The horses for Canada’s Olympic equestrian team are flying cargo to Rio, but will be treated like they’re in first-class, according to a team veterinarian.
“They’re usually pampered,” said Sylvie Surprenant, Canadian equestrian team veterinarian for jumping and dressage. “There is one groom per horse and their whole purpose is to make sure the horses have everything they need, are as happy as possible and relaxed.”
A horse’s needs are simple, according to Surprenant. Like people, on a flight they like to have a snack, a drink – and maybe a nap.
“For them it’s just another day, being in a stall, eating hay and drinking water. They usually relax and a lot of them sleep during the flight standing. They’re very subdued,” she said.
And these competition horses are seasoned international travellers. “These are horses that travel by plane, most of them, very often, very regularly and they have been for years. It’s not a big deal for them.”
“They’re probably less scared of flying than I am.”
How to ship a horse
But from a logistics perspective, getting Canada’s 11 Olympic competition horses to Brazil takes some work. Some will be flying directly from another competition in Europe. The rest will be driven by truck to JFK airport in New York.
There, they will be loaded into a “box stall” – a small stall just a little larger than the horse itself, on top of a pallet. The pallet is clipped onto rails, slid into the belly of the cargo plane, and locked in place. The tight stall helps a horse feel secure, said Surprenant, and the pilots keep the takeoff and landing as gentle as possible.
“I guess the only thing that I’m concerned of is if there’s a lot of turbulence and the horses start being a bit agitated or nervous,” she said. “But we have an emergency kit in case that happens. We have medication to sedate them if a horse gets anxious, but I’ve never had to sedate a horse so far during transport.”
Once the horses arrive, they’re immediately loaded onto trucks and driven to their temporary home – a stable in Rio. The goal of the logistics companies is to make sure the animals spend as little time as possible waiting around and to make their trip go smoothly.
The horses arrive at least a week before the competition to ensure that they get over any jet lag — yes, horses get jet lagged — and recover fully from their trip.
“When they get there they usually are not really exercised for a couple of days. They’re usually just hand-walked, graze and relax,” said Surprenant. After a few days, they’re ridden and start training to get into competition shape.
“They’re treated like athletes,” she said. “And the horses have the same needs I suppose as any human athlete to be able to compete at the maximum level they can compete. So we’re there to help if needed and there’s a whole support staff around them, as there is a whole support staff around any athlete.”