Transporting a horse internationally is an intricate process.  Here is a horse lifted into the plane in an Air Stable. (Mike Keating/Racing Photos)

Transporting a horse internationally is an intricate process. Horses are lifted into the plane in an Air Stable. (Mike Keating/Racing Photos)

Precious cargo

Flying horses around the globe is a multi-million dollar business that requires careful planning, patience and rapid problem solving. As international contenders such as reigning Lexus Melbourne Cup champion Cross Counter, its stablemate Ispolini and three Aidan O’Brien-trained hopes – Hunting Horn, Il Paradiso and Magic Wand (just to name a few) arrive this weekend for their spring campaigns, we take a look at just what it takes to bring a horse to Australia by plane.

The air transport of horses has been around for decades and its intricacies remain an intriguing aspect of the increasingly global thoroughbred racing industry.

A worldwide leader in transporting horses via plane, International Racehorse Transport (IRT) flies 5000 horses around the world annually and its Australian headquarters at Melbourne Airport is one of its busiest departure points.

Racehorses travel in Boeing 747-400 cargo planes able to transport up to 87 horses per flight in custom-made stalls.

IRT Australia Managing Director Chris Burke says flying horses around the world presents unique challenges because on any given day the company has a horse in the air somewhere and needs to be on call 24/7.

“The biggest challenge is you’ve got everything set and then the airline has a wing flap issue and it [the plane] is parked for two days. What do you do with the horse?” Burke says.

“It’s probably those curveballs that are thrown at you that keep you on your toes and keep you awake at night.”

Transporting horses internationally doesn’t come cheap, with a round-trip costing between $50,000 and $100,000.

Preparation

Racehorses must obey the protocols of the country they are visiting when travelling overseas. Planning begins months in advance with the horse’s trainer to ensure an aircraft is available and all required codes are strictly complied with. There is a wide range of factors to take into account, including vaccinations and dealing with quarantine regulations across different jurisdictions.

Quarantine

Globally, Australia is considered a low risk regarding disease. Local racehorses venturing internationally need to have a blood test and be vaccinated for diseases, such as the highly contagious equine influenza, before stepping on a plane. Horses also require a certificate confirming their stables haven’t recently been hit by a disease outbreak recently. On the other hand, when international raiders travel to Australian shores to compete in the Lexus Melbourne Cup, tighter rules demand horses spend two weeks in quarantine at the Werribee International Horse Centre prior to racing. 

Documents and security checks

The Australian Stud Book issues horses a passport for travelling overseas. The identification document includes a silhouette of the horse and a stamp detailing its destination. The passport also includes evidence that the horse has undergone required vaccinations before departure in order to clear officials on the other side. All equipment the horse is travelling with, such as rugs and saddles, needs to pass Customs and security the day before departure.

Check-in and baggage allowance

Like humans, horses are bound by a baggage allowance and charged by the kilogram. Most horses travel with a small amount of feed for the transition for when they land, several rugs, and potentially riding gear like saddles. Any equipment taken over and brought back must be disinfected to meet Australian quarantine requirements and can sometimes be damaged in the process.

Taking off

Horses travel on a Boeing 747-400 cargo aircraft designed to carry freight rather than human passengers. A cargo plane carries up to 87 horses on a full flight. They stand in stalls on the aircraft, called Air Stables, which they are loaded into on the ground, then raised into the aircraft by a scissor lift, before being locked into position. The process takes up to an hour. Each Air Stable can fit three horses and travel is split into First, Business and Economy Class options. First Class affords a horse a stall to itself, Business Class comprises two horses, and Economy consists of three horses sharing one box. Travel class considerations normally depend on how much the owner is willing to pay, but also if their horse travels better alone or with a companion. Stallions and colts are positioned up the front of the plane with mares behind them, or even broken up by cargo, to avert danger. IRT uses several airlines to transport horses globally, including Singapore Airlines and Qantas.

Loading an Air Stable on the plane can take up to an hour. (Mike Keating/Racing Photos)

What horses wear

There’s no set rule when it comes to what horses wear when travelling on a plane and it usually comes down to what they’re most comfortable with and their routine. Typically, Burke recommends to clients that horses travel in as little as possible, without shoes or leg bandages. “The reason for that is if in a 24-hour journey a shoe becomes loose or you’ve put some new pads on the horse’s legs that it’s not used to, it might kick out the whole way and travel worse than if you had left them on their own.”

Travelling staff

A cargo aircraft usually only contains space for around five people to sit up on the main deck. When transporting horses, IRT employs professional flying grooms to care for them during the flight. Sometimes, a stable representative might also be permitted to travel on the plane, and a vet will occupy a seat. Professional grooms fly horses around the world year-round. Burke reveals many of them have been horse breakers or worked on major farms as stallion handlers in the past and possess expert knowledge in managing horses. During the flight, grooms walk into the Air Stables via a door to check on horses and feed them.

In-flight meals and drinks

Horses are mostly fed hay and drink water throughout flights. Grooms, who walk down the side of the aircraft, might also give them an electrolyte paste by mouth, which replaces lost nutrients and prevents dehydration. Some horses are stomach-drenched on arrival to aid recovery as a horse typically loses between 10 and 20 kilograms during an overseas flight.

Comfort is key

Up in the air, horses stand for hours on end but are generally comfortable and quiet. Air Stables are cool and dark and flying arguably provides an easier trip than the road, which involves constant stopping at traffic lights and turning around corners. There are stopovers for fuel or cargo drop offs/collection depending on the destination.

Touch down

On landing, horses are inspected by government authorities before being transported straight to their designated stables to recoup and prime themselves for racing. For Australian racehorses, there is no quarantine period in countries such as England. As soon as the plane lands, IRT hands over the horse to its stable representative. Burke suggests the highest risk of travel sickness emerges in the first few days following arrival. He advocates stables flying over their rep a day earlier so they are refreshed and ready to monitor the horse the minute it lands.

Coming home

Australian racehorses who venture overseas will have to stay in quarantine before they leave and again when they arrive home for two weeks. Importantly, all travelling staff who handled a horse are considered contaminated and must go through a rigorous decontamination process. IRT has a one-stop shop at its Australian headquarters that decontaminates all clothing, the traveller, who must take a shower upon arrival, and even mobile phones.