Transportation & Logistics

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On the Hoof: How Equine Athletes Got to Rio

10 Aug, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When an Olympic athlete, whether a soccer, team handball or water polo player, is ready to travel, he or she hops a plane. But there’s a whole other segment of the athlete market that also has to fly, and its mode of travel is more complex than you’d think. And despite that, those travelers don’t get frequent flier miles.

The equine athletes of Rio didn't just get a flight on Southwest. They didn't use a travel app to find the lowest fare although at least they got more than one measly carry-on. But according to our friends at FEI, the international governing body of equestrian sports, they have travel down to a science. Or maybe just down to horse sense.

A bulletin from FEI notes that the first group of Olympic equine athletes departed from London Stansted Airport on July 29 on a special cargo plane bound for Rio 2016. 

With 34 horses from 10 nations on board, the equine cargo (worth multiple millions) was loaded into customized pallets for the almost 12-hour flight aboard an Emirates SkyCargo Boeing 777-F which was organized by Peden Bloodstock, a company that does nothing but international horse shipping. 

Eventing horses from Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Japan, Italy and China were on board that initial flight out of Stansted, the first of nine shipments delivering more than 200 horses to Rio International Airport, en route to the Olympic Equestrian Centre in Deodoro Olympic Park.

This highly complex operation involved three hubs in Europe and America: Stansted (GBR), Liege (BEL) and Miami (USA). The competing horses and their riders will represent 43 nations from around the globe in the Olympic disciplines of Dressage, Jumping and Eventing. All travelled aboard a freight plane that was outfitted just for the safe and comfortable transport of horses. It has custom-designed horse stalls and controlled temperature zones to ensure maximum comfort and minimal stress for the horses.

So here are those flight facts, by the numbers:

11 hours, 40 minutes: Estimated flight time from England to Rio

38,580-plus pounds: Cargo weight of horses flying from Stansted (average weight of one eventing horse is about 1,135 pounds; dressage and jumping horses weigh a bit more each)

21,825: Pounds of horse equipment being shipped

13,227: Pounds of feed (doesn’t include in-flight snacks; let’s hope Olympic horses fare better than human tourists in that regard)

10: Gallons of water per horse

One: Passport per horse. Yes, really. In addition, horses must be micro-chipped to travel and have an export health certificate. (And you thought flying to Cuba to play soccer had red tape.)

And while the horses won’t have to stand at the baggage carousel, that doesn’t mean there aren’t restrictions on their in-flight and on-board bags. Just as with humans, each equine passenger has an allocated baggage allowance, by weight; however, this includes the horse itself (perhaps just as well humans aren’t billed this way.) In addition, horses get to bring their water, hay, a limited amount of wood shavings as bedding, water buckets, feed buckets, tack bags (for saddles and bridles), rugs and any spare equipment.

Each horse is also allowed one large haynet, water and his or her own personal bucket, and a small overnight bag with a spare headcollar (halter) and rug, in case it gets chilly. They also get bran mash (sorta-kinda like oatmeal, only for horses) as well as hay and water throughout the flight. They can wear protective socks as well.

Oh, yeah. In-flight entertainment. The horses get movies. (Yes, they really do.) Among the favorites are The Horse Whisperer, Black Beauty, Seabiscuit, National Velvet and its sequel, International Velvet.

Every horse has a passport but, unlike human athletes, they must be microchipped to travel. They all also have an export health certificate. And just to make sure they stay healthy, there are veterinarians on board with equine-specific experience. There are also trained staff members flying with the horses, known as Flying Grooms. Yes, really.

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