Importing Sport Horses and Their Acclimation to America



Importing horses from other parts of the globe is not a new phenomenon. In fact horses that compete internationally have more frequent flyer miles than most people. You’ve heard the story before – someone traveled to Europe, saw 50 horses in two days, found their dream Warmblood and had him or her flown over to their new home.

For many of us, the idea of flying a new horse to America sounds scary and full of potential risks. The U.S. government claims that we import an average of 40,000 horses per year, while we export an average of 52,000, which includes sales horses and competition horses. Those figures are surprisingly significant. So actually how difficult is it for horses to fly and settle in to their new homes?

After speaking with many professionals with much experience in the process of importing horses, we found one consistent theme: find a good, reputable agent. The international transport agent you hire is key to organizing and coordinating the whole process with paperwork, vets, airlines, ground transport, and quarantines on both sides of the pond. So to start, we’ll assume you’ve already hired a terrific agent to take care of these details.

Prepare for Take-Off

Richard Malmgren of Hassler Dressage has been hired as a “flying groom” for numerous clients who want their horses carefully monitored during the trip to the U.S. He has flown on both major airlines used for importing horses, KLM and Lufthansa, acting almost as an “equine flight attendant” with an attentive eye over a particular horse or horses. Richard comments that some of the planes are all cargo flying nothing but animals and a few people. Other planes fly both people and animals with the back half as cargo (animals) and the front half seating regular human passengers.

Starting from the U.S., Richard begins his journey flying out of Kennedy Airport in New York on a return animal cargo flight to Amsterdam. These flights to Amsterdam don’t normally carry many animals into Europe, but occasionally there are horses on board. Once in Amsterdam, after only a very short stay, Richard is back to the Amsterdam airport to begin his task.

It begins with arriving at the airline’s special animal port where Richard goes through a passport and security check. The flying grooms prepare hay nets and water buckets for the trip. The horses arrive by trailer to this port area, where they are then loaded up a ramp into their travel container. Each container has three standing stalls for three horses, but the walls can be adjusted so that there is either two or even just one horse per container. These containers, now filled with precious cargo, are then loaded onto a train that will carry them out to the plane area for loading.

These containers have special curtains that keep the horses from seeing what is going on around them, and its Richard’s opinion that this helps the horses remain calm and quiet during the loading process. Incidentally, all the other cargo is loaded into the plane first, with the horse containers loaded last using cranes.

Once the horses are settled in their containers, all flying grooms have to be taxied to the regular passenger terminals to go through the normal check in with their luggage and passports. Grooms then head to the normal passenger gate and are allowed to board the plane during the early boarding process. They have seats at the back of the passenger seating area, where there is access to the cargo area. There is an Animal Flight Attendant in charge, and he or she has the ability to apply sedation if needed to any of the horses if they get too restless. Richard explains he’s never witnessed a horse acting up enough to need sedation during a flight, but adds it’s good to know that it’s readily available.

Once the flight is at cruising altitude, the grooms can then give the horses hay and water, and the curtains are lifted for better air flow. It’s a fairly long flight, seven and a half hours from Amsterdam to New York, but it’s generally “smooth sailing.” The grooms are allowed to stand at the front of the containers during take-off and landing to keep close watch on the horses. Richard comments that the horses do remarkably well in the air.

After landing, the flying grooms have to disembark with all the other passengers, go through customs and collect their luggage. They quickly take a taxi over to the airline’s cargo area to make certain the horses are A-OK as they are unloaded from the containers and immediately put into a large trailer to be transported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture three-day quarantine center. For New York arrivals, the horses go to Newburg, New York; for Miami and in Los Angeles, the horses are moved to an import facility next to the airport. Once their charges are safely in quarantine, the flying grooms have completed their mission.

Almost Home

All horses, whether a stallion, gelding or mare, must go through a short stay at the USDA approved quarantine facility for two and a half to three days. Each horse is in complete isolation for that time and receives various tests. As long as the test results come back negative, all horses under two years of age (730 days) and all geldings can immediately be released to trailer to their new home.

If it is a mare or stallion two years or older, he or she must be relocated to a special second quarantine and testing farm called a CEM (Contagious Equine Metritis) quarantine center. Sharon Clark is the owner/manager of Rigbie Farm in Darlington, Maryland, which has been in operation as an approved CEM quarantine farm for more than 20 years.

Contagious Equine Metritis is a highly contagious venereal disease passable from stallion to mare or mare to stallion during mating or teasing. Even stallion to stallion infection can occur via the semen collection process. The mare or stallion is tested for CEM while in Europe just before the trip to the U.S. Any horse testing positive cannot be admitted to the U.S. Because of the elusive nature of the organism, further testing for CEM is mandated by the USDA_APHIS once the horse arrives in the U.S. Mares undergo further culturing and stallions have to live breed two test mares.

The first reported case of CEM in the U.S. occurred in the 1970’s when a Thoroughbred stallion from England came to Lexington, Kentucky with the highly contagious disease. He bred numerous mares before breeders realized the problem, and it literally halted all breeding in that region. The Thoroughbred racing industry lost millions of dollars that year due to this outbreak.

So the mares and stallions leave the airport and arrive in specially sealed trailers at Rigbie Farm’s CEM quarantine which is their temporary home for either the next 32 days for stallions, or the next 15 – 18 days for mares, assuming all CEM tests are negative.

The mares have it a little easier than stallions. The veterinarian at Rigbie collects three rounds of vaginal cultures on day one, day four and then day seven, and each one is hand-carried to the University of Maryland College Park laboratory for testing. The results for the final culture take another seven days, and assuming no problems, the mare is released. In 20 years of testing mares, Sharon states that there has only been one mare that cultured positive for CEM at her facility.

The stallions, on the other hand, have a more rigorous schedule. Using live cover, these stallions are required to breed two of Rigbie’s test mares while there. Rigbie maintains about 24 testing mares that hang around in lush pastures and are cycled through the testing process. Not a bad life for a mare!

In Europe, many stallions are never gelded even when not being used for breeding. So there’s a fair amount of older stallions that come through the quarantine that have never had the breeding experience, either with live cover or with artificial insemination. The same is most likely true for the younger stallions. According to Sharon, things can get very exciting for these non-breeding stallions, and they take special care in their handling methods to minimize this new excitement. Besides some regular exercise, for example, handlers make certain the stallions are test-bred in a different location on the farm so that they don’t think it’s breeding time every time they exit the stall!

When the stallion first arrives, the veterinarian collects an initial culture specimen, sends it to the lab at the University of Maryland, and waits the seven days for the CEM results.

Culture alone is not the sole method of testing to determine if CEM is present. If the culture result is negative, the stallion is moved on to breeding two test mares via live cover. The stallion then waits while being cleaned and treated for the next five days. The two test mares will both be cultured on days three, six and nine, and then blood tested on days 15 and 20. Once all the results of these tests and cultures prove negative for CEM, the stallion can finally be released. If any one of these results are positive for CEM, then there is a period of five days of cleaning, washing and treating the stallion, then a wait of another 21 days, and then the whole cycle has to restart as though it’s day one.

Overall the experience at Rigbie is a positive one for the horses, with daily walking and exercise so that they aren’t stall bound the whole time there.

Settling In

We interviewed two professionals who have imported numerous horses from Europe. Laura Robertson from Laurel Ridge Sport Horses of Temecula, California has imported more than 30 hunters and jumpers, primarily from Germany and occasionally from France. Being an amateur, she travels and selects the horses personally, with the idea that if she can ride the horse, then other amateurs can as well, making them very salable after importation.

Laura says that by the time they arrive at her farm, none of them are “crazy” and most tend to be very quiet. Only one so far came down with “shipping sickness” with a slight fever and runny nose to which she gave extra time to settle in. Laura errs on the cautious side during the adjustment period. She makes certain her newly imported horses rest a few days and drink plenty of water for hydration. She then turns them out for a few days, and carefully watches them since they need time to acclimate to the dry California climate. She feeds them a lot of timothy and Bermuda hay, along with a lower protein grain, with lower sugars and higher fat, which is different than what they ate in Europe. She watches for stomach ulcers due to the travel and food adjustment.

After one week, they receive their first set of shots and about a month later, a booster. Teeth are examined by a horse dentist since occasionally one arrives with wolf teeth to be removed. After the first week, Laura also sets up a “beauty day,” where the horses are primped with a bath, mane pulling, and clipping. In addition, the horses are reshod since their feet actually shrink in size due to the dry ground. Laura uses a variety of topical applications to keep their feet moist since their soles can become sore easily on the hard dry ground.

After a few weeks, if all goes well, Laura will begin flat work with her new arrivals, then eventually start the jumping. The young ones will attend shows just to be schooled, not competed. The older, more experienced horses will begin showing as soon as they are fit.

Michelle Lauber of Legacy Hill Farms in Castle Rock, Colorado has imported approximately 300 Warmbloods from Germany in the last ten years. They range from young prospects to seasoned dressage schoolmasters. Michelle imports through New York and uses a large tractor trailer to transport the new horses in box stalls from New York to Colorado, usually six to eight at a time.

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Since her farm is elevated 7,000 feet above sea level, giving new horses the time to adjust is critical. Before leaving Europe, she has all her new horses started on an immunity boosting supplement called Transfer Factor, which continues once they arrive in the United States for at least another week. In the first two weeks at the farm, they are hand walked, are groomed extensively, are fitted with saddles and bridles and gain weight. Normally they are riding the horses within three weeks and many times within two weeks depending upon how well they are adjusting. Michelle feels their patient approach has paid off since they have had almost no problems with the new horses.

During this ‘adjustment time’, it’s the chance to get to know the personalities of the horses. Michelle and her staff work with them in-hand to test their ground manners. It’s important to get to know their personalities which helps with training tactics and approaches.

Both Laura in California and Michelle in Colorado each expressed how much they enjoy the excitement and anticipation of getting to know the new Warmbloods and their personalities. They each commented on the language barrier since the horses have learned voice commands in German, French, or Dutch for example. So it takes some time for the horses to learn the English language!

Final Thoughts

Once you understand all the steps in the import process and you’ve hired a reputable agent, you can feel confident that your horse will arrive “safe and sound.” America has so many diverse climates, that each one has its own idiosyncrasies which should be addressed during the acclimation period. Patience is important. Seek out a local professional who’s had experience importing horses and find out if they do anything special to ease the transitional period. In general, youngsters adjust easier and quicker than the older horses. But if they are younger, there is a good chance they haven’t been handled much and will require a fair amount of ground work and in-hand training.

Lastly, it is important to pause and recognize that there is a lot of great breeding going on in this country, and the quality of our American-bred Warmblood horses has improved immensely in the last 20 years. And besides breeders, there are many sales barns who’ve done the searching, vetting and importing of sport horses already. Finding that next dream sport horse may be closer than you think. But if not, bon voyage!

Originally published in Warmblood Today March/April 2009 issue.