Breaking News
More () »

Olympic equestrian riders take their own horses to Tokyo. Here's how it works.

Obviously, the horses have to be flown to the Tokyo Olympics to compete in equestrian, and it's a very involved process.

Jessica Springsteen, daughter of "The Boss" Bruce Springsteen, is one of the dozens of equestrian riders competing overseas in Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. But they aren't riding random horses when they get there. They will be working with the same horses they have trained and competed with for years.

What is involved with getting the horses to Tokyo? First of all, this is nothing unusual. Equestrian riders often travel overseas with their horses for events every year.

It should come as no shock that horses have to travel by plane, just like people. But they are loaded into stalls that are then loaded onto cargo planes. A behind-the-scenes video from Great Britain ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics showed that horses were loaded in two-per-stall. They fly with a support staff of veterinarians and groomers who, among other things, try to make sure the horses stay relaxed.

"All Olympic horses travel in style, in 112cm wide stalls, with two horses per pallet – the human equivalent of business class," Fédération Equestre Internationale, the governing body for the sport, said in 2016. Stallions will actually travel at the front of the plane so as not to be distracted by the mares.

Each nation's team has its own arrangement with different carriers. As NPR reported ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, FedEx flew some 60 horses to England. The weight of the horse determined how much FedEx charged, just like regular cargo.

The costs of flying a horse vary depending on weight, distance, which carrier is doing it and airport availability. A check of several websites finds the cost can reach up to $30,000 per horse for an overseas flight.

There are various makes and models of cargo planes that can do the job. Flemington.com reported in 2019 that a Boeing 747-400 cargo plane can transport up to 87 horses per flight.

And just like people, horses do need a passport.

"Every horse has a passport but, unlike human athletes, they must be microchipped to travel. They all also have an export health certificate," FEI said in 2016.

Credit: FEI/Jon Stroud Media
This image released on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, shows horses bound for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games being loaded on to an Emirates SkyCargo Boeing 777-F at London Stansted Airport. On the flight were 34 horses from 10 of the nations competing in Equestrian at Rio 2016. For further information visit: http://apassignments.com/newsaktuell. (FEI/Jon Stroud Media via AP Images)

What is equestrian and dressage? 

Equestrian is unique for multiple reasons. Not only is it the only Olympic event that involves horses, it also is the only one in which men and women do not compete separately. They are all equals here and compete against each other. It's also about a partnership between riders and their horses who have trained together for years.

Equestrian events involve three distinct disciplines: dressage, eventing and jumping.

Dressage is artistic. It involves the rider making the horse move by way of subtle commands. There is a compulsory round in which all the moves are prearranged. Then there is freestyle round in which the rider and horse perform to music. If done well, it can look like the horse is moving and dancing to the music.

Jumping is the form of equestrian most casual fans likely think about. The rider and horse are timed over a course in which the horses have to jump obstacles which can include parallel rails, triple bars, water jumps and simulated stone walls. Time penalties may be assessed if the horse and rider don't clear the obstacle or if they skip it. The horse and rider who get through the course the fastest and with the fewest penalties wins.

Eventing involves three events in this order: dressage, cross-country and jumping. It takes place over several days. Like golf, the object here is to have the lowest score. The cross-country element features horses traveling 20 mph on a course that has multiple, solid obstacles including fences and hedges, as well as water jumps.

Individual and team medals will be awarded in all three equestrian disciplines.

Before You Leave, Check This Out