The international equine athletes coming to Kentucky for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are, for the most part, used to traveling, used to comfort and, safe to assume, oblivious to price.
With 500 to 600 horses flying non-stop from as far away as Buenos Aires or Hong Kong in specially built in-plane stalls at a cost of as much as $50,000 per horse, it's easy to see why some are saying the first appearance of the Games in the United States is making it enormously costly. Yet few are willing to inconvenience their horses in protest.
The logistics are as daunting as the math.
Wide-bodied Fed Ex jets each holding 50 horses from European and Middle Eastern countries will take off from Belgium's Liege Airport for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on Thursday. South American horses will go through Miami, and Pan-Asian horses through California first, before moving on to the Bluegrass.
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The great migration already has begun. Some horses from Chile and Guatemala have passed their quarantine and are at the Kentucky Horse Park. Many more are arriving, beginning Thursday, in Northern Kentucky to begin their quarantine before being trucked to Lexington for their star turn. At some point, all will go home again.
Each plane employed in their multiple moves is a study in comfort.
Take the plane that brought 21 horses from Australia and Japan to Ontario, Calif., on Monday. Twelve people, known as flying grooms, accompanied the horses. Each of the grooms — three with the Japanese team, four from Australia and five from Peden Bloodstock, the official transport agent for the games — sat next to the horses so they could hydrate, feed, destress and generally administer to their charges throughout the 14-hour flight.
All rode in a fuselage cooled to the mid-50s. "The horses love it," says Greg Otteson, sales manager for Tex Sutton, the transport agent for the firm that brought the horses to Kentucky after their 48-hour quarantine in Southern California. "Horses put out a lot of body heat, and the coolness keeps the bacterial count down."
Dawn Strickler, shipping agent for Horse America Inc., said most horses are calm throughout the trip. "They can be sedated. But most don't need it, and the grooms generally don't like to do it," she said.
First class or coach?
Each horse, per its owner's instruction, can be flown first class, business or coach. That determines how much room each horse needs in the stall, determined by his or her size, breed and temperament. A first-class stall would be 7 feet wide; a business class stall would be a two-horse stall, allowing each about 3 feet, 8 inches of movement; coach class would be a three-horse stall, with about 21/2 feet of room per horse.
Peden reserves the right to refuse to send a horse in a stall that might not be large enough or safe enough.
Each move is also a study in speed, said Martin Atock, managing director of Peden, which has handled equestrian transport for the past four Summer Olympics and all of the World Equestrian Games since their inception in 1990.
"We are expediting the process so that the horses are not waiting to load or unload," Atock said. "The authorities in Cincinnati have been great. We are set to go from touchdown directly to the ramps to the Bob Hubbard trucks to the parking lots where the horses will be held for quarantine."
A borrowed horse?
Not every competitor in the Games brought his or her own horse, despite the advertised speed and comfort of the process. The Australian vaulting team opted to come to Tennessee on Sept. 2 and train on the horses they will use for the Games instead of paying to bring their five Percheron/Thoroughbred mixes with them.
Bronwen Lowe, international vaulting coordinator for the Australian vaulting team, said the U.S. games are "enormously expensive, easily four times as expensive as any WEG we've been to." Lowe also said that because her team receives no support from the Australian government, as many European teams do for the pre-Olympic event, the cost of bringing the horses was prohibitive.
Lowe also noted that U.S. vaulters have lost horses who died in transit. Horses, she said, "are psychological beings, too," and the long trip and the stress put on them was part of the decision not to bring them.
Joanie Morris, director of communications for the United States Equestrian Federation, said vaulting and para-dressage are the only two disciplines that may use horses in competition on which riders did not qualify. "Due to rules of the other disciplines, horse and rider combinations qualify together," said Morris. "It's the partnership that earns the certification."
Peden's Atock defended the cost of the shipping, saying it is well understood by the competitors for whom, he suspects, this is not their greatest expense. There is insurance on their well-trained horses, there is training, and there are veterinary costs.
"With horses at this level, the money, where does it start?" asks Atock. "Where does it end?"