In the front 268 seats of a Boeing 747 flying from Amsterdam, passengers ate tins of chicken and rice with chocolate pudding for dessert, bound for New York City on April 3.
In specially designed shipping containers were six chocolate bays and two dappled grays. One of the horses was a russet chestnut color with the in-flight attitude of a spoiled child to match, a snort of indignation for every jolt of turbulence.
Equine frequent flyers like these fuel an industry of horse transport that sees them sent around the world for sale and competition, a lucrative and esoteric logistics business with a unique set of challenges. Some are European horses like the ones bound from the Netherlands for new homes in America and elsewhere. Others are show jumpers simply on their way to work: Horses with competitive, say, Olympic aspirations must travel the world from event to event to rack up qualifying points.
Several of the horses were being shipped by the Dutta Corp., a specialty logistics company that sends about 6,000 equines a year across the globe, contracting with commercial airlines. This year, for example, Dutta, a New York-based company, is shipping seven horses competing in the FEI World Cup Finals this week in Paris.
For horses on the way to competitions, one of the biggest concerns is a universal scourge of travelers — jet lag, said Tim Dutta, the chief executive and founder of the company. Working with veterinarians from the U.S. Olympic team, Dutta has calibrated the travel experience to minimize the effect on the horses’ performance.
Feeding is scheduled for the home time zone, even if the horses are heading from America to places like Hong Kong, where the company shipped the U.S. team horses for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Lights are kept on to keep the horses’ circadian rhythms constant on night flights, and the cabin is chilled to keep them fresh, he said.
“Horses are just like people, they need what we need,” Dutta said.
Shipping can cost thousands of dollars, and horses competing internationally may fly about a dozen times a year. From Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to New York City’s Kennedy International Airport for example, the fee is about $7,500 per horse, including quarantine once in America. Horses must have an equine passport displaying their vaccinations to fly and be microchipped.
The nine on the KLM flight began their journeys on separate farms in the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, picked up by drivers in brightly colored trucks with painted emblems of horses and airplanes on the side. The haulers pulled up just after noon at Schiphol’s Animal Hotel, a warehouse with little to distinguish it as one of Europe’s largest animal transport hubs other than a small mural with a polar bear riding a forklift into an airplane on one wall.
Jeroen Strik, a horse breeder and shipper, led Karieta Texel, a 3-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, off the truck and into the warehouse where she was to join horses like Cadillac Boy, a Rheinländer gelding, inside a roughly 15-foot by 20-foot shipping container that can hold three horses. The box, where they would remain for the entire journey, would later be winched into the plane.
“Every horse is worth millions to the owner,” from the tiny children’s ponies to the Olympic mounts he has hauled, Strik said, running his hands over Karieta Texel’s forehead. “I travel with them each the same way.”
Beside him, the young mare vibrated with anxiety at the unfamiliar setting, her coat sopping with sweat. But she strode easily into the cargo container to join the other horses, taking a deep breath once she was shoulder to shoulder with her traveling companions. Handlers lowered bars separating the horses and secured the animals in place.
Next, the three boxes containing the horses were lugged by a trolley to the tarmac. A faint smell of wood shavings and eau d’ farm permeated the main cabin of the 747 as passengers stuffed their carry-on luggage into overhead bins, most unaware that outside, a goose-necked, cranelike apparatus was maneuvering the boxes of horses from the gate into the rear of the aircraft.
In the last row of the plane, close by the hatch that leads back to the animals in cargo, sat the grooms, or horse handlers, including Sebastian Bolse, whose family breeds show jumpers in Paderborn, Germany. When Bolse, 29, sold his first horse abroad, to South Korea, he feared for the horse on its 5,000-plus mile journey. So two years ago he first signed up as an in-flight groom with Guido Klatte International Horse Shipping Services, a German company, to see for himself, traveling with several ex-Olympic dressage horses bound from Amsterdam to Chicago. His duties included making sure the horses were supplied with fresh hay and providing them with buckets of water to sip every few hours.
“You feel a little bit afraid because it is something absolutely new for the horse, and most of the time you as the seller don’t know about how it works exactly,” Bolse said. “I thought it was more stressful for the horse, and it’s really a relaxed flight. When they are in the sky, it’s really smooth traveling.”
On the KLM flight, Bolse was called upon to soothe the rambunctious chestnut during takeoff. Takeoff and landing can be the most stressful parts of the journey, when the animals can become startled by loud noises and the change in cabin pressure. As the plane gained altitude, the horses settled down inside the vaulted cavern of the cargo hold, poking their muzzles back into their hay when the plane leveled off. The horses are not sedated, but sedatives are available in an emergency, said Dutta.
With a picture on his homescreen of a leopard he once flew and a bag with each horse’s passport at his side, Cor Fafiani oversaw the shipment as KLM’s animal flight attendant, a job he has had for 38 years, he said. His work is not limited to horses, Fafiani said, recalling the time he calmed a rare okapi on its way from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Florida. He banished a hysterical zookeeper to the front cabin and turned out the lights to recreate the jungle setting of its habitat, instantly placating the creature, he said.
Horses, Fafiani said, fly best with the same common sense, no-nonsense approach: soft words, calm movements and plenty of alfalfa, soaked in water to promote hydration.
As the jumbo jet descended over Queens, Fafiani, Bolse and the other grooms headed to the darkened cargo hold, where they stood in separate shipping containers offering soothing words to the horses. A few stamped hooves and rolled their eyes with nervousness at the sensation of changing altitude. As the rumble of the landing gear deploying shook the plane, several leaned their heads into the handlers’ chests, pressing their muzzles against them hard for comfort. With a jolt, the horses landed in New York City.
As the plane taxied across the runway, the horses were back to quietly eating hay.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.