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That horse can really fly!

Tex Sutton's "Air Horse One" aircraft unloading horses for the Preakness Stakes Credit: BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport

Horses are among the most prominent live animals moved by air on an ongoing basis. They fly both domestically and internationally, and in some cases, almost as much as some frequent flyers! There are thousands of horses moved by air each year. Why ship horses by air? The main reasons include major races around the U.S. and abroad for racehorses, shows and exhibitions for show horses and specialty breeds like Arabians, rodeo events, polo matches, relocation of mustangs, and changes in seasons to take advantage of the best weather for feeding and breeding. On this latter point, there are regular annual moves of horses at different times of year between Argentina, Florida, northern Europe and the Gulf region, and between the southern U.S. states like Florida and northern states.

Live animal transportation is one of the most complex and growing specialty areas within air cargo. This specialty covers a wide range of air transport needs, including moving household pets, animals for zoos and aquariums, livestock, breeding stock, live tropical fish, resettlement of animals, and animals for shows, races and competitions.

Specialized logistics industry

A whole specialty logistics and forwarding industry has emerged to handle the stable-to-stable needs of moving horses by road and by air safely, economically and in compliance with all applicable live animal regulations. Within the U.S. there are several companies that provide their own specialized vehicles and drivers for transporting horses over-the-road, and to and from major airports for air transport. These companies include names such as Brook Ledge Horse Transportation, Equine Express and Lazcar International. Others such as the Dutta Corporation, Horse America and Equiflight specialize in international forwarding, handling the complexities of arranging transportation on all legs, export and import documentation, health certificates, quarantines, provisioning of animal attendants, etc.

Horse van for long distance moves. Photo credit: J.R. Hudson Horse Transportation

When shipping a horse on a U.S. domestic or trans-border U.S.-Canada move, what drives the decision on whether to truck or fly a horse? Two-person team drivers are almost always the rule for transporting horses any distance by truck, enabling the fastest transit times while minimizing stress on the animals. A cross-country run to the West Coast is a three to three and one-half day venture. Most vans are air-ride trailers equipped with a variety of customizable stall configurations, including single stalls, double stalls and box stalls accommodating up to three horses. Many have closed-circuit camera surveillance systems for drivers to continuously monitor horses and take action should they see problems with an animal, including contacting local veterinarians en route.

A company such as Brook Ledge Horse Transportation configures its own trailers in Florida and builds in stress-reducing measures such as wide doors, lower ramps for ground loading, insulated trailers, kick pads and fan and window placement for improved ventilation. Drivers are often recruited from within the equine industry which seeks “horsemen” with a good feel for each animal. Fresh hay, shavings and water are prescribed on a set schedule, and horses are given regular rest breaks every three to four hours. Despite these comforts for a long road trip, the decision to fly comes down to specific event schedules, the value of the horse and owner preference.

Double stall in trailer accommodating two horses. Photo credit: Brook Ledge/Horse America

Flying horses domestically

For U.S. domestic air transportation of horses, there are only two airline choices available. FedEx accepts horse bookings through its Live Animal Desk. Shipments typically need bookings a minimum of 48 hours in advance, and health certificates on the animals must be presented for horses to fly. Grooms, or attendants for the horses, must accompany the animals on the flight to care for the animals along the way, replenish food and water and ensure their comfort. FedEx allows two grooms per flight, each of whom must be on a pre-approved FedEx list of grooms for security reasons. The horses are loaded into specially equipped airline horse containers at the airport and raised onto the main deck of the aircraft using a loader with a scissor lift. Each container has partitions enabling one, two or three horse stalls per container, depending on the size of the animal and owner preference. They fly on the same FedEx schedules and flights as packages and make the same transfers at FedEx hubs. One major shipper using FedEx noted he uses one groom for every two horse pallets, suggesting that four-horse containers containing eight to 12 horses (i.e. two to three horses per container) would be the maximum flown on any given FedEx flight. FedEx flies horses year-round, with the exception of the Christmas holiday peak season, which is between December 5 and January 7.

Unloading horses for domestic transport at FedEx.
Photo credit: J.R. Hudson Horse Transportation

A second option, often used for racehorses moving from track to track during racing season, is the H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Company, which markets a single Boeing 727 freighter, nicknamed “Air Horse One” capable of carrying up to 21 horses in stalls. In chartering with Tex Sutton, the aircraft flies with its own complement of company animal handlers to look after the horses, but additional grooms can be supplied by the horse owner(s) or charterer if more personalized care is required. The operator of the aircraft is Kalitta, a well-known certificated U.S. air carrier. This is essentially a charter flight scheduled around the horses’ needs. The 727’s lower height features “walk on” loading ramps that let horses walk more naturally directly from their delivery van onto the aircraft and into their stall, and the same in reverse. The aircraft’s stall system is modular, allowing partitions to be built around each horse as they are loaded onto the aircraft, including full box stalls for mares and foals or weanlings flying together. Tex Sutton Forwarding is based at the Lexington, Kentucky airport (LEX).

International shipment complexity

Shipping horses internationally is a much more involved process. Individual country requirements for animals exported and imported vary, and quarantines of varying lengths of time are normally mandated at both origin and destination, and sometimes at transit points, adding time and cost. Coordinating all of the surface and air transportation, quarantine stays, health certificates, bloodwork, veterinary clearance, customs clearance for export and import, and transit documentation is all part of the forwarding role. Horses now increasingly need passports to be able to compete in many events, such as show events of the International Federation of Equestrian Sports (FEI), and to be able to travel and transit Europe and other international points. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) can issue horse passports within the United States to U.S. citizens, subject to other qualifications also being met.

Horses travel only on the main deck of an aircraft, which generally means all-cargo freighter aircraft. Several major freighter airlines that provide specialty cargo services for international horse transport include Cargolux, Cathay Pacific Cargo, Emirates SkyCargo, Etihad Cargo, FedEx, KLM, Korean Air Cargo, LATAM, Lufthansa Cargo, Martinair, Nippon Cargo Airlines and Qatar Cargo, among others. An exception to this is KLM, which operates 747-combi aircraft on some routes where cargo such as horses are loaded in the rear portion of the aircraft on the main deck, separated from the passenger compartment by a bulkhead. So it is actually possible for horses and their owners to travel together on the same flight.

For airlines, equine moves can mean a routine booking for a few horses flying on a scheduled flight alongside other cargo, a full charter operation for the horses only on an existing or completely new route, or a part-charter operation where there is sufficient load to reroute a scheduled freighter operation to pick up or unload.

Specialized airline horse containers

Horses on these aircraft travel in specially designed equine containers with designators such as HMJ, HMC, HMA or other “HM” code that are constructed with non-slip floors, adjustable ventilation and lighting apertures, and groom/vet access panels. Horses are loaded into the container at the airport animal facility or nearby quarantine facility and brought planeside. These containers each have a 125 x 96-inch pallet base that is raised to the aircraft’s main deck level using a maindeck loader, rolled onto the aircraft and locked into the aircraft floor system. They can be configured in an “economy class” configuration for three horses each no wider than 22 inches at their widest point, or a “business class” configuration for two larger horses, or a “first class” configuration of one horse per stall. Generally, airlines charge per container, so the “first class” configuration would be three times as expensive per horse as “economy class.”

Container with “economy class” – three to a stall.
Photo credit: Lufthansa Cargo, Stefan Wildhirt

Aside from the fully rigid HMJ unit, some airlines feature variations on this including “droptop” (HMA) and collapsible containers (HMC). Getting a sufficient supply of horse containers to an origin to accommodate horse bookings is a big and potentially expensive logistics challenge for airlines. Droptops allow the container height to be reduced to a 62-inch aircraft lower deck height, facilitating container repositioning via either passenger or freighter aircraft, or used there for smaller animal shipments such as goats or sheep. Collapsible stalls allow for easier positioning and repositioning through stacking multiple units together and using the lower deck on either freighter or passenger flights. There are also HAY containers with a different contour that can transport up to three horses on Boeing 737 freighter aircraft operating regionally in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

Just enjoyed a ride in “business class,” two to a stall.
Photo credit: Horse America

Boarding and care enroute

The horse boarding process onto a flight is a careful choreography among airlines, ground handlers, quarantine centers, grooms, forwarders and trucking companies to ensure horses meet the departing aircraft with a minimum of waiting time either planeside or onboard the aircraft prior to departure. Grooms must undergo the same passenger security screening and exit clearance to board a freighter aircraft (done at the cargo handling facility) as normal passengers do in the passenger terminal. Airlines want to avoid costly delays on the ground, and animal handlers want to minimize undue stress on the horses. But as all travelers know, mechanical, weather and other delays can occur, so contingency plans must be in place with all parties. Pilots are always pre-advised when live animals are onboard and do what they can to expedite on-time departures and takeoffs.

Dedicated permanent horse ramp in Dubai to ease stress as horses are loaded into horse containers.
Photo credit: Emirates SkyCargo

Cargolux states that its largest aircraft, the Boeing 747-800 freighter, can carry a maximum of 90 horses, loaded three per pallet across 30 pallets, and its 747-400 freighter can handle 84 horses. The other industry freighter workhorse, the Boeing 777 freighter, can accommodate 81 horses.

However, seating capacity for grooms is also a factor in choosing a carrier for a large number of animals. The 747s typically have five seats available for grooms, while the 777s have between five and 11 seats, depending on the airline. In the case of the 747 with five seats, one forwarder advised his maximum shipment size would be 15 pallets, or up to 45 horses, while a 777 freighter with more seating for grooms could handle a much larger number of horses. The seating areas of freighter aircraft have access to the aircraft’s main deck for grooms to check on their passengers.

HMJ container with two horses loading onto freighter main deck. Photo credit: Emirates SkyCargo

Tim Dutta of the Dutta Corporation noted that racehorses, show horses and polo horses are like high-performance athletes on the road that follow a certain regimen. He views horses as just as individual as human beings in their behaviors and attitudes towards flying. Some are experienced “road warriors” traveling around the earth as often as five times in a year, where others are nervous and need calming. It’s the job of the grooms to “read the horse” while boarding and in-transit, and provide tailored care and reassurance to minimize stress. Hay and water throughout flight are standard offerings. Owners and veterinarians dictate the rest of the feed, depending on the animal. Silage, electrolytes, vitamins and carrots are all options available for use, depending on the horse. Sedation of an upset horse is considered as a last resort, only to be used when the safety of the animal or others on board is at risk.

Major airlines all follow the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Live Animal Regulations in handling and caring for horses to ensure their comfort and safety. They are usually loaded last and unloaded first. They always fly facing forward, never aft. Wilfred D’Souza, who manages the equine product at Emirates SkyCargo, notes that they avoid loading horses near other animals as well as avoiding loading perishables on the same flight. No tasty temptations for the animals! In flying, most airlines reduce the stress by keeping the compartments the animals are in well-ventilated and ambient temperature cool, around 17C degrees (63F). Pilots try to avoid turbulence, sharp descents, turns or ascents that could unnerve their equine passengers.

Horse shipping and transit centers

Airlines and airports in major transit centers have invested in state-of-the-art animal handling and transfer facilities in locations such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Luxembourg and New York (JFK). These are equipped with 24-hour veterinary care and quarantine facilities. Lufthansa Cargo proudly points to its Frankfurt Animal Lounge with 42 15 x 20-foot horse stalls, full veterinary services, documentation checks and three hours minimum transit capability. New York recently opened the Ark at JFK to provide similar care and quarantine services for horses and other animals transiting JFK. Dubai features a permanent horse ramp to ease stress for the animals while moving from trucks to airline containers.

Lufthansa Cargo Frankfurt Animal Lounge.
Photo credit: Lufthansa Cargo, Stefan Wildhirt.

For shipments arriving in the U.S. there are only four gateways that have U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) staff dedicated to handling importation of horses, which include New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA). These same four airports can handle equine export shipments, along with Atlanta (ATL), Houston (IAH) and Columbus Rickenbacker (LCK). U.S. horse shipments by air were valued for Customs purposes at a total of $400 million in 2018, with major destination markets of the U.K., Ireland, France, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Inbound shipments in 2018 were valued at $528 million, with Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, the U.K. and Belgium shipping the most to the U.S. New York is considered the largest year-round transit point in the U.S. for horse movements. Miami has large seasonal inbound horse movements in late fall and export movements in early spring, while Chicago typically exports in late fall before cold weather sets in.

Source: FreightWaves analysis, U.S. Census Bureau, USA Trade Online

And after all is done and animals safely unloaded and transported to designated airport animal or quarantine facilities, there’s just a bit of cleaning up to do! Stalls and aircraft areas used by horses are cleaned and disinfected, stray hay removed and water leakage dried up. For the airlines, it’s a demanding product that needs personalized service and attention, but done well, earns repeat business year-round that yields high returns.