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How to Import a Dressage Horse (from Europe to the U.S.)

How to Import a Dressage Horse

*Featured image is of Emirates Equine SkyCargo 


Many dressage riders hanker after a gorgeous horse with impeccable bloodlines and paces to die for.

Although there are some super home-bred horses to be found, many people look much further afield to find their equine star, including overseas.

In this article, we take a look at what’s involved in importing the dressage horse of your dreams.

Exporting horses to the U.S. from Europe

Many European breeders export their stock to the U.S. Generally, it’s the responsibility of the transportation company to handle all the logistics involved.

The breeder will buy all the travel equipment for the horse on the owner’s behalf, including travel boots, halter, etc. Also, it’s the breeder’s job to make sure that all the necessary documentation, including the bill of sale and the horse’s passport, are in order and are released to the transporter prior to the date of travel.

However, it’s your responsibility to arrange insurance for the horse. Extra flight insurance is recommended, just in case the worst should happen while your horse is in transit.

Quarantine

Note that, in some countries e.g., Spain, stallions and mares over two years old are required to spend a month in quarantine prior to shipping.

In the U.S., the minimum quarantine period on arrival is 72 hours for geldings, but it can be up to a minimum of three weeks for mares.

You should be aware that, if any horse in the same batch of imports displays anything abnormal or concerning in its blood results or appears unhealthy in any way, the whole flight of horses will be held in quarantine until the issues are resolved. You will have to pay for your horse’s extra quarantine time, even if your horse wasn’t the one causing the problem!

During the post-shipping quarantine period, you will be permitted to visit your horse, and, depending on the facilities at the quarantine center, you may be able to ride him too.

Importation costs

When it comes to calculating importation costs, there’s a wide variance in what you’ll pay to import your dream horse.

Generally, it’s more expensive to import mares and stallions than it is to bring a gelding into the country, in part because of the quarantine requirements and costs in the U.S.

Also, airport fees vary, as do ground transportation costs. As a ballpark figure of importing a horse from Europe to the U.S., you’re looking at the cost of between $7,000 and $10,000, although it’s worth noting that the cost comes down if several horses are traveling together.

When importing a horse, it’s essential that you hire a reputable, full-service transportation company that specializes in moving horses.

A good horse transportation company will arrange a full shipping service for you, including all the administrative elements, quarantine, vet testing, air and road transport, customs, and any other requirements in the exporting country, transit countries (if appropriate), and the final destination country. All these costs should be included in the price you’re quoted for importing the horse.

However, you should be aware that not every transportation company includes extended quarantine fees, additional customs charges, and trucking fees are not always included in the costs.

You can keep the cost down by piggy-backing onto a shipment of horses. Although your horse will be traveling as an individual, you may be able to share the cost by having him included in a shipment of racehorses or competition animals en route to an overseas event.

Air transportation

In cases where it’s not practical to transport the horse overland, air transportation will be necessary.

The transportation company should provide an experienced, traveling groom to accompany the horse on his journey, usually at a ratio of one groom per two to three horses.

Essentially, the scenario of air transport is much the same as for moving horses by road. The flight itself is much more comfortable for the horse. For example, there are no roundabouts to cope with, no traffic jams, or endless stopping and starting at junctions. Once the airplane has taken off, it’s pretty much smooth sailing all the way.

The horse travels in a padded air stall. He will be given plenty of water and hay during the flight, and most horses spend much of the journey eating or sleeping, lulled by the monotonous sound of the airplane’s engines.

Unless the horse is particularly feisty and stressy or is known to be a poor traveler, tranquilizing him is usually unnecessary.

On arrival at the destination airport

On arrival at the destination airport, the horse must clear international customs before being allowed to enter the country.

That should go smoothly, as long as the necessary documents have been arranged by the transportation company, including:

  • Health certificate
  • Passport
  • Purchase invoice

The customs procedure usually goes quickly, although the process can take longer if additional items are accompanying the horse, such as riding equipment.

In the U.S., three days of import quarantine are required prior to the horse’s onward transportation to his new home. During that time, the horse will be blood-tested for four specific diseases:

General health exams will also be carried out by vets during the quarantine period.

Mares and stallions will routinely be tested for Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM), which will require an additional quarantine period. Any horse testing positive for CEM will not be permitted to enter the U.S.

How can long-distance travel affect the horse?

Whether they are transported by road or by air for a travel time of more than 12 hours, it’s estimated that around six percent of horses suffer some kind of transport-related illness.

Many horses arrive tired and drop weight quickly during their journey. Usually, once he’s rested, fed, and has enjoyed some freedom in a round pen or small paddock, the horse will recover quickly. However, during this time, it’s sensible not to ride the horse, as that could exacerbate any stress he’s suffered during his journey.

Be sure to monitor your new horse very carefully for the first few days that he’s with you in his new home. Take his temperature daily, and keep a close eye on his intake of water and feed. If you have any concerns, isolate the horse from others in your barn, and contact your vet right away.

Finding a horse abroad

Sourcing a horse from abroad is not something that should be done without first taking the advice of a trusted expert.

Before making a commitment to buying a horse, you must expect to spend time and money traveling around abroad, trying different horses, and getting to know a selection of breeders too.

Unfortunately, some slightly unscrupulous dealers do load the price of horses that are being considered for purchase by owners aboard who may be naïve. There’s also a danger that the best bloodstock is kept for home buyers, while others are passed onto foreign buyers.

That’s why an experienced second pair of eyes is essential when buying a horse from overseas. You’ll most likely have to pay for this service, but the money you could potentially save in the long run by avoiding a disastrous mistake is certainly money well-spent.

When arranging to have a horse vetted, always have him vetted as you would if buying a horse from your home country. That means, having a full set of X-rays, including a set of the horse’s back. Also, you should consider having ultrasounds and scopes done too.

Although it can be frustrating to pass on horses that have minor issues, that, versus the risk of going to the expense and stress of importing an animal, only to have serious problems appearing a few months down the road, is the wisest thing to do.

After all, imagine spending thousands of dollars to bring a horse to your barn from half-way around the world, only to find that he develops a niggling soundness issue within weeks of arriving.

In conclusion

Although it can be very appealing to look overseas to find the perfect dressage horse, importing livestock can be highly risky and is very expensive.

Always take the advice of an experienced friend or professional bloodstock agent when searching for your dream horse, and be sure to use a reputable horse transportation company to handle all the arrangements for bringing your potential equine star into the country.

If you imported your horse we’d love to know more about your experience. Share your story with other readers in the comments section below and us!

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  1. I have a two-year-old whom I have raised from birth, and I am planning to move to the US in a year or two. Do you have any tips on raising the funds for travel?

    1. We would suggest getting some quotes/estimates from reputable transporters, and then budgeting to save enough each month so that you can cover the cost (plus a little bit extra just in case) in a few years time when you are ready to move. Best of luck x

  2. Very interesting article, gives a lot of advise on the import of a horse. Had a friend imported a horse and was supplied a false set of x rays, the horse went lame after 3 days work and when x rayed by her local vet a bone cyst was found in the fetlock joint. The wrong x rays were sent intentionally and this horse should never have passed a vetting. The horse was inported from the Czech Republic. Case is ongoing. It helps to have someone you can trust and deal with reputable dealers. Do your research.

    1. That’s such a horrible thing to happen! For other people reading this, it may be a good idea to hire an independent vet to do the vetting and x-rays and get the results sent straight to you – rather than through the breeder/dealer or using their vet. We hope your friend gets this sorted soon, must be a very stressful situation to be in.

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