The Olympic Vet

Behind every great Olympic equestrian three-day event team of riders and horses is a ground crew that makes everything go as planned. The fine-tuning of each equine competitor's health specifically for the Sydney challenge began long before the 2000 Olympic short-list made the papers. A group of veterinarians and farriers have followed every move of the potential team candidates as they perform in such competitions as the four star Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and Badminton in England.

"We are directly involved with the soundness and health issues (of Olympic candidates)," explained Brendan Furlong, MVB, MRCVS, the U.S. Three-Day Olympic team veterinarian for Sydney 2000. When the U.S. team members compete, Furlong provides help at many different competitions in the United States and overseas. He was chosen early on to be the veterinarian for the Sydney three-day team. "I agreed to be a veterinarian with the three-day team at Atlanta (Olympics, 1996), and it continued on with the next cycle."

You might wonder how a vet works his way up to the ranks of fine-tuning the health of Olympic-caliber horses. Furlong grew up on a farm in Ireland and went to veterinary school at Dublin. He graduated and came to the United States in 1977 to work as an equine practitioner. His practice had a strong emphasis on show and competition horses even then, and Furlong began to travel with the United States show jumping, eventing, and combined driving teams. He was a team veterinarian at world-class competitions such as the 1980 Olympic events, the 1991 World Pairs Driving team in Zwettl, Austria for the gold medal-winning team, the World Equestrian Games for the three-day team in Italy, two open European Championships, and numerous three-day events at Badminton and Burleigh. He traveled with show jumping tours to Europe and Mexico, and was team vet for the silver medal-winning three-day team at Atlanta. Most recently, he was the team vet for the gold medal-winning team at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.

One of Furlong's most memorable experiences involving his work with the U.S. teams was after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with the three-day team. "I had two personal friends and clients of the practice, Jill Henneberg and Bruce Davidson, and two occasional clients, David and Karen O' Connor, on the team winning the silver. Kerry Millikin, an occasional client, was an individual with the team, winning the the bronze. Some of the squads sent the medals to my house so our kids could see and handle them. This was very special."

Furlong services clients in the Northeast and in Florida during the winter. The dedication to the well-being of each individual is apparent in how difficult it is to locate him for an interview. Immediately following the Rolex Three-Day event, Furlong described his involvement with the United States Equestrian Team (USET) members, and his preparation for Sydney 2000. That preparation began four years ago, but began gathering steam last September at the Sydney International Three-Day Event, a dress rehearsal for the Olympics. (See The Horse of December 1999, pp. 76-77.)

"I went with the test event (team in Sydney last September), and we shipped down two horses" for Bruce Davidson, Sr. and John Williams, explained Furlong. The test event was designed to resemble the conditions that will be present during the Olympic three-day event, which will be Sept. 16-22.

According to Furlong, the weather was very similar to nice fall weather in the United States, which will be beneficial to the horses.

Health Concerns And Travel Plans

Our Countdown to Sydney story in July focused on how important a horse's travel experience is to his athletic performance and well-being. The travel itinerary for the Sydney team is one that combines quarantine periods with long distance travel in such a way that will bring the horses through with minimal stress. Furlong explained that the current plan is to have the Olympic horses arrive in Australia four to six weeks before the start of the Olympic competition. This will give the horses ample time to settle in and adapt to climatic and seasonal changes.

"We hope to make a charter flight out of Louisville (Kentucky) with the Coolmore stallions going to Australia. The horses must be quarantined for two weeks in an approved facility. We monitor their health before shipping, and decide what we need to do to reduce stress and ensure well-being (on the trip).

"Prior to shipping, we administer GastroGard to prevent stress-related ulcers, and we monitor hydration status during the shipping, making adjustments as necessary to the benefit of the horse. We also carefully monitor their health on the other end (post-arrival)," said Furlong.

Measures have been taken to ensure that any prevalence of West Nile virus in this country will not become an issue in the movement of U.S. horses internationally. The virus prompted officials to move the Olympic dressage qualifiers away from the northeast area of the country, where West Nile had been discovered. Furlong explained that travel plans for Sydney had been adjusted in a similar way.

"West Nile is such an unknown--we don't know the ramifications. As far as for the three-day, we've already made pre-quarantine plans in Georgia."

The team plans to spend the two week quarantine period in a Georgia facility, away from the New England areas threatened more seriously by West Nile. The Georgia quarantine station complies with the Australian quarantine inspection services guidelines. This time spent away from the general horse population will verify that the horses' place of origin is free of infectious diseases. The horses will be transported by road from Georgia to Louisville for the international charter flight.

Furlong hopes that the Sydney International Equestrian Centre (SIEC), where horses are housed prior to the Olympics, will be a low-stress atmosphere. He vouches for the beauty of the facility, but said there was limited access to conditioning and gallop areas.

Planning And Preparation

The day following Rolex Kentucky, the first major four-star event of the spring season, the veterinarians began to collaborate and make plans for the horses they felt would be headed for Sydney.

"We do an evaluation of the horses who are deemed to be in contention (for Sydney)," said Furlong. "On the basis of our evaluation, we make recommendations as to the health and soundness issues to the Selection Committee."

Likely candidates and horse/rider combinations which were short-listed and closely observed after the first few three-day events of the season included Special Attention and Bruce Davidson Jr.; 3 Magic Beans and Nina Fout; Jacob Two Two, Cameo, and Hannigan, all under Abigail Lufkin; Rattle N Hum, Custom Made, and Giltedge, all ridden by David O'Connor; Prince Panache and Regal Scot, piloted by Karen O'Connor; Cracker Barrel and Ann Taylor; and Over the Limit, campaigned by Kim Vinoski.

Observation and strict care will intensify when the horses arrive at the Olympic site.

"At the event, until it actually happens, we devote time extensively to the horse and rider," said Furlong. "We make last-minute adjustments to such things as soundness, shoes, skin diseases that might pop up, and other factors.

"My job is to reassure the riders that they do not have to worry about the health or soundness issues of their horses. I'll do that for them. Hopefully, I'll be able to relieve them of that concern or worry. By doing that, I can allow them to focus on what they do best, the other huge part of the (performance) equation."

Working hand-in-hand with the veterinarians is another specialist who has his eyes on the hoof care, shoeing, and lameness. The official team farrier for all the U.S. Olympic equines is Steve Telchman, of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

"Steve is an integral part of this equation because of the importance of soundess problems," said Furlong. "Steve has helped me through one World Equestrian Games, Pan Am Games, and several European Championships. We have a very good rapport and working relationship."

The journey to Sydney is drawing near, and team members from the vets to the riders, the owners to the grooms are in perpetual motion moving toward one goal--gold at Sydney.

"I think we've gone to extraordinary efforts to have every piece of the puzzle in place," said Furlong. "The United States Equestrian Team (USET) has provided us with tremendous resources and support over the past four years to ensure that we have the best chances possible to get a good result. I feel I've been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this--something I really love--and to be there for the riders. I feel strongly privileged to do that and to travel all over the world for them."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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