What's it like to be an equine veterinarian behind the scenes at the Olympic Games? Horse owners got to hear about the experience at the Healthy Horses Workshop of the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention (held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif.). Sharon Spier, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, PhD, professor and chief of equine field services at the University of California, Davis, discussed her experiences as an emergency treating veterinarian at five Olympic Games and several Pan Am/World Equestrian Games.

"I've been very fortunate over the last 20 years to participate in these Games, starting in Seoul, Korea," she began. "People always ask how it all started--it was being in the right place at the right time, like anything else. In 1988, they had few experienced Western-trained equine veterinarians who could perform general anesthesia or emergency medicine; the vets were mostly trained in Eastern techniques. Because of our affiliation with UC Davis, my husband (Jack Snyder, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, chief of equine lameness and surgery and a professor at UC Davis) and I were invited to help support the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) team vets and Korean vets. This is where we first met Professor Leo Jeffcott, MA, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, VetMedDr, who devoted his considerable expertise to improving the welfare of horses in competition over the next 20 years.

"From the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the diagnostic equipment and emergency medicine supplies were vastly different," recalled Spier. "A similar situation occurred at the 1991 Pan Am games in Cuba (qualifying games for the Olympics); there were no privately owned horses in Cuba in the 90s, so few equine specialist vets were available ... we were asked to help again. This time we brought the majority of supplies from Davis, and we lived for a month in Havana, Cuba. Horses were brought from Russia for the Cuban riders to compete."

Horse Care Lessons

Cooling horses "Over the last 20 years, each of the Games has had their own unique challenges," she said. "For example, in Atlanta (1996 Games), high heat and humidity were big concerns. In response to these concerns, valuable research was performed by Drs. Kent Allen (DVM, of Virginia Equine Imaging) and Catherine Kohn (VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, of The Ohio State University) on the use of active versus passive cooling techniques. We've learned a lot about the best way to cool horses over the years, resulting in things like the misting fans and UV shade cloth that were made for Atlanta, but are now standard (for more information, see #11593 at TheHorse.com).

"In Hong Kong (August 2008), they kept the stables at 23°C (about 73°F), and they used ice water for the fans, which was very comfortable," she added. She reported that while the Hong Kong Jockey Club races every month but August, because the 100°F heat can present dangerous conditions for intensive exercise, the equestrian Olympics went off without a heat-related hitch. All events but the cross-country were held at night (starting at 8 p.m.) because of the temperatures. Luckily, the cross-country day turned out to be relatively cool (in the low 80s); still, hundreds of liters of fluids were administered to rehydrate horses on the cross-country day.

Transport stress Always a serious concern in horses shipped for long periods, transport stress fortunately has not been a big problem in most Games. In Athens (2004), Spier reported that the European location meant most horses had reasonably short travel distances and times, and, therefore, a lower risk for transport stress. For Sydney, Australia (2000), the long one-month quarantine period helped assure that minor transport stress in some horses was resolved well before competition. There was considerable research performed on minimizing transport stress, and team vets and transportation companies took this all into consideration to minimize this risk.

"Getting horses to Australia is no problem--you just FedEx them," she said with a smile, showing a video of competitors being unloaded from FedEx jets in Sydney.

Tendon injury Spier reported that in Sydney, 70 horses, including 47 eventers, 15 jumpers, and eight dressage horses, had their tendons scanned with ultrasound before and after competition. Up to that time there had been no studies of soft tissue injuries in horses performing at that level. Common findings in Olympic horses were changes in the superficial digital flexor tendon and suspensory ligament and branches. These findings were published in 2002 in Equine Veterinary Education.

Shock wave therapy Spier said shock wave therapy was introduced to equine veterinarians in 1999, and it was evaluated in Sydney (but not during competition) in 2000. It was found to be useful for some horses with chronic suspensory injuries, but its use is not allowed within five days of competition due to its temporary analgesic (pain-killing) effects.

Gastric ulcers "My husband and I first started scoping horses to investigate ulcers during the Atlanta Games, and we found that 75% of the horses examined had ulcers," Spier noted. "This was before much of the research on gastric ulcers and omeprazole (GastroGard) was available. In Sydney we found that 61% of the horses had ulcers, and they were less severe than those seen in Atlanta, possibly due to the increased awareness of gastric ulcers during the past four years and administration of anti-ulcer medications. Research done at UC Davis and other universities convinced the FEI that ulcer medication benefits the welfare of the horse and is not performance-enhancing, so now it's allowed."

Footing On the last days of competition in Athens, three horses suffered severe superficial digital flexor tendon ruptures. "After the first one, we thought, 'That's too bad,' " said Spier. "For the second one, you think it's a terrible coincidence. By the third one, you know something's wrong."

An FEI international task force of veterinarians and footing experts who investigated the injuries found that there was no single cause; a number of factors, including slightly slippery, not-fully-established turf; large toe and heel calks used on front shoes to compensate; and increased stress on the horses due to highly demanding, technical courses, combined to cause the injuries.

"Now whenever there is to be a new arena built shortly before competition, the footing must be sand," Spier noted. "The footing in the new Hong Kong facility was absolutely superb, as was the rest of the facility."

Emergency care "Because of the knowledge gained over previous Olympic Games, the veterinary team, led by Dr. Chris Riggs (BVS, PhD, DEO, Dipl. ECVS, MRCVS), head of Veterinary Clinical Services, was ready for anything on cross-country day in Hong Kong," said Spier. "Much thought and preparation was expended to predict anything (even up-to-the-minute weather forecasts) that could happen. Equipment on hand on cross country day included two rescue glides, one UC Davis Anderson sling, two large animal lifts, Kimzey leg splints, and four horse ambulances. Luckily, the only significant injury was a Swedish horse that completed the course in good time, then became very lame. He had a nondisplaced, repairable hairline fracture of the first phalanx bone. He's now back in Sweden, and I heard doing quite well."

Animal welfare An unethical practice in show jumpers called hypersensitization was brought to the attention of the FEI by international riding federations years ago, noted Spier. It involves injecting or rubbing irritating or caustic substances into the skin above the coronary bands to make the horse more sensitive and less likely to touch a jump.

"The FEI sponsored research performed at UC Davis to investigate the use of thermography (a specialized camera that detects skin temperature) as a tool to detect this unethical practice," she said. "Thermography has since been used in some competitions to detect hypersensitization. When it is coupled with a veterinary clinical examination at the time of inspection, horses that are too painful or sensitive (from any cause) to jump can be identified, and, therefore, eliminated from the competition."

Fun at the Games

Spier also related several interesting experiences over the years, ranging from the impressive 120-horse Australian Stock Horse performance at Sydney's opening ceremony to newly built veterinary facilities that were completed within hours of the competition. Some of the experiences had little to do with horses, such as the "back in time" appearance of Cuba, with many well-maintained old cars from the 50s, or the interesting options for cuisine in Hong Kong. "I saw chicken feet, duck feet, goose webbing, minced pigeon, and steamed roach on menus or in markets," Spier recalled. "I don't think I saw a single obese person in Hong Kong.

"Why do we do this?" she asked rhetorically. "The horses usually have much better housing than the vets--in Sydney we lived in unplumbed trailers, we shared an outhouse for six weeks, and we used candles stuck in beer cans for light. But we do this for the energy of the Games, and of working with horses and terrific people from all over the world. It has been rewarding to contribute to the advancement of veterinary care and animal welfare at international competitions for the past 20 years. I feel immensely grateful to have had this opportunity."

Further Reading


Gibson KT, Snyder JR, Spier SJ. "Ultrasonographic diagnosis of soft tissue injuries in horses competing at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games." 2002 Equine Veterinary Education 14(3):149-156.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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