Flying Horses: What It Looks Like When Horses Fly

Lufthansa Cargo takes careful measures when transporting horses internationally, especially for the upcoming 2016 FEI World Reining Championship.

Here, the horse container enters the airplane, which is either a Boeing 777 or MD 11. (Credit: courtesy of Lufthansa Cargo Animal Lounge)

Frankfurt International Airport is the gateway for most of the American Quarter Horses coming to Germany and Europe, as well as those who are leaving Europe for international competition. The Animal Lounge of Lufthansa Cargo at Frankfurt will once again be bustling when top reining horses from all over the world flood in for the 2016 FEI World Reining Championship.

When show horses have to be transported to international destinations, flying them there is often the fastest and best way. In Germany, Lufthansa Cargo Animal Lounge at Frankfurt International Airport is the only facility in Germany that can handle the equine passengers, and it is also one of the most modern airport animal stations in the world. More than 2,000 horses are transported in and out of Frankfurt each year, and it's in Frankfurt that lots of American Quarter Horses coming from the U.S. set their hooves on European ground for the first time. There are 42 box stalls in the Animal Lounge for the horses, but Frankfurt also once accommodated 100 show horses her in show tents for the Olympic Games.

Sabine Gebe, chief of Lufthansa Animal Lounge

The chief of the Lufthansa Animal Lounge is Sabine Grebe, who is a dedicated western rider herself. She is typical for the people working here: people who love horses and other animals and love handling them each day. And they have to, as this is a 365/24/7 job. When horses arrive at Frankfurt Animal Lounge, they are checked by a vet and then normally loaded into special containers with three box stalls at once. But after long drives by trailer, they have to rest first. Hygiene is of utmost importance here – no member of the staff is allowed to enter or leave the animal station without changing his/her clothes first. Bedding is treated like hazardous waste, and the box stalls are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each use.

“These measures are very important and pay off,” Grebe says. "We haven’t had any infection here so far."

From the first, a groom takes care of the horses and accompanies the animals during the flight. There are professional grooms at Animal Lounge for this purpose, who are mostly riders and horse owners themselves. But horse owners can accompany their horses as well if they wish to.

“We offer this opportunity to experienced horsemen only,“ Grebe says. “We very rarely have trouble with the horses in the air, but if there is, the groom must know how to handle it and keep cool. But we will teach the owner everything in a safety briefing before take off.”

Two years ago, Lufthansa bought new containers for horse transportation. They are made of polymer, which will not adapt to outside temperature so fast. Also, even if the material breaks after being hit by a hoof, there will be no sharp edges, which could result in injury to the horse. And for transporting a mare with a foal, the partition can be removed to give the animals more space. It is surprising how easily the horses can be loaded in these rather narrow box stalls, which is of course the result of the patient and calm handling by the groom.

The transportation process in Frankfurt is scheduled in such a way that there is always time to handle the horses without haste. A groom is always present; he stays with the container when it is transported by the dolly to the aircraft and then inside the Boeing 777 or MD 11. Transportation itself also is adapted to the needs of the horses. The container is well secured during the ride with the dolly to allow no shifting or sliding. And even the plane will be flown in another way than with non-animal cargo: There will a  smoother climb angle, for instance. During the whole flight, the groom attends to the horses, so stress can be kept to an absolute minimum.

With all these careful measures, it's no surprise that even national teams from various countries rely on the expertise of Lufthansa Cargo and entrust the airline with the transport of their valuable horses. And all the leading breeders are always happy to use the services in Frankfurt again, like Christiane Thomann who has been a dedicated breeder of American Quarter Horses for 35 years now and has been importing horses since 1990.

ABOVE: With gentle handling and patience, most horses won't give any trouble when they are loaded into the air containers. BELOW: The horse container is transported by the dolly to the aircraft; the groom wills stay with the horses the whole time.