A History of Horse Transportation in America

As long as horses have been ridden, there has always existed a need to move horses further than simply riding would suffice. Whether that was moving them across a river by swimming them or flying across the planet in a modern airplane, horses have always needed their own transportation.

In North America, the wild horse died out around 10,000 BCE. That did not, however, stop explorers and other settlers from bringing horses by ship with them. Horses have been documented as being moved via ship or boat since the time of Herodotus, around 1500 BCE. In 1066, William the Conqueror brought 2000 horses with him across the English Channel in row boats.

Transporting horses by rowboat was not a generally successful affair. Whether slung above deck or boxed in tightly below, the horses often struggled or panicked, resulting in their death or even the sinking of the boat entirely. Even if they did manage to survive the journey, loading ramps hadn't been invented yet, so simply leaving the ship was no easy process.

Jumping forward a few hundred years and a few thousand miles, the Spanish were the first to return horses to North America. On Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1493, he brought horses to the Virgin Islands. Later, in 1498 he brought a further forty horsemen and steeds with him to the island of Hispaniola. Within a decade, the island had established large horse breeding farms, pointing to the market and desire for horses in the new world. By 1538, Spanish horses were as far north as Florida.

As the 1500s progressed, English explorers regularly brought horses and traded stock with the Spanish. Their first focus was smaller horses due to transportation constraints via ship. Not only did the horses need space to travel, but all the forage and supplies needed to accompany them on the two-week journey. These smaller horses took up less space on a ship, ate less, and could easily transition from riding to packing.

The following two major developments for horses in North America happened at nearly the same time. Riding horses began to arrive, quickly followed by the development of the first horse racing competitions, starting in 1665 in Nassau County, New York. Just as now, racehorses required more protection during their transportation being used to high intensity, daily exercise, and caloric-rich feeds.

Indigenous Americans obtained horses from Spanish explorers through various methods, including trade and theft. The center of Indigenous horse culture began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and grew northwards at a steady pace. As European explorers started to visit the great plains and southwest in the 1700s, they found many tribes raising horses.

In 1771, the first horse trailer was used in Britain, too -you guessed it- to move a famous racehorse. The horse? Eclipse is one of the founding studs of all modern thoroughbred racing. The practice of trailering didn't become widespread for many years, however. Vanning became a common practice, moving horses as cargo pulled by… other horses. It wasn't the most practical or elegant solution, though. Instead, the next great leap forward in equine transportation came in the 1800s with the advent of the train.

As tracks began to cross the United States and transportation for people across great distances became faster and smoother, many a horse rider must have turned his eye to the racing train cars and wondered if a horse could ride as well as a man. Indeed, they could, though with the loud noises and bumpy conditions, new inventions to keep horses safe during their travels also sprang up. Items still in use today, such as shipping wraps, head bumpers, and travel blankets, became more widely available.

Trains made moving more horses easier, allowing the West to become the solid stronghold of horsemanship and breeding it remains to this day.

As personal vehicles came into widespread use in the 1900s, they were also adapted for moving horses and other livestock in trailers that are very much recognizable today. Equestrians the world overlooked around and thought they'd come to the end of the options. Horses could be moved by trailer, ship, or train—end of story.

Or was it?

With the advent of the airplane, that all changed. Air travel was much faster than any other method, which was a huge selling point. Early equine air transport did have a few drawbacks: the actual equine accommodations weren't ideal. They were dark, noisy, and small, with low ceilings that horses could easily bump their heads on, leading to panic. These "containers" really didn't contain much of anything, and the horse was surrounded by plywood that was built or closed around them.

Alex Nichols designed the three-horse jet stall to address these serious concerns; it has since become the industry's gold standard for equine air transportation. The jet stall allows horses to travel in the comfort and safety as the triple jetstall is a self-contained, airline approved unit,  designed to be loaded at the airport but in a controlled environment away from the busy loading area on the tarmac.   

Not only is equine air travel more convenient because of the speed of each trip (hours instead of days or weeks!), but it is also one of the safest ways of moving horses. Instead of being subjected to the rigors of traffic and roadway congestion, which even the most high-end over-the-road shipping company must contend with, air travel allows each horse to be loaded and then depart without delays. The rides are smooth, and the horses are not simply monitored remotely by video but by actual humans, trained professionals able to calm, soothe, and attend to every need, including carrot emergencies.

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