Precious cargo: How our Olympic horses will fly to Rio

  • A very special cargo will be winging its way towards Brazil this weekend as the first of the equine athletes fly out to the Olympic venue in Brazil.

    When the Emirates Airlines 777 freighter thunders down Stansted Airport runway at the start of its non-stop 11hr 40min journey this Friday (29 July), a behind-the-scenes team of organisers and vets is one step closer to ensuring the safe passage of all 233 horses to and from Rio’s Deodoro Olympic Equestrian Centre.

    Around 34 event horses will be in this first batch, travelling ‘business class’ in wide stalls.

    More eventers, plus dressage and jumping horses, will follow over the next 10 days, departing from designated hub airports in Liège in Belgium and Miami in the USA.

    Delivering these medal prospects in tip-top condition is the responsibility of Peden Bloodstock, an international shipping agent with an unrivalled track record in co-ordinating the logistics and practicalities involved in flying horses around the world.

    The cost of transporting horses to such a far-flung destination is considerable, especially since around 85% of them are based in EU countries. So who foots the bill?

    “Rio 2016, the organising committee, pays the pure airfreight fees for all qualifying horses as part of its Olympic bid commitment,” says Peden’s managing director Martin Atock. “The precedent of funding the transport of all athletes – including the equine ones – was set at Sydney in 2000. Prior to that, the cost was borne by each country’s National Olympic Committee [NOC].”

    National Equestrian Federations and NOCs are still liable for ancillary expenses, however, such as the shipment of equipment, aircraft seats for their attendants, plus the transport of reserve horses. With a return ticket to Rio costing in the region of €1,200 per attendant and €20,000 per horse, substantial budgets are called for.

    Medals are the aim of the Games, of course, so no corners are cut in ensuring the safe transit of each nation’s hopefuls. Two of Peden’s professional flying grooms are on board every plane, plus at least one vet. Liz Brown MRCVS will accompany the eventers from Stansted, monitoring them in-flight to make sure that they’re hydrated and comfortable.

    “Generally, they travel pretty well,” says Sarah Armstrong, head of administration and logistics for the British Equestrian Federation (BEF)’s World Class Programme. “The individual needs of each horse are very important – we’ve shipped approximately five tonnes of feed to Rio.”

    The vibrant South American venue brings its own challenges in terms of distance and climate, yet some organisational aspects have been relatively straightforward.

    “Unlike at some previous away Games, such as Beijing in 2008, the horses are not required to quarantine in Brazil,” says the BEF’s Pippa Wade, explaining that the competition area, along with the airport and transit corridor, is effectively recognised as an equine disease-free zone. “Biosecurity measures have been in place at the venue since the Olympic test event last year.”

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    None of these logistics need worry the equine Olympians as they jet off to the sun. With a small ‘overnight bag’ each, provided by Peden and containing inflight essentials such as a bridle and rug, they can settle down for the journey knowing that they’re in capable hands.

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