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Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Thursday, 23 September 2010 13:37 UK

High-flying globe trotters head Stateside


The BBC's Daniela Relph finds out about the largest commercial airlift of horses in preparation for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, USA

By Daniela Relph
BBC News

There are none of the usual stresses and strains of an airport check-in. No queues, no battling with your cases, no hoping for an upgrade.

Admittedly these passengers could be a little noisier than usual and definitely a bit smellier but generally getting through departures was trouble free for travellers of the equine kind.

I am getting a behind the scenes look at the huge logistical challenge involved in moving 450 horses from Europe to America over the next ten days.

They are all heading to the World Equestrian Games that start this weekend in Kentucky, USA. It is the first time the event has been held in the US hence the need to move so many horses by air; in all nearly three times the number that would be moved for an Olympics Games.

700: The number of horses taking part in the World Equestrian Games
450: Number of horses being flown from Europe
21: Separate flights needed to get the horses to the US
1500: Litres of water kept on board for the horses
8,000 to 13,000: Cost of flight in euros
9: Length of flight in hours

The process of moving the horses is in many ways very similar to our own airport experience - there's check-in, passport control, stables that are effectively a departure lounge for the horses and then boarding ahead of the flight.

Owners and riders also have to decide whether their precious cargo should travel Economy, Business or First Class - and you get what you pay for.

"It's quite an undertaking" says Henry Bullen who is in charge of the airlift.

"Economy is three horses in one container, Business is two horses and for the more well off you've got First Class. Prices range from 8,000 to 13,000 euros."

The containers are the "air stables" in which the horses travel. Huge cargo planes have been stripped bare inside to make room for them and each stable is carefully lifted onto the aircraft and locked into the place.

But it's a nerve wracking experience for all involved especially the riders who travel separately from the horses.

Horses recover from jet lag quicker than humans
Open University's David Rothery

The British Eventing Team has sent its six horses to Kentucky on board one of these special flights.

They have taken the Business Class option and paired up their animals carefully - the first time fliers will share an air stable with the more seasoned travellers but saying goodbye ahead of the flight can still be a strain.

"Fingers crossed my horse will be fine" says British three-day eventer Pippa Funnell.

"But its awful when you're not with them. For the eight or nine hours they're in the air you're thinking of nothing else but what they're up to and if they're travelling ok."

Loading horses onto the plane
A horse box being loaded onto a plane bound for Kentucky

The care of the animals on board falls to a team of specialists.

The British team has paid for one of its grooms and one of the team vets to travel. They are supported by a "flying groom" whose sole job it is to manage the welfare of animals on board planes. It is a specialist role and those who do it have years of experience handling horses.

They have also been given the kind of training cabin crew get and know all the emergency procedures. But it is impossible to predict how a horse will react in an unfamiliar, confined space for the duration of the flight.

Tuesday 28/09/2010: Team dressage - BBC Red Button - 19:00-23:30
Wednesday 29/09/2010: Dressage grand prix - BBC Red Button - 19:30-22:30
Saturday 02/10/2010: 3-day eventing (cross country) - BBC Red Button - 14:00-21:00
Sunday 03/10/2010: 3-day eventing (show jumping) - BBC Red Button - 18:00-21:30
Monday 04/10/2010: Highlights of the 3-day eventing competition - BBC2 - 13:00-14:15
Saturday 09/10/2010: Show jumping final four - BBC Red Button - 01:00-03:00

"If the horse is distressed we immediately assess what the problem is" explains professional flying groom Tim Rolfe.

"If they're feeling claustrophobic we try to reassure them, sometimes just a pat will work or even some food. It's very rare but sometimes we do have to use chemical restraints to sedate them although generally they're very good travellers."

The flying grooms had a bit of work to do on the flight we watched.

It was a rocky turbulent ride over the Atlantic for those six British horses and 16 others flying with them from Finland, Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

But with the specialist care on board all 22 horses arrived safely in Cincinnati, Ohio. They now face 42 hours in quarantine at the airport before being driven to Lexington, Kentucky for the World Equestrian Games next week.

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see also
Do horses get jet lag?
23 Sep 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Bechtolsheimer ready for Worlds
16 Sep 10 |  Equestrian
Powell takes victory at Burghley
05 Sep 10 |  Equestrian
Romeike seeks crowning glory in London
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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