Olympic Equestrian Arrangements are Years in the Making

The decision to hold the equestrian competitions of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Hong Kong continues to be a topic of interest and debate. The events were moved because competition organizers sought to minimize the risk of horses contracting infectious diseases possibly present in the mainland China horse population. When the decision to move was first announced it raised considerable concern. However, prior to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) making this decision in conjunction with Beijing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a great deal of work was already under way behind the scenes.

By as early as November 2005, planners had analyzed climate data for August for both Hong Kong and Beijing, revealing minimal differences between the two sites. Furthermore, Hong Kong clearly had a number of potential advantages over Beijing when is came to horse health and welfare. This included less pollution than Beijing and the proximity of the new Hong Kong airport to the main equestrian venue at Sha-Tin. Horse racing in Hong Kong takes place at one of two racecourses. All horses are stabled and trained at Sha-Tin, which is approximately a 40-minute drive or a 15-minute train ride from central downtown Hong Kong. The other venue is the Happy Valley racetrack, which is surrounded by skyscrapers. At one time this was the only racetrack in Hong Kong. No horses are housed here--they are, instead, transported in for the race days.

Another advantage to holding the equestrian events in Hong Kong is the excellent facilities and immense expertise of the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). This group oversees all aspects of Thoroughbred importation, training, and racing in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has been intimately and extensively involved in all major aspects of the planning, construction of facilities, and development of protocols for the pre-Olympic test event held in August 2007, and it will continue to be up to and during the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The HKJC's input is under the highly capable direction of Chris Riggs, BVSc, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVS, MRCVS, head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Services at the HKJC. Riggs is a graduate of the University of Bristol who trained in equine surgery at the Royal Veterinary College before moving to the University of Liverpool and then on to the HKJC.

Hong Kong Olympic equestrian facilities

The layout of the main Olympic equestrian facilities in Hong Kong.

Following the initial analysis of climate records for Hong Kong and Beijing in 2005, and after the decision to move the equestrian competitions to Hong Kong, data was collected at Sha-Tin racecourse and at Beas River country club and golf course (the proposed site at which to run the cross-country component of the eventing competition) during the summer of 2006.

Construction of the competition arena, training areas, stables, and veterinary clinic began in 2006, based on designs produced by the Australian architect Tim Court, who designed the facilities for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Whilst the climate in Hong Kong in August is clearly not ideal, this is not the first time the horse world has been faced with such circumstances. When it comes to climate considerations, there are clear parallels with the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The advantage in terms of Hong Kong is that we are not starting from a blank canvas, but with a wealth of prior experience and scientific and veterinary knowledge. Furthermore, whilst in Atlanta we were faced with a long-format speed and endurance phase, in Hong Kong we have the advantage of the short-format cross country. We are also fortunate to have previous experience of short-format competition in very hot conditions in the 2003 test-event in Athens.

The climate in Hong Kong in August is likely to be hot and humid, and it is also in the Asian typhoon belt ("hurricanes" to most of us). This means that offshore typhoons need to be tracked very closely and their potential impact on competition predicted with a high degree of accuracy. The climate monitoring and severe weather management for 2008 is under the control of Leo Jeffcott, MA, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, VetMedDr, the Games' veterinary technical delegate, supported by the Royal Hong Kong Observatory. Jeffcott is the ideal person to be leading this aspect of the preparation and management during the Games, having been closely involved with this aspect of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the application and development of the WBGT index (wet bulb globe temperature index; see davidmarlin.co.uk for more information). Whilst a great deal of planning and testing of various scenarios had taken place in the time leading up to the test event, the system had a real test when a typhoon approached Hong Kong on the day of the trot-up. This eventually resulted in the trot-up being postponed from the Friday afternoon to the Saturday morning, the first day of competition.

 Chris Riggs, Head of Veterinary Clinical Services and Olympic Veterinary Services Manager, describes how misting fans will be used to cool horses down during the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian events.

Dr. Chris Riggs describes how misting fans will be used to cool horses down during the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian events.

In order to minimize the potential effects of Hong Kong's August climate on the health and welfare of horses, a number of provisions were made at the newly constructed equestrian venue at Sha-Tin. These included new, fully air-conditioned stables, air-conditioned indoor training facilities, and changes to the normal event timetable to avoid horses having to compete in the hottest parts of the day. Misting fans and shaded areas were also installed both at Sha-Tin and at Beas River. However, in Hong Kong when humidity is high the cooling effects of the misting fans are dependent on the temperature of the water supply to the fans. For this reason, the fans were not supplied by water mains, as would be normally the case, but they used water from large reservoirs holding iced water.

These provisions for Hong Kong are unprecedented and demonstrate the commitment off all involved to have a safe and competitive Olympic Games in Hong Kong. The culmination of these preparations was the pre-Olympic test event held in Hong Kong in August 2007. Eight countries (Great Britain, Germany, Australia, France, Sweden, Holland, Ireland, and the United States) sent a total of 17 horses to compete in the test event. Twenty local horses also competed in a national competition using the same facilities, but for reasons of disease control the two sets of horses were stabled separately.

The first aspect that was probably apparent to those arriving with horses in Hong Kong was the speed with which horses were deplaned, transferred into air-conditioned horse transporters, and whisked to the main venue at Sha-Tin and into their stables. In the case of Great Britain's horses this process was completed in less than two hours.

Another important aspect of the test event was ensuring that the air quality in the stables and indoor training arena was high and that it remained so during the course of the competition; this is always a challenge when feed and bedding (which inevitably generate some dust) are being used. The FEI instigated thisaspect of the monitoring, which involved the placement of equipment to monitor dust levels, volatile compounds such as ammonia, and local thermal environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, etc) in the stables, the indoor training arena, and outside. The results showed that overall air quality was very good in all three areas.

One area of considerable debate was at what temperature the stables should be maintained. Part of the problem here is that when it is 35°C (95°F) outside, 23°C (73o°F) in the stables seems quite cold when you first enter. Veterinarians consulted initially decided to set the stable temperature to ~23°C on the basis that we wanted to be below the upper limit of the horse's comfort or thermoneutral zone, which is considered to be ~25C (77°F), but to also have as small a difference as possible between inside the stables and outside. Another part of setting the stable temperature is that people judge what is right for the horse by their own comfort level in a room temperature. Of course because of horses' larger size (and, therefore, the fact they lose heat more slowly) and their fur coats, what can feel slightly chilly for us is probably just right for a horse. When on several occasions the stable temperature reached ~25C, it was clear that the lower temperature we had set was spot-on.

Following the dressage, the event horses had to be moved to Beas River for the cross-country, a journey of around 50 minutes. The stables at Beas River were also air-conditioned. The cross-country day proved interesting as it had rained fairly steadily for several days and was raining until very close to the start of competition. As the rain subsided the air temperature started to climb, and organizers ended up with the horses running in a WBGT index of ~30°C (86°F). The footing on the course held up well and the horses finished hot enough for the cooling facilities, which included pumped cold water hoses, to be given a thorough test. The cross-country competition was completed without any heat-related incidents.

The test event concluded with a successful show-jumping phase at night under lights. The lighting was extremely bright with relatively few shadows. However, following comments by some riders and officials, some resettting of floodlights and changes in lighting level have been implemented.

The test event concluded the next day with an open forum chaired by Her Royal Highness, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, president of the FEI Whilst the test event was extremely successful, there are always some issues that need to be addressed when running such a complex competition. However, the event was concluded with a very high level of confidence for the true Olympic Games in August 2008.

Although the leading equestrian nations will have already been looking closely at their preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Equestrian events in Hong Kong, it is essential that all of the national teams who have qualified to compete have the most recent, accurate, and best information in order to allow them to compete effectively and safely.

The FEI is committed to disseminating as much information as possible to nations in order to aid their preparations and one of the most important events in this respect was a seminar in Lausanne, Switzerland, held Feb. 17, 2008. Topics included an overview of facilities and local arrangements (Riggs); the results of a two year study with the Hong Kong Observatory dealing with the weather situation in Hong Kong for the Olympic Games(Jeffcott); the air conditioned facilities and cooling stations (Marlin, an author); and the results of horse monitoring carried out at the 2007 test event (Catherine W. Kohn, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM).

Some of the challenges to be faced in Hong Kong and the methods of dealing with them might be unprecedented, but it should be clear that a concerted international collaborative effort is in place to ensure that the horses competing in Hong Kong in 2008 will be able to do so safely.


David Marlin, BSc (Hons.) PhD, Scientific and Equestrian Consultant, David Marlin Consulting Ltd,and Global Equine Group Ltd

John McEwen BVMS, MRCVS, Chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee

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