Olympic horses travel first class all the way

American Kasey Perry-Glass, riding Dublet, competes in the equestrian dressage competition on Wednesday.
American Kasey Perry-Glass, riding Dublet, competes in the equestrian dressage competition on Wednesday. AP

Of the 10,000 elite athletes competing in the Rio Olympics, it’s safe to assume none traveled here more comfortably and with more pampering than the 229 horses in the Equestrian events. These “equine athletes,” as they are referred to, did not fly coach. They did not stand in long security lines, face flight delays or have to bring their own snacks on board.

They flew here nonstop from Miami, London and Liege, Belgium, in customized stalls on 767 and 777 cargo planes that accommodate up to 34 horses per flight. The planes carry professional grooms and one or two veterinarians to cater to the passengers’ every need. The catering menu features 14,000 pounds of feed (Lucerne, Bermuda grass and Timothy are the hays of choice), 40 liters of water per horse, and plenty of sugar cubes for the horse with a sweet tooth.

“They’re happy chewing away at 32,000 feet,” said Martin Atock, the managing director of Peden Bloodstock, a German company specializing in equine transport that is handling the logistics of all the horses from 43 countries at these Olympics. “These are high-performance athletes and we want to make sure they arrive here in peak competitive form, so we make things as swift, smooth and stress-free as we can.”

Pilots are instructed to take off and land more gradually and gently than usual, and avoid sharp turns. The planes feature controlled temperature zones. The horses are loaded into 4-foot wide stalls at ground level and raised onto the plane. The stalls can fit three horses, but these are Olympians, so they fly two to a pallet.

The transport reportedly costs between $20,000 to $25,000 per horse, and most of that is covered by the Olympic Organizing Committee.

“I don’t know if I’d call it first class, but definitely business,” said U.S. Olympic show jumper Kent Farrington of Wellington, whose horse Voyeur arrived on Sunday. “Most horses that compete on the world stage have lots of experience flying. Just like us, it’s not that uncomfortable for them. We have great staff that look after them, and they get snacks.”

Horses typically weigh more than 1,000 pounds, so with the seven tons of feed, 10 tons of equipment and up to 34 horses on a flight, there are weight restrictions on their luggage. Each horse is allowed to bring one hay net, a bucket, a rug to stay warm and extra water.

The flights to Rio have ranged from eight and a half to 12 hours, and these experienced world travelers remain standing the entire flight, but they don’t seem to mind. They like to nap standing up, and they have different sleeping patterns from humans, so they don’t tend to suffer from jet lag.

“These horses are experienced and travel better than people would expect,” said U.S. jumper Lucy Davis, who is competing with her horse Baron. “People always ask me, ‘Do you have to tranquilize them?’ and I don’t think any of them had to be. Only in emergency. They’re herd animals, so if they’re all together, which they are on the plane, even though they’re in boxed stalls, they can hear each other and feel their presence and that is calming.”

Atock, a former competitive rider from Ireland, has helped organize the equine travel and logistics for the past eight Olympics. And Peden Bloodstock has been in the business since the 1970s. They leave nothing to chance.

They brought in horse trailers from Europe to transport the animals from the Rio International Airport to the Diadora Olympic Equestrian Center. The trailers travel with a police escort. They try to have the horses’ flights land and take off very late at night or very early in the morning to avoid rush hour traffic.

On Thursday, Atock arranged for eight horses which had already competed to fly direct from Rio to Miami on a flight that arrives in Miami at 4:30 a.m. There were five American horses, three Canadian and one from Puerto Rico. They flew a 767 charter from Tam-Lan airlines.

The Rio airport installed a special ramp to make the trip between plane and trailer as easy as possible for the horses.

The horses’ Olympic digs are quite nice, as well.

They are staying in 170 square-foot stalls in a modern complex that provides massages, a shoe shop, filtered water, wash stalls, grooms and medical staff. The catering operation is first-rate. Fifty tons of Timothy hay was imported from the United States, shipped in three containers via ocean liner. There is also a 10-ton supply of Bermuda grass, three tons of alfalfa, four tons of carrots, a half-ton of apples, and 6,000 pounds of oat and corn cereal grains.

Horses like to rest of pine shavings, so there are 7,000 pounds of those, plus shredded paper for those horses that are allergic to the pine.

“We are responsible for the health, transport, quarantine and logistics for all the horses at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics,” Atock said. “These animals are here to perform at the highest level, and we have to provide optimal conditions for them. Horses are mammals, just like us, and they are very, very intelligent. But they can’t say, ‘I’d like this,’ or ‘I need that,’ so we have to anticipate all their needs and make sure they are as happy as possible.”