training, for instance), Page said brokers can arrange to have blood samples hand-delivered to the NVSL and tested immediately; brokers must arrange to pay the courier and for the NVSL employees’ overtime in these scenarios, he said.

Additionally, a horse must have three normal temperature readings in 24 hours before they’re released from quarantine.

“Any horse that has to be treated with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory has to wait at least 24 hours before their official temperatures can start,” Page said. “So, anyone that comes over with a fever or colic that needs Banamine, for example, will likely see their release delayed. We want a good wash-out period to make sure we get an accurate temperature and that they’re not sick.”

Once the horse’s blood tests come back negative, his temperature is consistently normal, and a USDA veterinarian deems him healthy, he’s released into the population … with some caveats.

“The CEM-waiver horses must be monitored either by the USDA or a USDA-accredited veterinarian whenever they’re out of their stalls (at the competition venue),” he said. “When they’re in their stalls, they have to be monitored by 24-hour security or they have to be sealed into the stalls with those tamper-evident seals. If they go from (the Kentucky Horse Park), say, to another competition, they travel under seal as a restricted horse.

Further, any foreign horses that will return to their home country right after the competition aren’t allowed contact with North American horses. They must be housed in a separate barn and must stay at least 30 feet away from North American horses, except during warmup and competition, Page said.

“We encourage the international riders to stay clear—it’s only be jeopardizing their ability to return—but they’re all old hats at this and know the drill,” Page said. “It’s all about risk mitigation.”

Heading Home

Once the competition has wrapped up, it’s time for the international horses to head home. Fortunately, things go a bit quicker on this end, Page said.

As long as the horse hasn’t had contact with any North American horses, he said, he can return to his home country and stable in one fell swoop, save for changing modes of transportation at the airport.

The Bottom Line

Competing internationally is more complicated than staying home, but the process can be little more than a routine event with some planning and help from experienced brokers. And an added bonus? Page said most horses handle the trips with little trouble.

“People are always worried about the stress these horses undergo, but they always seem to handle it really well,” he said. “Horses that are transported internationally for competition, this isn’t their first rodeo. They tend to handle it surprisingly well. The complications we come across are incredibly rare.”

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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