Flying Your Horse – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

EWW welcomes equine vet Gordon Sidlow to the team. Graduating from the University of Glasgow in Unknown1984 Gordon worked for 11 years in large animal practice in mid Devon. In 1996 he moved overseas and took a position with the Hong Kong Jockey Club working in various areas of equine veterinary practice. During his 12 years in Hong Kong he worked in many parts of Asia and was team vet for both Hong Kong and China at a variety of international competitions. He then served as FEI veterinary delegate at the South East Asian Games and was on the treating vet team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as Deputy Veterinary Manager. Shortly afterwards he returned to Devon and after working in another equine practice in Mid Devon has helped to establish West Ridge Equine in January 2013.

Flying Your Horse – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It is more than 50 years since the large scale transport of competition horses by air around the globe began in earnest; the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 saw almost 100 horses fly in for the Games from around the world. 3 horses died on the journey in primitive wooden crates on slow small planes that had to stop frequently for fuel but Tokyo proved that flying horses to compete was both realistic and feasible.

Since that time many things have changed; in particular horses now fly almost exclusively in air-stables which are lifted onto and off planes without the excitement of walking competition fit horses up and down gangplanks and across busy airport aprons. Air stables are 294cm long, 234cm wide and 232cm high. The stable is designed for safety, in the unlikely event of a panic attack your horse should stay confined and not be able to injure himself or his neighbours. The design of these stables has been continually improved over the years until now we have a box which allows easy loading and unloading as well as giving the horse as much freedom of movement as possible within the confined space.

It is very confined – once 3 horses are loaded into a box access to the hindlegs is impossible, so travelAir Crate boot and rugs can be a problem but there is still room to feed and water all the horses during the flight. The confinement leads to a lot of heat – especially if the horses get excited during loading. The inside of a box containing 3 horses is typically 10C higher than the deck temperature of the aircraft. This means that when the plane is on the ground in hot countries the biggest challenge is to keep the horses cool; I have recorded 53C in a box in Asia on an August afternoon. Temperature extremes like  this require as much airflow as possible through the box and access to water.

Dehydration is possibly the biggest health threat during long-distance air travel. Horses are encouraged to drink frequently and those which do not are monitored closely during the journey and after arrival. Administration of i.v. fluids during the flight is perfectly possible but only occasionally required. If it is necessary then we try to give at least 10Lin order to provide significant rehydration. Fluids are also frequently given both before and after flights. There is no doubt that i.v. fluid administration after the flight is helpful in horses which have been significantly stressed or refused to drink en route but the benefits in more relaxed and physiologically normally fliers is harder to prove. Similarly, pre-flight fluids or excessive electrolytes may in fact pre-dispose to dehydration during the journey and are not recommended except in horses with a history of dehydration or other travel problems.

Plane Interior Shot

Horses will typically lose 2-3% of bodyweight during a 12 hour flight but this weight is rapidly regained after arrival providing your horse is eating and drinking normally.

The other big problem during and after flying is “Shipping Fever” This is a bacterial pneumonia induced by the stress of travel. The longer the journey, the more likely the problem is to arise. There are other issues which increase the risk: heat and poor ventilation are important as is any pre-existing inflammatory condition which will dramatically increase the chance of any problem developing. For this reason I believe a routine haematology and biochemistry profile of your horse a couple of days before the journey is a sensible precaution. The other very important factor is head position during the journey; an experienced flying groom will adjust the stalls after take-off to ensure the horse can get his head low to the ground and thus improve fluid drainage from the lungs.

With Shipping Fever prompt treatment is crucial and alert grooms accompanied by vets can administerPlane Interior Shot 2antibiotics during the journey to horses showing signs of developing the condition and this dramatically improves the prospect of a rapid recovery after arrival.

Most horses are very relaxed during the flight but a small proportion fail to settle and persist in “Scrambling” throughout the journey. This problem is most frequently seen in larger horses confined in a stall containing 3 positions – in the majority of cases these horses will settle well if given more space when travelling. For this reason any horse with a history of travel problems should be given a double rather than a triple box even for relatively short journeys. This will greatly reduce his risk of injury as well as making post-arrival health issues much less likely. This problem is not easily controlled with sedation, even if allowed prior to competition, and more space really is the only consistently effective, though expensive, answer.

More and more horses fly around the world every day, to breed, to compete or just to retire; with a few simple precautions they will arrive healthy and ready to succeed.

Gordon Sidlow B.V.M.S. M.R.C.V.S.


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