Taking Flight… with our Olympic Horses

By Dr. Sarah Gold
When I mention to clients, family, and friends that I just returned from flying the Land Rover US Eventing Team to London for the Olympic Games, the number one question I get is “How do you fly a horse?” Answer: In cargo.
Cargo, other than leaving at odd times in the morning, is a great way to travel.  No other passengers to deal with, lots of room to move around and sometimes you even get your own first class section or bed, depending on the type of plane you are on.   In my experience, horses actually ship better in the air than on the road.  One of the biggest reasons for that is that you avoid the “stop-go-stop-go” of traffic, and the bumps on the road.  When horses feel the truck stop on the road, they can often get antsy, wondering if they have arrived.  On a plane, there is just one loud noise at the beginning, one at the end, and relatively few bumps along the way when compared to road travel.  
I have also been fortunate in that my four-legged travel companions are well-travelled, and quite frankly, often exhausted by the time they get on the plane.  Shipping horses can be a long process, with pre-export quarantining, and road travel to the airport.  And usually these horses have been in active competition prior to travel.  So, much like the overworked business man that is lulled to sleep when the plane engines turn on, these horses tend to settle quickly and prefer to be left to doze, no sedation required.  Of course we come through with the snacks and drinks cart – well, water buckets and any feed, treats, or medications that they need- but I often get the impression that the horses prefer each other’s company, and would rather I leave them to rest.  Pilots in charge of these enormous cargo planes are often sympathetic to the horses as well, and will inquire as to how they would prefer the temperature, and go through great efforts to have a smooth take-off and landing for the horses.   And ear popping during descent does not seem to be an issue.
Medically speaking, with a healthy performance horse, there is not usually a lot that needs to be done to prepare for flight, other than ensuring that the horse is hydrated and healthy prior to leaving.  Depending on the length of the flight, and how well the horse drinks, fluids may be administered, either via a nasogastric tube (NGT) or through an IV catheter.  NGT fluid administration is usually water with some electrolytes added, and while all horses resent being tubed, the procedure is over relatively quickly (less than 5 minutes), and the fluids are delivered directly to the GI tract.  This means that if the horse needs the fluids, he can draw them naturally through his gut walls, and if not, the fluids will just pass through, potentially aiding the passing of feed.  With IV fluids, greater amounts of fluids can be administered which go directly into the blood circulation, but the horse has to remain tied for a few hours, and often winds up having to urinate quite a bit.  So I do recommend that we begin the process of IV fluids, if indicated, much earlier, so the horses do not wind up having to stand around a soaked trailer or cargo palate.  Other than fluids, most competition horses are on some form of gastro-protectant, like gastrogard or ulcergard, which should be continued in the face of travel.  
If you are planning air travel for you horse, or any extensive ground travel, do not hesitate to contact us with any questions prior to shipping. Every horse is an individual, and, like people, some travel better than others.  As for myself, I have definitely developed a taste for traveling via my own private cargo plane, with the companionship of some four-legged Olympic athletes to keep me company.

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