The Logistics Of Flying Horses To The Tokyo Olympics

With the Tokyo Olympic Games kicking off in just a week’s time, athletes from all over the world are starting to make their way to Japan to compete in the prestigious event. But some of those athletes sport four legs and a tail, and require some rather more complex logistics to get them to Tokyo. Here’s how Emirates is flying hundreds of horses thousands of miles across the world.

Flying horses to the Olympics
How do you get hundreds of horses across the world safely? Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

Tokyo’s special Olympians

With the eyes of the world on Tokyo and its forthcoming Olympic Games, nations are already figuring out how to transport their elite athletes safely and comfortably to the country in time for the event. But not all of the Olympic elites run on two legs – some run on four.

Altogether, 325 horses will be flown to Tokyo to participate in the Games. International shipping specialists Peden Bloodstock is coordinating the mammoth airlift, which will take place over eight separate flights using Emirates Sky Cargo’s Boeing 777F. As well as the horses, the 777s are taking 59 grooms, 20 tonnes of horse feed and water and 100 tonnes of specialist equipment to Japan.

Flying horses to the Olympics

The first flight landed safely yesterday at Haneda, the first horse flight ever to land at the airport. Over the coming days, seven more flights will operate from Liege in Belgium to Haneda in Tokyo, transporting a total of 247 showjumpers, eventers and dressage horses for the Olympic Games, and an additional 78 horses for the Paralympic Games.

So how do you fly some of the world’s most important and expensive equines across almost 6,000 miles in safety?

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Flying horses to the Olympics
The flight was the first full cargo load of horses to arrive in Haneda. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

Emirates takes 36 dressage horses to Haneda

Yesterday was a historic moment for Tokyo’s Haneda Airport as Emirates flight EK9388 touched down. The Boeing 777F had taken off from Liege (LGG) in Belgium at 01:36 in the morning, flying for almost six hours before landing in Dubai at around 09:30 local time.

After two hours on the ground, the aircraft took off again bound for Tokyo. It arrived at Haneda International at 01:43, with a flight time of nine hours and 11 minutes. Altogether, the horses were onboard for around 20 hours!

Flying horses to the Olympics

As the first full cargo load of horses ever to land at Haneda, this was a special moment for the airport. The administrator of Tokyo International Airport, Takahashi Koji, commented,

“To see these horses arriving at Haneda airport is a truly historic occasion, and what makes it even more special is that these are not simply horses; they are Olympic horses. It’s a really big night for the airport, and particularly for the cargo team, and we see it as one of the major milestones of the final countdown to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”

Flying horses to the Olympics
British hopeful Gio getting ready for his flight. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

The 36 Olympians onboard this service were all dressage horses. Among them was Bella Rose, the mare ridden by Germany’s Isabell Werth, ten times Olympic medal winner, six of which were gold. Also onboard was Gio, the young gelding ridden by Charlotte Dujardin, double Olympic champion and a favorite for a medal this year.

Flying horses to the Olympics
A convoy of luxury horseboxes met the flight to take the horses to Baji Koen. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

After landing, a convoy of 11 state-of-the-art air-conditioned horseboxes arrived to transfer the special cargo to their Olympic Village at Baji Koen. Owned by the Japan Racing Association, the park was first used during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 but has undergone a major revamp ahead of the Games next week.

Flying horses to the Olympics
The facility has been overhauled to make it luxurious enough for these very special guests. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

Flying the horses safely

As you can imagine, flying 36 horses for 20 hours across thousands of miles is not a task to be taken lightly. Horse transportation is complex at the best of times, and when you’re dealing with some of the most valuable horses in the world, it’s got to be business class all the way. And that isn’t just a metaphor.

Flying horses to the Olympics
Horses travel in pallets, like cargo, in various classes depending on their needs and budget. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

Sport horses are transported all over the world, all the time. And just like people, they can fly in different classes of comfort, depending on their owner’s budget and needs. In economy, three horses will travel together in a stall on the cargo deck of the plane. Upgrading to business class will add around 35% to the cost, and will see just two horses per stall, while for around 70% more, they can get true first-class service and have a stall all to themselves.

For the Olympians, it was a business class ticket to Tokyo. The horses traveled two to a stall, having spent their time in pre-flight quarantine getting to know their seatmate. Buddying them up on the ground not only ensured no in-flight squabbles but also helped them feel calmer, knowing they were not alone.

Flying horses to the Olympics
The Olympians travelled two to a pallet. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

The inflight snack was a choice of hay or haylage per their preference, and the guests were served at least one inflight meal. Beverage was restricted to water, but was offered at regular intervals throughout the trip. In the place of flight attendants, these special passengers had an army of grooms flying with them to maintain their comfort, as well as an onboard veterinarian checking on their health.

Flying horses to the Olympics
The inflight meal looked fresh, at least. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

If you or I were to fly business, we’d expect a lie flat bed for our money. However, horses tend not to enjoy sleeping lying down. While they might take a sprawl in the sun at home, sleeping standing up is perfectly comfortable for them too. They have the ability to lock out their knees and hocks so they can fall fully asleep while still standing – so no need for reclining seating here!

Flying horses to the Olympics
The riders pitched in to ensure the horses had everything they needed – this is Team GB’s Charlotte Fry bringing haylage for her steed. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

Why did they fly from Liege?

The Olympic hopefuls on this first flight are representing teams from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, Portugal and host nation Japan, as well as individuals from Brazil, Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Morocco. With such a diverse array of origins, why did they choose to fly from Liege?

Horse Inn
The ‘Horse Inn’ is a luxurious stopover for traveling equines. Photo: Horse Inn Liege

The answer lies in the exemplary facilities at Liege Airport. Here, equestrian travelers will find a dedicated ‘Horse Inn,’ which includes 55 spacious and fully equipped stalls for the horses to undertake their pre-flight preparations. Rubber flooring is kind to their feet, while there are also showers and rest areas for tired grooms to refresh.

Flying horses to the Olympics
Horses can be loaded directly into the pallets from the Inn. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

As well as accommodation, the Horse Inn has onsite facilities for conducting pre-flight health checks, as well as for validating their papers and passports for travel. From the Inn, horses can be directly loaded onto the pallets for flight, making the whole experience less stressful for everyone involved.

Developed specifically to cater to the international equine shipping requirements of the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, the €2.6 million ($3.7 million) development now sees more than 3,000 horses passing through the facility each year. Liege partners with a variety of airlines for these specialist shipments, including Qatar, Lufthansa, El Al and Emirates.

Flying horses to the Olympics
Bella Rose is settling into her Olympic Village. Photo: Fédération Equestre Internationale

For Emirates Sky Cargo, the next few days will see many more flights carrying these equine superstars to Japan ahead of the start of the games next Friday. We wish all our Olympic athletes the best in Tokyo next week, whether on four legs or two.