A one-way van ticket from California to Kentucky for a horse whose owner wants him to have the whole trailer to himself could cost as much $10,000. Chances are that the horse would fly, which would run the owner about $6,000 one-way for the same route.
But not all of these champion horses live in the United States. To fly one from, say, Dubai to Kentucky could run upward of $28,000. If, however, the owner were willing to cram three horses into one pallet for that trans-Atlantic flight, the cost would be $12,000 to $13,000 — but that’s for each horse.
Part of what owners are paying for is transportation experts who know their equine customers. “Sometimes horses don’t travel great, just like people don’t travel great,” said Chris Santarelli, treasurer and a partner at Mersant, which transports horses internationally. “Some horses get into the stall and go. Others get anxious and get shipping stress.”
Mr. Santarelli said his company flew the horses that finished first, second and third at this year’s Dubai World Cup, a premier event with a $10 million purse. “They were very comfortable on the flight,” he said. “A lot goes into understanding the temperament of the horse.”
What the owner gets for the money is more than just a flight. The stall is lined with the hay or shavings that the horse prefers. Grooms guide the horses on and off the flight. Veterinarians tend to be on hand when a horse arrives to ensure its health and do any tests needed for it to clear customs.
And whereas commercial planes have gotten less luxurious over the years, planes carrying horses have improved. Charlie Fenwick, who won several major obstacle races in the 1970s and 1980s, remembers flying his horse Ben Nevis to England in 1978 to compete in the English Grand National, a steeplechase race that dates to 1839.
“This was a cargo plane, with no air-conditioning,” he said. “Everything was put on a 12-by-12 pallet. Ours had a horse on it. Others had generators on it or bags of seed.”
Mr. Fenwick said he remembered his prized horse being lifted off the plane on a forklift in Hamburg and stored overnight in a warehouse before finishing the trip to England the next day. “It was purely a commodity,” he said.
But after losing the Grand National on his first attempt, Mr. Fenwick rode Ben Nevis to victory in 1980, becoming the second American jockey to win the race. Now his horses enjoy better travel conditions: He recently paid $12,000 to have a horse flown from Ireland to New York and then put on a van down to Maryland.
Planes for flying horses domestically are specially designed to accommodate passengers of different sizes, with stalls that can be configured for the size of the horse or the comfort level prescribed by its owner, from standing up to being able to graze as if it were on the farm.
H. E. Tex Sutton Forwarding, an equine transport company based in Lexington, Ky., flies a Boeing 727 with “First Class Equine Air Travel” emblazoned on the body. It makes about 200 flights a year with anywhere from 10 to 21 horses on the plane; the biggest destinations are the horse centers of California, Kentucky, Florida and New York.
Greg Otteson, sales manager for Tex Sutton, said the company recently flew a horse named Arrogate, which holds the North American earnings record at over $17 million, and California Chrome, his racetrack rival, who won the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, home from the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. “They rode next to each other,” Mr. Otteson said. Both of them are well-bred animals, he said, “so getting along wasn’t an issue.”
Some star horses prefer to fly with an entourage. American Pharoah, who won the Triple Crown in 2015 — the first horse to do so since Affirmed in 1978 — travels with his lead pony, Smokey, next to him. (Smokey’s day job is to lead American Pharoah out for training in the mornings, but clearly the job has perks.)
“You want to keep these horses as comfortable as you can, particularly when you’re spending $1 million on them,” said Bob Elliston, vice president of racing and sales at Keeneland, a horse racing and breeding company in Lexington, Ky. Its annual yearling sales draw horse owners from around the world. “You’d want to keep it as you’d keep any other $1 million asset,” Mr. Elliston said.
Vans involve a longer trip, but still a luxurious one. While they look like moving vans, they’re equipped with air-ride suspension, so the horses don’t feel the bumps, and systems to keep the air circulating even if the van is sitting in traffic.
“You don’t want a horse who’s been on a long trip to be stressed out about anything,” said Curt Lange, manager of accounts receivable at Brook Ledge Horse Transportation of Oley, Pa. “You want him to be in the same environment as at home.”
The company offers three sizes of stalls, from ones in which the animal stands upright to one called a box stall, where the horse can turn around and lie down as it wants. For the company’s regular routes, prices range from as little as $1,100 for a single stall from New York to Florida to $2,200 for a box stall. But the prices go up in high season or if a horse needs to be somewhere at the last minute.
“Horses are just like a little kid,” Mr. Lange said. “They have a natural propensity to stick their nose in places it doesn’t belong. You need to create an environment where they have nothing where they can get in trouble.”
Mark Leone, a horse trainer and former top rider on the elite hunter-jumper circuit, said that during his sport’s high season, he could have 60 horses on the road at one time. (The season starts in January or February in Florida and moves with the warmth — like golf — so by summertime, it’s in the northeast.)
“Like a professional golfer or tennis player, we’re constantly in motion,” he said. “We’re down in Florida, and then we’re in the Mid-Atlantic, and then we come up north.”
Another option is the more familiar type of horse trailer — the kind with two horses standing side-by-side, tails hanging out the back. At the higher levels, these get used for the shortest of trips.
In the world of polo — which involves shipping ponies long distances, between polo hubs like Wellington, Fla., and Greenwich, Conn. — large trailers are standard. One reason is the sheer number of horses involved: a four-person team could travel with 30 to 40 horses.
Annabelle Gundlach, who sponsors the Postage Stamp Farm polo team in Wellington, said the trailers she uses fit about 15 polo ponies side by side. “It comes down to the economics of it, but it’s also the history of how it’s always been done,” she said. “Many of these polo people aren’t wanting for cash.” The truck-and-trailer combination can cost $150,000 and up.
On a long trip, there are risks greater than traffic jams and stalled trailers. Trainers say they worry about horses getting upset or sick en route and developing a fever. If their stall is too small for the distance, they can also develop circulatory problems, said Linda Rice, a top trainer at Belmont Park.
Another risk is a logistical one: Putting hormonally charged colts and fillies too close together can spell trouble.
“Fillies have to be loaded on the back of the bus, so the colts don’t catch wind of them,” Mr. Lange said. “Otherwise, you can have fireworks. Shipping horses is not like shipping cabbages or toilet paper.”