Precious cargo

14 October 2022 Written by Robert Fedele

Flying horses around the globe is a multi-million dollar business that requires careful planning, patience and rapid problem solving.

Ever wondered how racehorses hop on a plane and fly around the world? The air transport of horses has been around for decades and its intricacies remain an intriguing aspect of the increasingly global thoroughbred racing industry.

A worldwide leader in transporting horses via plane, International Racehorse Transport (IRT) flies 5000 horses around the world annually and its Australian headquarters at Melbourne Airport is one of its busiest departure points.

Racehorses travel in various cargo planes able to transport up to 87 horses per flight in custom-made stalls. IRT Australia Managing Director Chris Burke says flying horses around the world presents unique challenges because on any given day the company has a horse in the air somewhere and needs to be on call 24/7.

“The biggest challenge is you’ve got everything set and then the airline has a wing flap issue and it [the plane] is parked for two days. What do you do with the horse?” Burke says. “It’s probably those curveballs that are thrown at you that keep you on your toes and keep you awake at night.”

Transporting horses internationally doesn’t come cheaply, with a round-trip costing between $75,000 and $125,000.


Racehorses must obey the protocols of the country they are visiting when travelling

overseas. Planning begins months in advance with the horse’s trainer to ensure an aircraft is available and all required codes are strictly complied with. There is a wide range of factors to take into account, including vaccinations and dealing with quarantine regulations across different jurisdictions.


Globally, Australia is considered a low risk regarding disease. Local racehorses venturing internationally need to have a blood test and be vaccinated for diseases, such as the highly contagious equine influenza, before stepping on a plane. Horses also require a certificate confirming their stables haven’t recently been hit by a disease outbreak. On the other hand, when international raiders travel to Australian shores to compete in the Lexus Melbourne Cup, tighter rules demand horses spend two weeks in quarantine at the Werribee International Horse Centre prior to racing.

New pre-travel vetting requirements put in place by Racing Victoria to ensure that international candidates are as sound as possible and have the most chance of racing safely in Australia, have added another level to preparing the horses for export.


The Australian Stud Book issues horses a passport for travelling overseas. The

identification document includes a silhouette of the horse and a stamp detailing its

destination. The passport also includes evidence that the horse has undergone required vaccinations before departure in order to clear officials on the other side. All equipment the horse is travelling with, such as rugs and saddles, needs to pass Australian Customs the day before departure.


Horses arrive at IRT’s headquarters on the day of the flight via float. Like people, they are bound by a baggage allowance and charged by the kilogram. Most horses travel with a small amount of feed for the transition when they land, several rugs, and potentially riding gear such as saddles. Any equipment taken over and brought back must be disinfected to meet Australian quarantine requirements and can sometimes be damaged in the process. “We always recommend taking as little as possible because, with the cost of air freighting it over and air freighting it back, sometimes it’s even cheaper to buy the equipment locally up there,” says Burke.


Horses travel on a dedicated main deck cargo aircraft designed to carry freight rather than human passengers. A cargo plane carries up to 87 horses on a full flight. They stand in stalls on the aircraft, called Air Stables, which they are loaded into on the ground, then raised into the aircraft by a scissor lift, before being locked into position. The process takes up to an hour. Each Air Stable can fit three horses and travel is split into First, Business and Economy Class options. First Class affords a horse a stall to itself, Business Class comprises two horses, and Economy consists of three horses sharing one box. Travel class considerations normally depend on how much the owner is willing to pay, but also if their horse travels better alone or with a companion. Stallions and colts are positioned up the front of the plane with mares behind them, or even broken up by cargo, to avert danger. IRT uses several airlines to transport horses globally, including Qatar Cargo, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas.


There’s no set rule when it comes to what horses wear when travelling on a plane and it usually comes down to what they’re most comfortable with and their routine. Some sport protective boots to cover their legs and hooves. Similarly, horses with troublesome

feet often have their feet taped up to prevent their shoes from piercing them during the flight. Typically, Burke recommends to clients that horses travel in as little as possible,

without shoes or leg bandages. “The reason for that is if in a 24-hour journey a shoe

becomes loose or you’ve put some new pads on the horse’s legs that it’s not used to, it might kick out the whole way and travel worse than if you had left them on their own.”


A cargo aircraft usually only contains space for around five people to sit up on the main deck. When transporting horses, IRT employs professional flying grooms to care for them during the flight. Sometimes, a stable representative might also be permitted to

travel on the plane, and a vet will occupy a seat. Professional grooms fly horses around

the world year-round. Burke reveals many of them have been horse breakers or worked on major farms as stallion handlers in the past and possess expert knowledge in managing horses. During the flight, grooms walk into the Air Stables, via a door, to check on the horses and feed them.


Horses are mostly fed hay and drink water throughout flights. Grooms, who walk down

the side of the aircraft, might also give them an electrolyte paste by mouth, which replaces lost nutrients and prevents dehydration. Some horses are stomach-drenched on arrival to aid recovery as a horse typically loses between 10 and 20 kilograms during an overseas flight. The cabin crew and grooms receive typical airline food that human passengers are accustomed to.


Up in the air, horses stand for hours on end but are generally comfortable and quiet. Air

Stables are cool and dark and flying arguably provides an easier trip than the road, which involves constant stopping at traffic lights and turning around corners. Burke believes horses handle flying much like people. “You can hop on a plane with your partner or your mate and you get there [your destination] feeling a million bucks and they feel terrible. It really is often down to the individual.”


On landing, horses are inspected by government authorities before being transported straight to their designated stables to recoup and prime themselves for racing. For Australian racehorses, there is no quarantine period in countries such as England. As soon as the plane lands, IRT hands over the horse to its stable representative. Burke suggests the highest risk of travel sickness emerges in the first few days following arrival. He advocates stables flying over their representative a day earlier so they are refreshed and ready to monitor the horse the minute it lands.


Australian racehorses who venture overseas will have to stay in quarantine before they leave and again when they arrive home for two weeks. Importantly, all travelling staff who handled a horse are considered contaminated and must go through a rigorous decontamination process. IRT cleverly developed a one-stop shop at its Australian headquarters recently that decontaminates the traveller, who must take a shower upon arrival, all clothing and even mobile phones.