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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

A peek inside the secret world of flying horses

ABOVE: Horses can fly three to a container or have one to themselves.

HORSES travel by air as easily as humans these days, and are possibly better cared for.

Back in the dark ages, they may have merely roamed about their own territory but once humans found how useful they were to ride, they found themselves being stuck in small spaces and moved long distances.

William the Conqueror’s troops took their horses with them in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. They must have somehow managed to get them on to a boat to get there and into the Battle of Hastings.

Horses arrived with the Australian early settlers by ship and later got put back on boats to fight with our soldiers in the first world war. They didn’t come home.

When our first three-day event horses headed off to the 1956 Olympic Games, they had a long sea journey to get there. They didn’t come home either.

The first transatlantic air shipment of six horses travelled from Ireland to California in November 1946. They had been bought by California-based owners E.B. Johnston and Ann Peppers for a combined value of $150,000 – about $2.1 million in today’s money.

Seeing an opportunity, John J. McCabe started his horse air transport business in 1949 in the US and shipped more than 30,000 horses by air over the next 30 years.

Since then, flying around the world has become almost normal for the world’s elite horses and ponies.

Lochlan Ford, from International Racehorse Transport (IRT), one of the biggest horse transport companies that moves around 10,000 horses a year, says they travel every type of equine, from donkeys and mules to mini horses and giant Clydesdales.

In trips around Australia, they travel remarkably well, with possibly less stress than a long road trip.

Mr Ford says the one thing equestrians want to do is to put boots and bandages on the horses, but this can’t be done as their legs heat up and if the boots were to come loose, they would be too hard to get off inside the container.

How it works - click through gallery to view

ABOVE: The boarding and travel process at an airport.

Travelling overseas carries the same criteria has humans with passports. Health certificates, quarantine and blood tests are also necessary although it’s much easier between New Zealand and Australia, both of which are very much free of diseases. Mares often fly back and forth between the two countries to be served by a chosen stallion and then returned in foal.

Australia is very strict about incoming horses. They have to do two weeks quarantine in the country of departure and another two weeks when they arrive in Australia.

“Some can’t come at all, from South America for example, without having to stay six months in the US before going to Europe then on,” Mr Ford said.

IRT pricing allows for three tiers of travel, commonly referred to as first class, business class or economy class. This means your horse can travel in a single space or in a stall with two other horses.

Due to safety regulations, modern airplanes can only ferry a maximum of 85 horses at any one time and they travel in specialised containers which are wheeled on and off the aircraft.

The horse stalls are loaded on the ground and then raised into the aircraft by lift, manoeuvred into place and locked into position. The shuttle stallions usually have a single container, and cost their owners more, but usually three horses travel side by side.

The cabin is temperature controlled to 13-14 degrees, and professional grooms travel with the horses. On the long flights there is always a vet.

They are offered ad lib water and hay, and usually just stand and rest peacefully for the flight.

So, if you ever need to send your horse of in an aeroplane, you can rest assured, he’s travelling comfortably, has food and drink, and a capable flight attendant.

Much the same as you really.

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