06/13/2013 3:36PM

Keeping horses grounded in the air

Photos by Z
Zenyatta coming off a plane in Louisville, Ky., for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup.

Shipping horses by air has become more common in the last few decades, and, like shipping by ground, it requires careful planning for safety, from takeoff to landing.

Van drivers shipping horses are often told to drive as if they have a full teacup on the dashboard, and pilots transporting horses also must proceed with caution, said Mike Payne, operations manager for the H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Co.

“Flying horses vs. flying commercial flights or people flights, we do much slower descents and climb-outs, a lot wider turns, a lot more gradual leveling off of the plane,” said Payne, whose recent flights included transporting a group of horses bound for the June 8 Belmont Stakes. “We pay a lot closer attention to the weather and to smooth air vs. turbulence.”

Equine flights can carry as many as 21 horses, and keeping them from getting into each other’s space often is an important consideration.

“We try to load horses by sex as much as possible, with fillies in the back and colts in the front,” Payne said. “We have panels we can use to divide them if they don’t like anyone standing next to them, which happens a lot. Some horses can get claustrophobic or goosy if they touch their sides in the stalls, and they start scrambling and trying to get down in the stall. Most of the time, if you move the horse that’s next to them and take the stall apart and turn it from a single stall to a stall and a half, that usually calms them down.”

When things do go wrong, Payne’s five-man crew takes quick action to prevent a horse from injuring itself.

“There is no set criteria as to what you do when a horse is trying to throw a fit, other than you untie his halter first because you don’t want him to get hung up in the crosstie chains or break his halter,” Payne said. “The second thing you do is take the front door off the stall because you don’t want them to be able to get up on top of the door.

“The rest depends on the horse and the kind of fit they’re throwing, whether they’re scared or spooked or mad or hurt or whatever. Horses have such different personalities, and there are so many variables that go into it. You just need people to be able to recognize what’s bothering them or what’s wrong to right the ship, so to speak.”

If a horse is injured or shows signs of colic or other distress, Sutton’s crew members are trained to perform first aid, and they can rely on a network of veterinarians across the country to offer help on the ground.

“We’ve had a couple of them colic,” Payne said. “I’ve had it happen twice in 23 years. One time, I had a vet come out, and he was able to treat her while we were getting fuel, and we continued on, and we got her to her final destination. Then, another time, we had to offload the horse on a fuel stop, have a van come out, and take the horse to a clinic for surgery. The next time we passed through there, we picked her up and took her the rest of the way to where she was going.

“We always plan our stops where we have an unloading ramp. We never go anywhere where’s there’s not a ramp, just in case the plane breaks down. Anywhere we go where there’s a ramp, there are vets, too.”

As in ground shipping, air transporters look to provide proper traction and padding underfoot for their charges.

“The stalls are padded, and underneath the shavings in the stalls we use Homasote board, which is shredded paper and cardboard compressed and glued together,” Payne said. “It’s basically a building material that’s used to insulate and soundproof walls. It has a nice texture to it that helps absorb the urine and also gives the horses traction. If they dig through the shavings, they’ve got something to stand on that is good footing for them.”

Sutton’s airplane ramps also are designed to minimize the liklihood that horses will become fractious during loading and unloading at the airport.

“All of our ramps are built to accommodate basically any kind of truck or trailer,” Payne said. “The horses walk directly out of the trailer onto the ramp, [and] up into the airplane, so they don’t have the option of not going up the ramp or trying to get loose. There’s nowhere for them to go other than stay in the truck or go up into the airplane.”

Not all horses require tranquilizing when they fly, but Payne’s crew uses that option when needed.

“The horses we took to the Belmont, none of those horses were tranquilized,” he said. “But if something happened, and we needed to, we obviously would to protect them. When we haul 2-year-olds that are going into training or going to a sale, or yearlings, those automatically get tranquilized. For racehorses that are being flown back to the farm for a layup, we usually automatically tranquilize those because there’s no sense taking a risk.”

And temperature is important, Payne emphasized.

“You can get a horse sick by getting it too hot, and you never really get a horse sick from them being too cold, so we try to keep the temperatures cool in the plane,” he said. “They create a lot of body heat, and their body heat is more or less trapped in the stall with them. So, it feels really cold to us standing outside the stall, but if you put your hand under them, down by their belly, you can feel a lot of heat in the stall. A lot of people think that we keep it ridiculously cold, but we do it for the horses.”

Hauling your own horse?

Here are some safety tips from shipping experts.

• Make sure all of your equipment, trailer chains, tow vehicle, etc., are in safe working order. Some commercial shippers, including Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation and Sallee Horse Vans, offer trailer inspection and maintenance services. Be sure your tires are properly inflated, and double-check your hitch attachment and brake lights.

• Use a leather halter. Leather will break if it needs to. Unbreakable halters could cause injury to your horse. Rope halters are not recommended for shipping.

• Use mats, and add bedding. Rubber trailer mats help prevent horses from slipping in a trailer, and bedding adds both padding and absorption. Straw is preferable because it is less likely to fly around if your trailer windows are open.

• Inquire about the health certificates and other paperwork necessary to haul a horse. This is a good idea even if you are booking your horse onto a commercial van. Make sure your horse’s health papers are in order and in compliance with the laws of any state you’ll be traveling in or through.

• Drive at slower speeds, and maneuver more carefully than you normally would. Every move you make as a driver is exaggerated for the horse in the trailer behind you. Be sure to accelerate and decelerate slowly, and turn gently. Don’t drive like you drive your car.

• If someone else is hauling your horse, be sure he is properly licensed and insured.

• Carry extra water and a medical kit. Consult with your veterinarian to put together a good first-aid kit, and know how to use every item in it.

• Use mesh window screens, if available, to protect your horse from flying road debris. Cross-ventilation is important, and screens can let fresh air in while stopping potentially dangerous debris.