How Are Thoroughbred Horses Transported?


What do horse racing 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and the phone case you ordered online have in common? They were both mailed via FedEx.

The professional shipment of Thoroughbred horses, while entrusted to air travel at long distances, is an ancient, anxious business. Complete with unique barcodes and tracking numbers, insanely valuable Thoroughbred racehorses are indeed entrusted to private airmail. But unlike an Amazon Prime find, they’re hardly tossed into a cargo net with someone else’s candle holders and a halfhearted layer of bubble wrap.

If a horse is traveling only a short distance, it usually rides in a horse trailer via highways. Most Thoroughbreds are accustomed to this type of transport. Especially jittery horses are often blindfolded as a familiar groom leads them up a straw-strewn ramp. Sometimes, a buddy in the form of another horse or dog with ride along. Horses are usually tethered to the wall of the trailer to stabilize the animal in the case of unexpected bumps in the road.

Shipping a horse via airplane is a challenge to both pilot and crew.

Loaded into a hollowed cargo jet – usually the likes of an MD-11 – an equine athlete is offered comforts unimaginable to a typical human flier. So as to avoid distress, the horse’s home environment is replicated as much as possible. As in a horse trailer, equine athletes may be blindfolded to ease their transition into the cargo hold. Bedding is available in lush piles on the bottom of the aircraft to simulate the familiar confines of a barn. Nets of hay or favorite treats are left in easy reach, and tethers take the place of safety belts.

In some sense, horse transport hasn’t changed much since its glory days in the Jazz Age and Depression. Just like humans in the 1920s and 1930s, horses traversed long distances via rail. The celebrated Seabiscuit, for example, rode the rails from his California home to the East Coast, frequently stopping to meet well-wishers along the way. Just like their descendants, these runners were kept fed, quiet, and happy throughout the trip, sometimes with trainers and grooms sleeping nearby to ensure a smooth ride.

It’s also possible to ship a horse via ship.

For horses who can withstand longer traveling periods, some freight companies offer “horse cruises” to the likes of Hawaii, Tahiti, Taiwan, Fiji, and Australia. Some trainers and owners prefer shipping by boat, as their charges recover from disrupted schedules more quickly (yes, horses do get jet lag.) Sea freighting is far less expensive than the airmail option, and horses pass the journey in shipping containers modified to resemble stalls. Mares are able to travel with their babies in larger containers, and while rough seas are always a possibility, at least turbulence isn’t a worry.

But when the horse absolutely, positively has to get there tomorrow, the owner trots him off to the airport. The possibility of shipping a horse overnight via jet has left a profound impact on the racing and eventing industry. Major stakes races now feature entrants from around the world instead of merely the region or nation, and sending a mare overseas to breed isn’t uncommon.

In any form of transportation, the goal is to keep all four hooves on the ground.

Long train trips made for easy sleeping, and here in the jet age, cabin lighting is kept dim so as to encourage calm or even a stand-up nap. Pilots delivering horses often plan unusually shallow take-off angles in order to ease the transition into the air, and extensive angles around potential turbulence can add quite some time to the trip, as do the generous angles they take as they begin to approach the runway. Air traffic controllers can sometimes be prevailed upon to provide quiet routes around storms and rough mountain air.

And all that fuss is just for a domestic flight – if a horse is traveling internationally, it must pass through customs as well. Cost for a round-trip ticket from the likes of Lexington, KY to England? Around $20,000, and no, the horse is not permitted to keep the frequent flier miles.