The Olympics were a huge success for all three equestrian disciplines--eventing, dressage, and jumping. Since the test event at the Olympic site last September, it had been an eagerly awaited competition. In the end, all the hard work and effort put in by the organizers, volunteers, and officials paid off handsomely. From a veterinary viewpoint, these Games were another notch in the run of recent successes, including the Atlanta Olympics and the World Equestrian games in Rome. This was my fourth Olympics, and I was particularly impressed with the helpfulness and friendly attitude of all the officials. All the competitions pleased the enormous crowds for every event, and the medals undoubtedly went to the best horse and rider combinations for both team and individual events.
Arrival In Sydney
A total of 237 of the world's best equestrian athletes from 36 nations arrived for the first Games of the new millennium. Australia has very strict quarantine rules, which affected all the horses taking part whether they were home-based or not. A total of 214 horses flew into Sydney International Airport on six flights over five days in late August. The horses had undergone a pre-export quarantine period before this in either the United States or Europe. There were five flights sponsored by the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) from New York (via Los Angeles), Frankfurt, and London Stanstead. The other flight was by KLM for the Dutch horses from Amsterdam.
The horses were accompanied by at least three team vets on each flight, and all traveled well. They were put into special air stalls and SOCOG paid for three horses per air stall. However, most nations paid extra to have only two horses in each of the stalls, which made for more comfort and better air flow around the animals.
They were monitored continuously, appeared to eat well, and the few that did not drink enough were given fluids orally to prevent dehydration. Apart from two horses that suffered mild colic attacks, which responded to prompt treatment, there were no problems during the flights. As a result, all horses arrived in good bodily condition.
The longest flight time was 27 hours, and the Dutch horses' 20-hour trip was the shortest. On arrival at Sydney, the paper work had all been organized ahead of time so the horses moved without delay for 14 days of post-arrival quarantine at the Olympic venue.
The horses quickly acclimated to their new surroundings at Horsley Park and soon were able to resume their training programs at the extensive training facilities provided. They were closely monitored for signs of disease by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) team, led by Rod Hoare, BVSc, MVSc, four vets, and a staff of senior veterinary students. Only three horses spiked a temperature throughout the whole period. They showed no other clinical signs, but were treated with antibiotics prophylactically.
The remaining horses from Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. Eventing Team had come out ahead of time and undergone the regular quarantine arrangements. They came into the compound on Sept. 11, the day before the FEI Rules and Veterinary Regulations were enforced. This gave a total of 248 horses, of which 237 were eligible for competition.
There were 202 horses stabled in the main compound. The remaining 35 were accommodated in the separation barn specially prepared to house the horses which had tested positive for piroplasmosis in their blood prior to leaving for Australia. These animals were quite healthy, but were subjected to a tick search, closely monitored by the AQIS team, and kept isolated at all times except during competition. There proved to be no risk of any cross infection or any other problems with these horses.
The Venue And Vet Facilities
The Sydney International Equestrian Centre (SIEC) was the venue for all three Olympic equestrian competitions. It was built at a cost of more than $40 million (Australian) and was a truly magnificent site. The Competition Manager, Franz Venhaus, and his team spared nothing in their efforts to provide the best facilities possible. They had learned some important lessons from previous Olympic Games, but also managed to put their own stamp on SIEC. The course for the endurance test for the eventing competitions was undoubtedly one of the best in the world and brilliantly designed by Mike Etherington-Smith. The Technical Delegate for Eventing, Jennifer Millar, and the Eventing Manager, Dr. Vince Roche, had painstakingly looked after all the details necessary to make it a superb competition. The surfaces of all the arenas and training areas were managed as they have been for the last six Olympics by Herman Ducjek (or Dr. Dirt as he was affectionately nicknamed in Atlanta!).
There was accommodation for up to 350 horses in the main stable compound and the separation barn. All of the stalls were a good size (3.6 X 3.6 meters or 11.8 X 11.8 feet) set in open barns with high roofing and good air venting at the top. Only the 18-hand Swiss horse Calvarro needed a double box. The horses were bedded on a choice of straw, paper, or shavings. Wash stalls and weight scales were available in each barn. The grooms remained on site to look after the horses and were housed in their own "village" adjacent to the compound.
The veterinary complex also was a first-class facility and was situated adjacent to the main stables. This secure area housed the offices for the Veterinary Commission and Medication Control, four doping boxes, five treatment boxes, and the clinic itself. The clinic consisted of a large examination area with a set of stocks, a pharmacy, darkroom, clinical pathology laboratory, and an office. Every item of sophisticated equipment necessary to diagnose and treat emergency and performance-related problems was available. This included radiography, ultrasonography, endoscopy, thermography, and even the latest shock wave therapy equipment. The clinical pathology laboratory was set up to conduct any tests that the team vets requested, and contained the latest equipment to carry out automated cell counts and biochemical analyses.
The Olympic Vet Team
As you would expect, there was a very high profile of elite equine vets at the Games. First and foremost, and the leader of the team, was Nigel Nichols, BVSc, SOCOG's Veterinary Services Manager. He did a splendid job of organizing every possible veterinary scenario for the three disciplines and had assembled expert vets from Australia and around the world to be able to cope with all eventualities. In total, there were more than 100 vets at the Games, which was more than the total number of horses in each discipline! However, this was not overkill as every single one had an important role and played it most effectively--it takes that number to be confident of ensuring the safety and welfare of the equine athletes.
The Olympic clinic began to function from the time the first shipment of horses arrived from the United States in late August until the last horse flew out on Friday, Oct. 6 (more than six weeks). It was open for team vets to bring their horses 24 hours a day and was kept very busy throughout the Games. In that time, some 500 blood samples were taken for hematological screens and bio-chemical profiles to ensure the health and fitness of the horses.
As was the case in Atlanta four years earlier, the horses were undoubtedly the best cared for athletes at the Games! The grooms had them turned out for all the inspections and competitions looking fabulous. Healthwise, they were in very good shape, but over the extended period away from home, some health problems were to be expected. There were three fairly serious cases of colic that were managed by the team and clinic vets. One was even taken to the operating facility at the quarantine station at Eastern Creek just a few miles away, but it finally responded to medical treatment without having to undergo surgery. The horse recovered and was able to compete successfully.
There were no cases of respiratory disease in quarantine or during competition, which was a great relief to the AQIS vets. A number of minor skin and eye problems occurred, which were taken care of by the team vets and the horses were allowed to compete.
Before competition commenced, a number of horses were subjected to a new treatment for ligament and tendon injuries referred to as extracorporeal shock wave therapy (see The Horse, Sounds Of The Future, June 2000). I think we'll be hearing a lot more about this for some suspensory and other orthopedic problems in the future. At the present time, the jury is still out as to its proven efficacy, but Jack Snyder, DVM, has a major research project underway (see The Horse, Olympic Preview, June 2000).
The official first veterinary examination and passport control was carried out by the Veterinary Commission on Tuesday, Sept. 12. The horses all looked fine and there were no passport irregularities to report to the Appeal Committee. A series of veterinary meetings was staged with the team vets for all three disciplines to explain specific points about the rules, medication matters, and the horse inspections.
Medication And Doping Control
The rules are clear about doping horses, and there is a very strict control to ensure a drug-free competition. However, the horses are on site for several weeks, and some medication is permitted up to three days before the start of the competition. Team vets had to notify the Veterinary Commission of their intentions by completing forms for emergency medication, alternative therapy, and permission to administer non-prohibited substances (rehydration fluids and antibiotics).
Urine and blood samples were collected from 48 horses throughout the 16 days of the Games. This was 20% of the horses entered and more than 25% of horses which actually competed--which is four or five times higher than is normally required by the FEI. This was not done because increased doping was suspected, but to highlight the fact that the equestrian events remain "clean" despite what might be happening in the rest of the sporting world. Dr. Warwick Vale and his team of students and stewards took samples after random selection; one spot test was conducted on a dressage horse, which was requested by the Ground Jury, and the obligatory medal horses (i.e. first three places) also underwent testing.
The samples all were sent immediately to the analytical laboratory in Sydney and the results reported to the Head of the Veterinary Department in Lausanne, Switzerland, within a few days.
Both eventing competitions were full of drama and excitement, bringing out the best in all the horses. They looked fit and well at the first horse inspection, watched by a large crowd in the main stadium. This was followed by a high standard of dressage, setting things up for an exciting competition.
For both endurance test days, there were around 70 vets and 17 vet students on hand so that all emergencies and eventualities were covered. The plan included three roving teams of two vets each in four-wheel-drive vehicles exten-sively equipped to cope with all emergencies. They were sited one on either side of the course and the third in the center. Each was equipped to anesthetize a horse, provide oxygen, and apply long Kimsey splints in fracture cases.
The cross country course was divided into six sectors, and teams of two experienced vets were placed in each sector in four-wheel-drive vehicles. The 32 fences on the course were looked after by 16 vets, and there were two vets each allocated to the steeplechase, Phases A and C, the C Halt, and at the end of Phase D to monitor the horses after the cross country.
In addition, there was one vet in control organizing the radio network provided solely for the vets. A total of 32 radios were used to keep all the vets in constant contact. They reported into control, and the messages or information about injured or tired horses were passed on to the appropriate person. The Veterinary Commission had two members monitoring horses in the 10-minute box, one in the D box, and one roving and keeping an eye on the activity back in the stables. In case of emergency, there were 14 four-wheel-drive vehicles with horse transporters placed strategically around the course, and four equine ambulances capable of transporting recumbent horses.
The weather was unseasonably hot and dry for spring in New South Wales, and there was concern that there might be higher than acceptable heat load on the horses for both competitions. For the team competition, the temperature rose to a maximum of 28.5°C (83.3°F), with plenty of sun and a relative humidity of about 15%. It was actually hotter for the horses on the individual day at about 30°C (86°F) with little cloud cover and a much higher relative humidity in the morning of over 50%. This made the heat load on the horse considerably greater than during the team competition. We were extremely grateful to the organizers for providing an effective shade structure for the 10-minute and D boxes under which horses could be cooled.
In the team endurance test, a few horses had problems with the steeplechase and withdrew at the C Halt. Two teams with three horses lost their first horse early on; the other horses on those teams withdrew so that they could enter the individual competition. The C Halt sited at about 2.8 km from the start worked very well as a 10-minute mandatory rest stop, although there was a lack of shade for part of the day. Plenty of ice and water was used.
In the team competition, some 74% of horses which started on Phase A completed the cross country. This gave an overall completion rate of 64%, which was the almost identical figure for the team competition in Atlanta in 1996. The horses entered the 10-minute box with temperatures ranging from 38.5-39.5°C (101.3-103.1°F), and these were reduced by 0.5-1.0°C (0.9-1.8°F) before the next veterinary check at six minutes. None of the horses was considered to be heat stressed, and all were allowed to start on Phase D.
At the end of the cross country, they were all checked again, when temperatures ranged between 40.5-41.5°C (104.9-106.7°F). With efficient cooling techniques in the D box, those temperatures were reduced to less than 39°C (102.2°F) within 10 to 15 minutes and they were allowed to walk back to the stables. Rehydration fluids were given by the team vets to about half the horses after they had finished competing.
In the 10-minute box, the shade area (about 10 X 5 meters) was effectively used and did not become overcrowded as there were usually only three horses in the box at the same time. Water and ice were freely available, and some six tons of ice were used on that day in the C Halt, 10-minute, and D boxes, and in the stables and the clinic.
The horses sustained a number of soft tissue injuries during the endurance test, including the usual bruises and minor cuts. No serious tendon bows or ruptures occurred, but some tendon/ligament damage was recorded. Suspensory desmitis tended to occur on the steeplechase, whereas more superficial flexor tendon damage was seen after the cross country. Overall, the course jumped well as was reflected by the scores of the leading teams at the end of the endurance test.
In the individual competition, the horses appeared to be of slightly lower quality and fitness than the team horses. The weather on endurance day showed similar temperatures and UV radiation, but higher relative humidity. As a result, the horses came into Phase C looking hotter and arrived at the 10-minute box with temperatures between 39 and 40°C (102.2-104°F). They cooled down well and all passed the second horse inspection. The overall completion rate for Phase D was 63%; again very similar to the Atlanta event four years ago. The number of falls was similar too, but there was one catastrophic accident at Fence 2 of the cross country.
The horse Bermuda Gold, under Mary Jane Turnbridge (a very experienced horse/rider combination), jumped the fence without a problem, but must have landed badly on the left fore. The mare incurred a compound com-minuted fracture of the proximal cannon bone, which extended up into the carpus and further up into the radius. The roving emergency vets were rapidly at the scene of the accident and splinted the damaged leg immediately, injected pain-killing drugs, and transported the horse in the ambulance back to the clinic.
Here she was evaluated carefully, X-rays were taken, and she was given appropriate supportive care. It was decided to transport the mare to the operating facility at the quarantine station at Eastern Creek for possible surgery. However, on Snyder's advice, the owner decided the only humane option was to have the mare euthanized.
Although it was a tragic thing to have happened, it must be pointed out that this was a freak accident and was not related in any way to the course, the going, rider error, or tiredness of the horse. Experienced colleagues who viewed the radiographs had never seen a fracture like this one in a three-day event before. The veterinary opinion was that this was the sort of rare, unfortunate fracture that could have happened anywhere, at any time.
One horse pulled up after a satisfactory cross country round, but later went lame on a hind limb. This was subsequently diagnosed as a fractured pedal bone and the animal was treated conservatively with analgesics and a bar shoe for extra support. There was a bit more tendon injury, and like the team horses, this appeared to have occurred mostly on Phase D. The horses were well managed after the cross country, and all but one were presented for the third horse inspection.
The final show jumping in both competitions made for a very exciting conclusion.
The dressage horses were beautifully turned out and all passed the first horse inspection. The site for the inspection was on the road behind the stables. It had been planned that the horse inspections for all three disciplines would be standardized as much as possible and held on the same tarmac surface in the main arena.
However, the inspection for dressage clashed with a jumping session in the main arena, and so it had to be held in another location. Nevertheless, the horses trotted well on this surface and were considered to be "fit to compete" by the inspection panel of judges and vets. They also passed the second horse inspection before the individual competition. The horses in both team and individual competitions performed extremely well and to the highest standard expected of the Olympics. There were no other veterinary incidents to report.
The jumping competitions also produced some spectacular competition with exciting jump-offs for the team bronze by Brazil and France, and for the individual medals. There were three horse inspections for the jumpers, and all were successfully carried out in the main arena. Only in the last inspection did one of the horses fail due to a forelimb lameness.
There was considerable concern early on about the footing for the jumping competitions, but with considerable efforts from Ducjek's team and some help from the weather, the final team and individual events went off well.
The other activity for the Veterinary Commission was to carry out three bandage checks after the training session, the team final, and the individual competition. These went off well, and no signs of hypersensitization from wrapping or other abuse was detected.
All agreed that the quality of competition was the best ever. The crowd loved the whole equestrian experience, particularly the partisan home supporters whenever the great Andrew Hoy appeared. At every other venue when an Australian athlete appeared they chanted: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie--Oi, Oi, Oi," but at the equestrian venue, they yelled: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie--Hoy, Hoy, Hoy!"
This was a magnificent Olympic Games and a tribute to the horses, their riders, and everyone else who took part. As vets, we were proud to be involved behind the scenes of such an elite competition, and glad that the health and welfare of the horses was maintained throughout. So, it's on to Athens in 2004, and more "gold" for the vet team!
About the Author
Professor Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, MA, VetMedDr (h.c.) has been an official FEI Event Veterinarian since 1977, and has officiated at many elite championships including 4 World Equestrian Games. He has been an official veterinarian at the last 6 Olympic Games (1988-2008). He was President of the Veterinary Commission at Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), and has been Veterinary Technical Delegate at Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Professor Jeffcott was elected Chairman of the FEI Veterinary Committee and member of the Bureau in 1998, and served until 2006. He was then made an Honorary Member of the Bureau, and was the first veterinarian to receive that honour. He held the post of Dean at the Veterinary School in the University of Cambridge (1991-2004) and then at the University of Sydney (2004-2009).
POLL: University Equine Hospitals