A horse’s career may be crowned in a five-minute championship round, but the logistics of reaching that apex is a gargantuan task. Martha Terry talks to those working behind the scenes
When we cheer on an Olympic champion jumping his final clear round, we see the glorious fruition of months and years of training, practice and nurtured talent. What we don’t see is the monumental amount of time, negotiation, effort and the unsung heroes involved in physically getting not just that horse, but every horse in that championships, safely to – and home from – the event.
Just flying hundreds of horses across the world to compete in a global championship is marvellous in itself, but that short plane trip is a tiny crumb of the years spent preparing for that journey. In most cases, it’s far longer than the time the rider has spent training his champion.
Martin Atock is managing director at Peden Bloodstock, the appointed equestrian transporter and logistics provider for the past nine Olympic Games.
“Flying horses isn’t even 2% of our work,” says Martin. “The bulk of it is the preparation. We’ve been working on the health, transport, quarantine and logistics preparations for Tokyo for five years. We’ve been to Tokyo 13 times. The preparation for these championships is ginormous.
“Our job is to deliver horses to their destination in peak condition, and our service has to be absolutely perfect.”
Martin likens the horse’s experience in transit to a human’s “VIP lounge at a passenger airport”.
“While most holidaymakers travel in economy class, where it can be stressful with shouting, queueing, chaos finding the bus with your suitcases, the VIP travellers are escorted and arrive at their destination relaxed,” he says. “We offer the horses a first-class service; it must be smooth, swift and uneventful.”
There is still an element of class system aboard the aircraft, explains Martin Coakes, manager at IRT, which has been flying horses internationally for 45 years.
“Air stalls are configured to carry one, two or three horses,” he says. “If there are three horses in a stall, each bay is of similar size to a bay in a forward-facing horsebox with a groom’s compartment in front.
“We tend to say three horses in a stall is economy class, two per stall is business and one is like first-class. But, even with three horses per stall, the individual attention, including ample food and water offered by professional grooms, is certainly far better than the average economy passenger.”
No airport is created with horses in mind, and therefore the transporter’s job is to alleviate what could be an ordeal. The flight itself is only a minuscule part of the journey: road travel either side, plus quarantine, all exacerbate the stress on a finely tuned flight animal. Arriving in the middle of the night is key, so the onward journey can take place outside of rush hours and when the weather is coolest.
Martin Atock explains why it was worth having “years of discussions” working with the Japanese authorities and related stakeholders to ensure that the majority of horses could fly into Tokyo’s more passenger-centric airport, Haneda, rather than the expected freight airport, Narita – which is further away from the Baji Koen equestrian venue.
“Horses aren’t like normal cargo, it has to be smooth and easy for them, and Narita would have involved a longer drive in unpredictable traffic,” he says. “The airport authorities aren’t necessarily horse experts, plus there is a language barrier. Explaining our unique operational concept was arduous via translators, but we got there in the end.”
Quarantine is another logistical minefield. Each country has its own quarantine regulations, including stopover destinations, with Australia proving the most complex to travel to.
Transporter IRT’s Martin Coakes explains: “Australia is fortunate to be free from many serious equine diseases that are present in other parts of the work, such as equine influenza, so the requirements to import a horse to Australia are rigorous.”
Besides 14 days in pre-export quarantine (PEQ) and a further 14 days post-arrival, there are pre-PEQ blood tests, and the grooms caring for horses in the quarantine facilities must take a full shower including hair-wash before entering the facility.
“The export testing protocols are often complex and inflexible as regards testing time-frames,” adds Martin. “So any flight delay, even one day, can throw the testing out of sync and require retesting.”
Huge shipments of horses
Transporters such as IRT and Peden Bloodstock may be responsible for these overall logistics of huge shipments of horses around the world, but on an individual level, it’s the groom who shoulders the responsibility for ensuring their horse gets from A to B with all his food and kit.
While Peden Bloodstock has been working on Tokyo’s plans since 2015, grooms have to start preparing for a trip they don’t even know will happen.
Piggy French’s groom Amy Phillips, whose charge Quarrycrest Echo landed team gold at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon in 2018, explains the need to plan ahead.
“You won’t know you’re going to a championship until very close to the event, but you need to start preparing and hope it happens,” she says. “If you left it until the last minute it would be a sudden panic. Last year Pip [Funnell] got the call-up the day we were leaving, but she was ready.
“I try not to count my chickens, but you need to work out certain dates, like when is the best date for the farrier to come.”
Steph Sharples, groom for British dressage rider Gareth Hughes, who rode Classic Briolinca at last year’s Europeans, starts preparing well in advance: “We have to work about five months ahead of a championship, even though we don’t know whether we’ll be selected,” she explains. “We have to submit feed and supplement lists to check we are allowed to import these products.”
Each country has different import regulations, meaning restrictions on feed, additives and hay. Chaff is usually off limits, so if that’s in a horse’s usual diet, they will need to be transitioned to a permitted substitute.
“Some countries don’t allow any wood to be imported, such as Australia and Brazil, so we couldn’t take wooden grooming brushes to Sydney or Rio,” says H&H guest editor Alan Davies. “Even wooden trees in saddles had to be certified that they were treated.”
For the British teams, the British Equestrian Federation and World Class Programme give long-listed riders the heads-up on import regulations, and also ship out general tools such as wheelbarrows and rakes – with plastic handles – lightening the burden on individual grooms.
Each rider is supplied with a metal container for all the horse and rider’s kit (not including feed, which World Class takes care of after the grooms have measured out the correct ration), so grooms will check everything physically fits in. However, Pedens’ Martin Atock says there’s plenty of weight allowance.
“Our Olympic horses will have up to 800kg of kit, compared to a racehorse, which may just have 30 to 40kg,” he says. “But most will only take around 250kg.”
Happily for grooms, this baggage allowance sounds a lot more like first class than the minimal wardrobes many of us mere humans are restricted to on economy flights.
Amy says: “For WEG we weren’t given a weight limit, but we had a sheet of paper like an inventory to estimate everything’s weight. Luckily we have a weighbridge, as I’m not sure how you would weigh awkward things like massage rugs without it.”
Coping with the heat
It’s not just the vagaries of different nations’ import regulations – the climate poses another challenge for grooms. Alan says there were tests being carried out at the start of this year on feed and additives for Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin’s horses to check how the products would cope with the heat for shipping and storage while in Japan.
“Numnahs and saddle pads have also been tested to get them as lightweight as possible, but still absorbent enough for the heat,” he says. “The conditions will be difficult and it will take horses a few days to acclimatise. They will be in air-conditioned stables, they’ll be iced more and have their temperatures taken regularly.”
Amy was grateful for the hot summer preceding WEG, as it helped horses prepare for North Carolina’s heat. “While we’d ride the other horses at dawn to keep cool, we’d ride the WEG horses in the middle of the day to get used to it,” she says.
Steph says it’s imperative to check out all new kit at home.
“Sometimes new things rub,” she says. “I have a folder with lists, it’s like my Bible. I take it on the yard and back home. I have a new one for every championship, and another book in the lorry so when we are at competitions I can make a note on what the horse wore, say a fluffy or a gel pad, or what supplements they took, and their reaction. Then I can refer back if Gareth asks.
“I’m terribly OCD,” Steph admits. “I always start to pack and put stuff aside days before I need to. Everything will be quadruple-checked. I can’t relax until everyone and everything has arrived at the competition safely.”
And after all the preparation and effort, a groom’s relief of leading their charge safely back into his stable is cause for a celebratory toast. But not so for the transporters…
“When you’ve finished, you don’t have a bottle of champagne – you’re straight on to the next one,” says Martin. “A championship is a ginormous task, but it’s the same every second year. It keeps rolling over, but we love it and thrive on it.”
“You can’t have a groom on board the plane for every horse, but I always used to fly with Valegro – he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without me.
“Horses react in different ways, and you have to be ready for that. Freestyle is bold and brave, and was busy looking out the window when going up on the hydraulics, which are really noisy. I was handing her millions of carrots. Meanwhile Delicato said: ‘I’m fine, I’ll just sit in the corner and eat my hay.’
“They relax quickly in the air, and then it’s a case of keeping an eye on them and making sure they’re comfortable and it’s nice and quiet.
“If they get travel sickness, they spike a fever, get pneumonia and have to go straight on to fluids. I’m always keeping them hydrated and I’ll syringe water down their throats before using IV as a last resort.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020