In terms of monetary value, what is the most valuable cargo you have driven on the road? Hardly anyone has handled a more expensive load than Michael McGowan, who transported one of the largest racehorses in the world for years.
Frankel has been unbeaten in 14 starts and has made millions of pounds at stud. McGowan, 55, was ‘travelling head boy’ for the late Sir Henry Cecil, the famous coach. He drove the prize-winning colt, thought to be worth £100million, to races across the country during his epic winning streak.
Cecil, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 for his services to horse racing, had every confidence in his transport team. “He also knew the dangers of driving a horsebox,” says McGowan. “Drivers have little understanding of how difficult it is, especially on bends, when transporting a live animal that weighs half a ton.”
Transporting royal horsemen is just as challenging when real kings are behind the wheel. Three-day eventing rider Zara Tindall is often seen leaving her Cotswolds farm in a 26-ton horsebox. The late Queen’s granddaughter won an Olympic silver medal in team competition in London in 2012 and is still a keen horse rider, now often with her husband and former rugby international Mike Tindall at her side.
Her mother, the Princess Royal, won the prestigious three-day event at Burghley in 1971, represented Great Britain at the 1976 Olympics and won several international medals. She’s also an experienced horse transporter and told last year how she feared one of her babies was “snapped” when she stumbled into a horse-drawn lorry while heavily pregnant.
McGowan says motorists need to exercise more caution even on a freeway near horseboxes. “They have to leave a longer gap at the front so that the driver can brake smoothly. The problem is that I slow down to increase the gap and then another driver immediately overtakes and fills the gap. It’s annoying and dangerous.”
To transport Frankel, McGowan used a 7½-ton horsebox, a popular truck size for transporting racehorses. However, for show jumpers and three-day eventers, who often require multiple horses at each event, something larger – and inevitably much more expensive – is usually required.
In 1947, 14-year-old Brian Oakley was among the first to realize that where there is horse manure, there is brass. The teenager used the carpentry skills he learned at school to convert a 40-pound Ford chassis into a wooden horsebox. It later sold for £200 and launched a British industry now worth millions.
76 years later, Oakley Horseboxes employs more than 100 people at its UK headquarters in Ware, Hertfordshire. Top-end models like the truck-sized Supremacy cost over £600,000 and offer enough bespoke features to put a sedan to shame.
The origins of the horsebox date back to 1836 when horses traveled to racing events on foot. To keep his horse Elis fresh, Lord George Bentinck had a secret plan to transport the animal more than 200 miles to the St Leger races in Doncaster, using a horse-drawn carriage. It won the race promptly with long chances.
The Rolls-Royce of horse transport, Oakleys can now be found in the Royal Mews at Windsor Castle and they have become must-haves for those who can afford them – including the Sultan of Brunei, Formula 1 team bosses , celebrities, the King’s Troop and many police forces across the country.
Often based on a Scania, Volvo or Mercedes chassis, the enormous Supremacy is nearly 40 feet long and has multiple configurations offering plenty of comfort for both horse and rider. A luxurious living area with up to seven sleeping places in the bow can be combined with a rear stable area for just as many horses.
“There’s definitely a sense of superiority in owning the best horse truck,” said Oakley spokesman Justin Bennett. “Owners go to events and see what someone else has in their truck and they want the same or better. We’ve had commissions for gold faucets, horse mosaics in the shower, and leather trimmings of all shades.”
Buyers can expect an 18-month waiting list for their handcrafted stables on wheels – longer than that for most premium cars – but one reward is that horseboxes retain their value, too. “Because the waiting list is so long, that can fuel demand. We’re very busy,” says Bennett.
Olympic rider Peter Charles was a member of the British team that won gold at the 2012 London Games. The former European Show Jumping Champion now looks after his son Harry, who is part of the current national team.
“We have four horseboxes on our farm in Hampshire and another is under construction,” says Peter Charles. “It sounds like an exaggeration, but if Harry is competing in Switzerland and has to ride an event in London the next day, we have to send different horses to each venue.
“Modern horseboxes are vastly superior to those I remember as a kid. They are super luxurious for the team but more importantly they transport horses with minimal stress and in the safest conditions.”
There’s no smell of horse manure and sweaty breeches when you step into a Supremacy — it’s like stepping into a chic, if compact, hotel suite. You walk up the electric folding stairs, enter a security code and enter the front living area. There is no sign of a herd of horses living just a few meters further back.
A touchscreen controller controls up to four pull-out sections to increase living space, including one that includes a full-size shower in the bathroom. A curved LCD TV with Sony PlayStation, Wi-Fi and surround sound hangs above the kitchen sink, which is set into a granite countertop.
Underfloor heating invigorates tired feet after a long day in the saddle, while air conditioning is ducted to every corner. Shoppers can opt for a washer-dryer combo, while outside a fridge-freezer stocks perfectly chilled champagne to celebrate a winning spin. A pull-out stove and grill with downlights and outdoor speakers add to the ambiance.
As well as being a luxury motorhome, the Supremacy can accommodate up to seven horses in air-conditioned comfort, standing on a padded rubber floor with protective kickboards. Water and feed systems provide the horses with Meals on Wheels, while the entire area can be monitored via video from the driver’s cab. A solarium is optional.
This particular example is based on the Scania P410 chassis, an air suspension truck powered by a 13-litre, 410 hp diesel engine. Sitting in the sprung driver’s seat the sheer amount of bodywork is intimidating at first, not least the height of over 13ft and width of 8ft 4in – good for maneuvering in an open car park but on a Cotswolds back road might prove more difficult.
“I think most owners are surprised at how easy it is to drive,” says Bennett. “Things have moved on since Mr. Oakley saw his opportunity, and for once, bigger might actually be better.”