If you ask an equestrian how horses fly, they'll probably launch into a misguided but well-intended extended explanation of the history of equine locomotion, telling you about how it took centuries for humans to have proof that horses do leave the ground entirely during one phase of the canter or lope. But that's not what you were asking. You wanted to know about horses in planes traveling across oceans and continents.
The first element of horse travel to consider is planning. Unlike a human, a horse can't just have a whim to travel to Bali, take a cab, pass through TSA, and hop on a flight. For horses traveling, even within the US, each trip involves days and weeks of planning. The journey starts with finding the right flight. Horses don't fly on the same planes that people do: they ride in cargo planes, which not every airport has access to. Like people, however, horses who fly need paperwork and documentation, up to and including an international passport. Some of the paperwork certifies that the horse is healthy and not carrying any communicable diseases, such as Equine Infectious Anemia. Every country has their own set of requirements, and those requirements can change at any time.
In flight, horses travel in a standing stall withing a ULD (Unit Load Device). The stall is wide enough for the horse to move from side to side but not to turn around or lie down.
For humans traveling economy, there's always the worry of an unpleasant seatmate. Horses have the same concerns! Luckily, horse stalls on planes usually have dividers between each animal, preventing both from engaging in any funny business. If you have been around horses a lot, you know they usually feel better with other horse buddies around.
The in-flight entertainment for horses is somewhat lacking- there are no drop-down screens to show movies, but a full hay net is usually hung for each horse.
Horses aren't luggage: they aren't loaded and left to their own devices until landing. Every equine flight has one or more flying grooms. This might be a groom familiar with the horse or one provided by the equine transportation company. These in-flight grooms are trained to address any needs that might arise during the plane ride, including emergency medical services as needed. Knowing that horses often do not respond well to change, loud noises, and such, some might ask why not sedate every equine air traveler. The answer is that sedation would limit most horses' ability to respond to the physical changes- the bumps and bounces - of the plane ride. The physical risk of an unbalanced, drowsy horse is often greater than that of an anxious horse.
For those who've seen horses travel in vans or trailers, another common question is what they wear during their flight. This isn't a question of fashion! On a land-based trip, horses often wear an array of ‘clothing’ designed to protect them, such as a leather pad across the top of their head so they don't bump it, a wrap-around their tail so they don't accidentally rub too much hair out, or boots, coming down to protect their shoes so they don't accidentally step on their own feet and pull the shoes off. However, on a plane, all these additional items carry risks: if even one thing comes loose during the flight, due to the nature of the air flight stalls, the groom won't be able to sneak in and grab it out of the way. Items could get dangerously tangled around the horse's legs, with little to no recourse until the plane lands and the horses are unloaded. Instead, it is far safer for horses to fly wearing as little 'clothing' as possible. On the plane, the temperature is controlled.
Unlike the mental image of Noah's ark, horses don't walk up a long ramp to get on the plane: they load into the air travel stalls before their plane may even be on the ground. The air travel stalls are moved around the airport, horses inside! It is far easier to raise, lower, load, and unload a solid, square object than a four-legged, potentially fearful animal.
In human terms, this would be like spending the night before your trip in a hotel room, and then rather than leaving the hotel, your entire room is transported by vehicle to and onto the plane directly!
Each airport and equine travel service has its own routine. Sometimes, the horse may arrive on the morning of the flight from their farm. In other cases, the horse may stay at or near the airport in preparation for the flight. Some major equine travel hubs, such as JFK in New York, have dedicated barns specifically for this purpose, as well as inbound and outbound quarantine. For smaller airports and planes, the system may be more fluid.
Horses do fly; however, it requires a lot of groundwork from their people and connections to get into the air!
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