CALAIS, France (Reuters) - The duck-egg blue lorry 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 travelling on the dedicated horse transport service that Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel (GETP.PA) 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 miles every year and require special care worthy of pampered rock stars.
Eurotunnel, which has been carrying passengers and freight along the 55-kilometre 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,” said Jo Willacy, commercial director at Eurotunnel. “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 travelling can weaken the horses’ immune system, 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,” said Harvey Alexander, marketing and sales director at Eurotunnel.
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 2011.
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.
Travelling 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 behaviour.
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 travelling comfortably.
Red-tape for horse transport can be equally complicated.
Like humans, horses need to carry a passport when they travel abroad, but also require health certificates and export licences, which have to be obtained every time they travel.
Before Eurotunnel began carrying horses, connections between the UK and mainland Europe were ensured by air or ferry.
When flying with horses in the cargo hold, pilots have to take special precautions, such as taxiing gently and only gradually accelerating before lifting off at a shallow angle to minimize the risk of horses losing their balance.
Ferry travel is often disrupted by bad weather and, in case of choppy seas, can cause horses to suffer from sea sickness. Crossing and loading times are longer and grooms do not have access to the horses during the crossing.
“The biggest advantage of Eurotunnel is speed,” said John Parker, the owner of John Parker International, a British-based horse-transport firm that handles 5,000 horses every year. “For example, it saves us two days on a trip to Italy.”
Although using Eurotunnel adds around 100 pounds to the cost of the journey when compared to the ferry service, boarding is very swift and waiting time is kept to a minimum.
The lorry -- which needs specifications such as a leak-proof floor and ventilation when the engine is switched off - is loaded in one of the passenger shuttles, rather than the noisier freight shuttles, without any other vehicles, to leave horses undisturbed.
“The most important difference is that the groom stays with the horse for the entire journey, in case there are any problems,” said Parker.
Eurotunnel carried over 1,000 horses in the first year. This year it expects to transport 2,000, excluding those travelling for the Olympics.
The company has declined to provide forecasts for the Olympics, saying it expects to receive most bookings later in April and May.
Among them there will be the French equestrian team, which is shipping 10 horses to London in late July.
“Although travel by Eurotunnel is more complex because the lorries need to have certain specifications, the journey is smooth and there is no risk the horses will be stuck at the port in case of bad weather conditions,” said Pascal Dubois, technical director of the Federation Francaise d‘Equitation.
“There’s no chance they will miss the competition.”
Reporting by Elena Berton