Don Morton, left, and Rafael Castellanos settle horses into their traveling compartments before takeoff.
It’s 6 o’clock on a mild, Kentucky spring morning. Most working folks are just rolling out of bed, slugging back coffee and already looking forward to the weekend.
Lexington native Don Morton and his co-workers have been hard at it for at least an hour. Weeks of planning and preparation have come together, and for a small measure of time, there is a stillness that mirrors the great expanse of Bluegrass morning quiet. In the dim space of an airplane stall, a 3-year-old colt with multiple stakes wins under his girth nickers softly to his neighbor. He shakes his mane and forelock and stamps his right hoof. He’s a star in his field, and he knows it.
The pungent smells of hay and tack and manure mingle and fill the air. Morton breathes deeply and nods his head. It’s time for this equine superstar to fly—literally.
Morton has worked for six years at H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Company, an equine air charter service that is the only one of its kind in the United States. His usual position is ground maintenance, but when the equine sporting season is in full swing, Morton takes to the skies. This leaves him in the air about three solid months a year.
“In the springtime, we are moving horses from Florida to California or New York,” he says. “Toward the summer, we’re moving horses back to Florida from New York. It’s one continuous circle all the time.”
During Morton’s early years, his family built trailers specially designed to transport horses long distances. “When I got old enough, I bought a small farm in Bourbon County and had some Quarter Horses. I’ve been comfortable with horses my whole life,” he says, adding that the flying is a bonus. “Seventy percent of our business is Thoroughbred, and about 30 percent is show horses, or jumping horses, like with the United States Equestrian Team.”
Morton says it is the logical choice for horse owners who need to move valuable animals. What would take two or three days cross country usually takes six to eight hours via plane, from stall to stall. The travel time might be shorter in the air, but the effort from Sutton Forwarding’s team is not.
Sutton Forwarding, founded in 1969, has agents in Florida, Kentucky, California and New York. Clients contact the agents, who schedule the flights. Owners or trainers prepare the horses for flight, and ground transportation companies, such as Brook Ledge or Sallee, pick up the horses and deliver them to the airport, complete with baggage such as tack and blankets. Sometimes, a specific groom will ride with a horse in a special seating area. Once the vans arrive at the airport, Morton and his co-workers move into action.
“The plane is a 747, 200 series,” Morton explains. “We have a stall system that is specifically designed for that plane, and we can carry up to 21 horses at a time.”
Accommodations are dependent on many factors, including how many horses need to fly in a certain direction, the value of the horse, what the owners want, and, sometimes, the season. Morton says that if owners request more room for their horses, the configuration will be for a stall-and-a-half size, which decreases the number of horses that can fly at a time to around 14. Typical trips, though, carry 15 to 18 horses, all of which are arranged well before it is time to board.
Once the horses arrive at the airport, they are separated and loaded into the plane—colts up front, fillies in the back.
“The inside of the plane will be like the inside of a horse trailer. The stalls are constructed around the horses, starting at the back of the plane,” Morton says. “It takes, on the ground, anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. We’ve been doing it long enough that we pretty much have it down to a science. We have five flying grooms, two or three guys building the stalls up, two guys walking horses on, and a lead steward who is over the plane when there are any issues that come up.”
Each horse is checked in with its baggage, ensuring there will be no problems with luggage claim on the destination side of the trip. Horses have all the comforts of their home stalls, including feed and water buckets and hay nets.
The flight crews make sure ascent and descent are at easier angles for the horses, meaning it takes the plane a longer time to reach cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. It also means the horses have more time to adjust to changes in cabin pressure. Where commercial airlines generally will fly through a storm, the captains do everything possible to fly around storms to avoid turbulence. The key, Morton explains, is to keep the horses comfortable and safe.
“We have a tranquilizer if they need it. We need to keep everyone safe and calm,” he says. “If you have an emergency in the air, it’s a lot different than a horse throwing a fit in a trailer on the ground. When you’re in the air, you can’t pull over.”
Despite long hours and somewhat dirty working conditions, Morton has every intention of sticking to his job.
Over the years, Morton has stood neck to neck with the likes of racing stars Zenyatta, California Chrome and Orb. “It’s been really neat to pick up a horse that’s just won the Kentucky Derby or just won a big race at Breeders’ Cup. People in Kentucky understand that. They are horse racing people,” he says. “These horses are superstars; they are in the top of their league, and I am taking care of them. Plus, I get to fly all over the country.”