As athletes converged on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games, a special group of competitors took an unexpected journey to Rio.
Roughly 200 horses flew to Brazil to compete in equestrian dressage, eventing, and show jumping. The sport is contested at the Deodoro Equestrian Centre, roughly 20 kilometers from the Olympic Village. But before they can compete, the horses must get to Rio.
“[Horses] have to go through customs, their gear needs to go through TSA and get certified so that it's clear to fly, which means they've gone through a bomb chamber or drug detection unit,” says Tim Dutta, owner of Dutta Corp., the official horse transportation service of the U.S. Olympic equestrian team.
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“Horses have passports just like human beings. Once all of these have gone through the checks, we load the horse in the jet stall and then bring them to the airplane.”
Jet stalls can fit one to three horses, making accommodations similar to choosing between flying first class or economy.
How do Olympic horses fly? “Only business class,” says Dutta, “These are the best of the best in the world and they’re incredibly valuable and nothing but the best is used for them.”
Horses travel with in-flight groomers and veterinarians to ensure that they stay as comfortable and relaxed as possible.
“My role is to make sure that there's no problems,” says Richard Picken, a U.S. groomer who estimates that he’s flown with over 1,000 horses in the past fifteen years. “Once you're up in the air at 36,000 feet there's not a lot you can do,” says Picken.
In-flight dining options for horses include hay and water with apple juice. But business class seats and high-end dining come at a cost.
“I would say you're probably looking at, round trip, about $20,000 a horse,” Dutta estimates of a flight from Miami to Rio, the route the U.S. eventing team will take to the Games.
While the cost may seem steep, equestrians are left with few other options. Traveling by boat would take weeks and would make competition nearly impossible for horses.
“They'd lose their fitness,” Picken says. “Like an athlete in a hotel room for three weeks and then going out and told to run the 100m. It'd be impossible.”
“Horses are athletes at the end of the day and flying them is the quickest way to get there and the safest.”