Shipping is always stressful for horses, whether by land or air, but there are ways to help minimize stress. Dr. Kent Allen, DVM, Middleburg, Virginia, says one of the unique things about air travel is that after take off, once they get up to cruising altitude it’s a relatively smooth trip for horses.
“Some horses are flown on charter jets and some in combies, which are part passenger, part cargo. The horses are enclosed in aluminum stalls, which accommodate two or three horses,” he says.
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“At flight altitude, air is cold and dry, even in pressurized jets, and you tend to dehydrate. Studies have shown that horses dehydrate at the rate of 1 liter per hour, during air transport,” says Allen.
“Another transport issue, whether by ground or air, is particulate debris in the air the horse is breathing, which can irritate air passages. Usually the air exchange is better in a plane than in a closed-up trailer,” he says.
“Some horses experience discomfort when landing, due to ear pressure. They may start stomping around during descent. An experienced groom or veterinarian traveling with the horses will see the ones having trouble, and may lightly sedate them. Once you get down on the ground, it’s not an issue.”
Also unique to air travel is time spent with the plane sitting on the ground waiting to be unloaded. “In combie planes they unload the passengers first. They may move the plane afterward to a cargo area, to unload the horses. The animals may go from very cold and dry to very hot and humid while waiting to be unloaded. If they stand there for an extended period of time in the plane they may get hotter than they would during a normal ground transport,” says Allen.
“Make sure you have your horse well hydrated before the flight. There are a variety of techniques, such as giving intravenous fluids before he goes to the transport terminal. An easier way is to add an ounce of salt and an ounce of lite salt to the feed, or syringe him with it for a day or two before the trip, twice a day, so he’ll drink more. Make sure he has at least 6 hours to hydrate. Don’t give it right before he gets on the plane. An experienced person traveling with horses will try to get them to drink during the trip. But a lot of horses won’t drink during air travel,” he says.
The most common problem, whether ground or air transport, is overheating. “Horses tolerate cold better than heat. Don’t put too many blankets on them for the flight. You need to be more concerned about the other end, when the horse might be standing in the heat. Dress the horse for that end, rather than the flight itself,” he says.
“If you hang a hay net, soak the hay first, to reduce the amount of particulate matter the horses will be breathing. For bedding use shredded (or small cubed) cardboard or newspaper; it will be less dusty than sawdust, which is most commonly used. Cardboard is about as close as you can get to being dust free,” he says.
A prolonged transport will be stressful nutritionally. There is only so much feed you can transport with them. Monitor what they are eating and drinking before, during and after transport. The horse should have a few days to recover before competing. “Ideally, you’d ship 4 to 5 days ahead. This gives you some leeway in case the horse develops a health issue,” he says.
Horses are shipped by air all the time. Air transport can be much less stressful than road transport, just because of the hours involved.
“I’ve had trucks break down, and what was supposed to be a 12-hour transport turned into a 48-hour transport. Air transport is significantly less stressful, so it pays to look at this as one of the options.”