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When Horses fly

Polo horses above the clouds

By Lutz Deckwerth, Photos By Filet Film

It’s a muscular horse with an almost square build and an average height of 156 centimetres. An Argentine polo horse can even reach a withers height of more than 180 centimetres. Argentina, where the polo sport only became fashionable in the last century, is now the main breeding region for polo horses. The most common breed in polo, the Argentine polo pony, is a special crossbreed between an English thoroughbred and the Criollo, a warmblood breed from South America. It combines the stamina and resilience of the Criollo with the strength and speed of the thoroughbred, and is perfectly suited for polo because of its agility. Today, there are 24,000 registered broodmares and 7,700 stallions in Argentina. Hardly a polo tournament in the world is played without the “Polo Argentino” on the field. But this means that our coveted four-legged friends often have to cope with extraordinary travel stress.

Argentine polo horses at the Arena Polo World Cup in Azerbaijan

The Animal Lounge at Frankfurt Airport was opened in April 2008. With 3,750 square metres of floorspace, it is the largest and most state-of-the-art animal facility in the world: 42 large animal stalls, 12 individually adjustable air-conditioned chambers and 39 small animal crates. The Animal Lounge in Frankfurt is comparable to a 24-hour motel for animal passengers. 15 polo horses from Argentina are waiting for their check-in to Azerbaijan. “They’re really cool guys and they’re always happy. They’re standing here, they get water and food, and they’re fairly content and patient”, says Christiane Rohe, one of the animal carers at the Animal Lounge. Every year, more than 100 million animals take off from Frankfurt Airport: dogs, cats, fish, lions – and this time: 15 Argentine polo horses. The animals have already been on a 15-hour flight from Argentina to Germany and have to be quarantined here for 24 hours before they can continue their journey to Azerbaijan.

The Argentine grooms are already waiting outside the Animal Lounge. They look after and train the polo horses, and they even sleep in the horse boxes with them on a plane trip. Now their help is required at the Animal Lounge. One of the animals has become aggressive. “This is a tranquilliser. We’ll put it in his mouth and see what happens. He’s going a bit crazy just now”, explains Argentine vet Ignacio Campos Carles, who accompanies the horses on their journey. It doesn’t take long for the polo horse called Chivilcoy to calm down and wait patiently for his onward flight.

Two trucks, 15 polo horses, 5 carers and 120 kilometres

The 15 polo horses are now ready to travel from Frankfurt/Main to Frankfurt/Hahn by special transport in order to continue their journey to Azerbaijan, where they’ll be the protagonists of the Polo World Cup. “In Argentina, we take them from field to field and from farm to farm in these tracks in order to play polo. They know the drill. It’s like a taxi ride for the horses”, says Argentine polo player Simon Crotto, who’s travelling with the horses. It only takes thirty minutes to get the horses ready for their journey. Every move is perfectly orchestrated, and the animals are familiar with the process. Two trucks, 15 polo horses, 5 carers, 120 kilometres on motorways and country roads, and a driving time of one hour and twenty minutes. The Argentine carers always keep an eye on their horses via the monitor. And even the experienced truck drivers know what to look out for.
Special flight boxes are already waiting for the polo horses at the Cargo Center at Hahn Airport. The walls are padded, the bottom is covered with wood chips. The toughest horses in the world travel first class. Argentine polo player Simon Crotto knows what’s important: “Three horses go in each box. We have five boxes. And they’re really great. There are separation walls between the horses to keep them from picking a fight. They’ll be eating and drinking water in there until we get to Baku.” Each box, including horses, weighs three tonnes. The horses are now taken straight to the runway in special flight boxes. A Boeing 747 freight carrier is already waiting for them. The entire coordination is a masterpiece of logistics. Peter Grimm of Intership Horse Transport knows how many people are involved in making this endeavour a success: “I once tried to work it out. So, starting from Argentina, where it all begins, it takes well over a hundred people: from the vet and the lab to the official veterinarians, the transport to the airport, the agent in Argentina, customs clearance, the ministry etc. to those travelling with the horses and the aircraft handlers.” But one thing’s certain: Argentine polo horses do know how to fly. They’ve already led riders to victory on every continent