As the world attempts to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, we meet one Dubai based horse shipping company which has successfully steered its own path through these unprecedented times.
While there must be very few people or businesses that haven’t been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the travel industry has surely witnessed the most instantaneous and catastrophic effects. Experts now predict that once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over, the industry will see financial losses of around $314 billion and a total of around 100 million jobs lost.
Yet one Dubai based ‘travel’ company has managed to navigate its way through the turmoil and in the process, keep the UAE’s horses moving.
We spoke to David Robson, owner of Equitrans equine shipping company to find out how the company has continued shipping horses and his predictions for transport in the year ahead.
With almost 20-years in the equine shipping business, Equitrans has seen its fair share of disruption in the industry; from the fallout of 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008/9 to regional Strangles and African Horse Sickness outbreaks with horses from South Africa. Yet nothing could have prepared the Equitrans team for the instantaneous worldwide impact that COVID-19 would wreak across the industry.
“We have been contingency planning for years, yet we never imagined something like this might happen,” he says. “It’s impacted the entire world and all businesses so swiftly; it’s been a real rollercoaster!
“It all began to change around mid-March, we were preparing for the Dubai World Cup. Some horses were here and others were still due to arrive, but at that time, no one knew if the event would proceed. The Dubai World Cup is one of the biggest and most prestigious events of the year. When it was eventually called off, we knew that this was the tipping point.”
It wasn’t long after this that the key projects Equitrans have been involved with for years began to cancel one after the other, Royal Windsor Horse Show and numerous big endurance and polo events in the UK, Spain and France.
“It just continued to get worse, with more stringent regulations for people (in our case, the travelling grooms) entering and leaving countries and airlines not wanting to carry horses due to so many uncertainties and general cargo paying higher freight rates than normal”, he says.
For many businesses, the arrival of COVID was a case of closing the doors and having staff work from home, yet as we in the equine industry know, the horse world doesn’t quite work like that. Along with the daily feeding, exercise and stable-care, there are also other less regular but no less essential aspects such as veterinary work, farriery and of course, horse shipping.
“Many of our core clients are some of the biggest names in the industry, from top showjumpers, endurance competitors and flat racing owners, as such, they function on a truly global level. They move horses around the world for competition, breeding and training.”
In addition to the regular large equine consignments, Equitrans also ships significant numbers of retirement and pleasure horses for the local expatriate population.
“Although the global competition scene was grinding to a halt, we found there were still many shipments being requested. These ranged from people planning to leave the UAE, horses retiring to Europe, horses who needed to get out before the summer heat, and various purchases made abroad to be imported, we simply had to find a way to make it work,” he says.
Getting down to business
“We went into contingency planning pretty much immediately,” David says. “During the first few weeks, new issues and the situation in each country was literally changing by the hour. We had countries implementing new requirements and regulations, airlines parking planes and furloughing staff and those still operating understandably seemed to be entirely focused on cargo and humanitarian goods.”
“On the ground, border inspection posts and immigration offices implemented new protocols and social distancing policies in addition to the reduced staff. The absence of passenger flights meant we had no way of returning travelling grooms, it was a nightmare!”
“The biggest concern through all of this has been the issue of human contact,” he says. “We’ve had people not being allowed into countries, workforce reduction across all aspects of the industry with most airports closing the majority of their services.”
But David adds that even on the ground, the lockdown has posed additional issues such as veterinarians, horseboxes and grooms not being permitted access to yards.
Of course, all this turmoil has come with an increase in price. “We are seeing an increase in airfreight costs of between 80 to 100 per cent,” says David. “It’s being driven by the demand for cargo from the Far East to Europe and America which has been so high that airlines began using passenger aircraft reconfigured for cargo – with both the belly loaded and even placing it on the seats.”
While airfreight has increased by almost 100 per cent, David is adamant that the knock-on per cent is lower than this for Equitrans clients, adding an increase of only around 35 per cent depending on the destination and horse size. He readily admits that while there is significantly more work involved in shipping each horse through COVID-19 restrictions, we have managed to reduce our own overheads by to keep the costs competitive.
Incredibly against this chaotic backdrop, Equitrans has accomplished six successful international horse movements in the past two months. Three flights to and from Amsterdam and one from London.
We would like to say a huge thank you to all the horse owners who trusted us with their valuable horses during this challenging time. While it’s not been easy, I must say, working with owners who believe in us to get the job done and a solid team together with key partnerships of airlines and authorities who trust us as professionals to lead the way in these times has given us the success and edge over other companies have not been able to operate at this time”.
Rolling with the changes
The best equine shipping logistics require a multi-person team to ensure horses ship seamlessly and stress-free from stable to stable. Ensuring the quality of service, while dealing with such upheaval in the industry, using a team now working exclusively from home has been extraordinary.
“Of course, it’s been challenging, coordinating the various changes remotely, but I think we’ve done fairly well to have managed this over the last two months and as we’ve learned and adapted processes, it has become easier.”
To date, Equitrans is the only company to have successfully operated six-plus flights in and out of the UAE over the last two months and David says they have begun to see an increase in horses looking to return to Europe in the months of June and July as some events and competitions come back online, having adapted to the new regulations.
“We have also begun more diversification. We have always relocated other exotic animals for breeding, conservation and zoos but we have begun to actively promote the pet relocations recently. Beyond animals, we have begun offering charter services for moving medical supplies and food.”
Advice for those planning to ship
Without doubt, This is going to be a challenging year for everyone involved in most industries including the equine industry.
The airlines have already noted that they do not expect horse flights to reduce in price until at least the third quarter of 2020. This could potentially be extended should countries have renewed restrictions as a result of increased cases of COVID-19.
David’s advice for anyone planning to ship their horse in the next six-months; is to really consider doing sooner than later if you need to move your horse.
“Things are tentatively moving in the right direction and we have a system that’s working, here in the UAE and on entry to Europe and USA”, he says. “Yes, the cost is higher, however, when you weigh this up against monthly UAE livery costs and the fact things could change again at any time, it really is worth thinking about it,” he says.
Another bonus, right now road routes through Europe are open, so onward journeys are doable. However, David cautions this could change at any point if infection rates rise again and horses could become classed non-essential travel.
He says, “We’re here to make the impossible- possible and to be honest, we are very good at it. But even we have our limits. If borders close, there really is nothing we can do to overcome this. If you are planning to move your horse in the next little while, plan carefully and try and make arrangements as early as possible”, this could be to your advantage.