The duck-egg blue truck gingerly joins a queue of cars lined up along the Eurotunnel platform in Calais, northern France, as Channel tunnel shuttle boarding begins.
Inside, Voske, a 10-year-old show-jumping champion, and his six equine companions breakfast on hay before the last leg of their Miami-Amsterdam-Britain journey.
“They are getting bored, like us,” said Sophie Broome, one of three grooms who have been tending the horses since they left Florida and the Winter Equestrian Festival.
The seven thoroughbreds are traveling on the dedicated horse transport service that Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel has launched ahead of the London Olympics this summer, when 1,000 horses are expected to travel to Britain.
Elite competition horses can clock up thousands of travel kilometers every year and require special care worthy of pampered rock stars.
Eurotunnel, which has been carrying passengers and freight along the 55km long undersea tunnel between France and Britain since 1994, has teamed up with four horse-transport firms to provide a faster, smoother service that aims to minimize disruption for prized horses that must arrive in peak form for competitions.
“We are always looking at ways we can expand our services for cross-channel transport,” Eurotunnel commercial director Jo Willacy said. “We became aware a few years ago that there was clearly going to be a major opportunity for transportation linked to the Olympics.”
Environmental changes and the stress of traveling can weaken the horses’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness and even life-threatening conditions.
Compared to the 90-minute cross-channel ferry service, a journey on the Eurotunnel shuttle takes just 35 minutes, requires minimal waiting time and is available up to four times every hour.
Eurotunnel first began working with three British horse travel companies — Peden Bloodstock, Harbour Shipping and John Parker International — in March 2010, targeting not just customers who needed to transport horses for competitions, but also British horse-owners who wanted to take their animals to holiday homes in France.
“We wanted to understand the customers before we fully launched the service,” Eurotunnel marketing and sales director Harvey Alexander said.
The positive feedback from horse owners, and growing demand, led Eurotunnel to join forces with another firm, Equine Travel Agency, which has operations in mainland Europe, in November last year.
Horse transport needs to be meticulously planned as travel can take its toll on horses.
The animals are prone to stress and can develop serious conditions such as travel sickness, a respiratory disease.
Traveling in cramped spaces means they cannot lower their head freely to snort, cough and clear their throat and lungs.
They also have to eat with their head raised, standing in one place, instead of typical head-down grazing behavior.
To minimize the risk of travel sickness, vehicles used for horse transport must be kept as clean as possible to avoid a build-up of dust particles and need proper ventilation to ensure the horses can breathe clean, fresh air all the time. Hay and feed have to be kept dampened to avoid dust.
Grooms have to be on hand to check the horses and need round-the-clock access during the journey to make sure they are traveling comfortably.