How Do Horses Travel Overseas to the Olympics?

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Germany's Sandra Auffarth riding Opgun Louvo competes during the Individual Eventing during the Equestrian competition of the 2012 London Olympics. Adrian Dennis/AFP/GettyImages

The 2012 Olympic Games begin on July 27, but many of the most specialized athletes have been in London for several weeks. We're talking about horses, of course — the highly trained equines that will be at the heart of the dressage, eventing and jumping competitions.

"Our eventing horses have been there about four weeks," says Joanie Morris, press officer for the United States Equestrian Foundation in Lexington, Kentucky. "Our dressage horses arrived July 9." The rest of the horses followed over the next few days.

Getting the animals overseas wasn't as big a task as you might think. All it took was a little help from FedEx and a few talented people who specialize in transporting animals.

A Personal Olympic Plane

The horses, which come from all over the United States, converged on Newark International Airport in New Jersey, where they were loaded onto specialized jet stalls, which look like the horse trailers you see driving down the road but which are designed for air travel. Two horses go into each stall, which is then loaded on a pallet and onto the pressurized upper deck of a FedEx cargo plane. "They have hay and water and someone stays with them the whole time to make sure they have everything they need," Morris tells MNN.

The horses are accompanied by a veterinarian and groomers who know the animals well. "These horses are all older animals who are used to travel," Morris explains. "Horses in general are pretty good travelers, so they don't mind their overseas adventure."

All of the horses were approved for travel before they left by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which checked their paperwork — they actually have passports — to verify their identities and inoculations. Only a few hours of quarantine time is required, since the animals will not be staying indefinitely in England.

"England is a very horse-friendly country," Morris says. "It's a huge part of their culture. We have horses that go back and forth to England a lot." If the animals had been traveling to other countries with different rules, quarantine times might have been much longer. They will be quarantined again for 36 hours when they return to the U.S.

Safe and Relatively Short Trip

For many of the animals, the overseas flight may have been the shortest leg of their trip. "It's a shorter trip than a horse trailer driving from New York to Florida," Morris says.

Traveling by plane is usually quite safe for horses, says Susan Kayne, team manager at Unbridled Racing and executive producer of Unbridled TV. She says the bigger risk for the animals is once they land: "More of an issue to the horse comes with the different water and feeds they intake in their new environment, which could cause a digestive interruption and possibly lead to other complications such as colic." MNN reached out to several animal-rights groups, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to see if transporting animals by plane is safe and humane. PETA declined to comment.

After arriving in England, the animals were transported by van to Stanstead, England, where they rejoined their trainers and riders and rested for about 24 hours to shake off any jetlag before continuing their training. "These horses are all very, very fit and have been working all year," Morris says. She reports that none of the horses had any issues that prevented them from training after their arrived in Stanstead.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee split the cost of transporting the animals to England. They did not disclose the cost, but shipping expert Tim Dutta, whose company arranges all of the travel for the USEF, told NPR that FedEx charges by the pound — no small fee for animals that each weigh about 1,100 pounds or more.

The American horses aren't unique in their travels. Some of Canada's equine athletes flew from Washington, D.C., according to the Horse Junkies United blog. European horses had it the easiest: a shuttle through the Eurotunnel takes just 35 minutes, according to a report from Reuters.

The Olympic equestrian events run through Aug. 7, with the final medals being awarded on Aug. 9. After that, most of the horses will head right back home, unless they are staying in Europe for another competition. But the majority, Morris says, "will have some downtime where they can enjoy their success and have a break from all of the training."