Countdown to Sydney

A world away from Atlanta, Australia lures riders and horses. In the four years between Olympic Games, riders have trained and competed their horses up through the levels. To enter the stadium in Sydney, they must prove they’re world class in one of the three Olympic disciplines: show-jumping, three-day eventing, or dressage.

To the equestrian community, the Olympics is one in a series of competitions on the international calendar. Annual events offer similar prestige, with riders aiming to win at Aachen, Badminton, the World Cup (jumping and dressage), and the Nations Cup (jumping). The World Equestrian Games (World Championships in six international disciplines) alternates every four years, two years into the Olympic cycle. Some owners reserve their horses for such events instead of the Olympics, with the potential of earnings in addition to the honor.

With its worldwide coverage and scheduling only once every four years, the Olympic Games is a unique competition. However, at its basic level, the equestrian events resemble any other horse show: a blending of equine athletes, the appropriate venue, and an official structure. All elements will converge next September at the Sydney International Equestrian Center.

Readying The Horses

The Olympic Games showcases a nation’s best horses, at that time. To prepare a horse for this level of competition, the rider, trainer, and multiple equine professionals must coordinate their efforts.

The specific U.S. team horses are unknown as of the date of this writing, yet the contenders currently are in competition. They are winning in the Grand Prix levels of jumping and dressage, and the international three- and four-star competitions of three-day eventing. Unknown horses don’t surface in an Olympic year. The most consistent performers can show in two consecutive Olympic Games, and almost all the riders are veterans of the international circuits. Many have competed in two or three Olympics, as well as in World Championships.

U.S. riders prepare by riding in international competitions held in North America. To increase the degree of difficulty, they must meet rivals from other nations.

Europe remains the center of equestrian sport in the Olympic disciplines, and riders from other continents pit themselves against the dominant nations of Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The non-European riders are always the outsiders. In recent years, Brazil’s jumpers and New Zealand’s eventers have successfully challenged Europe’s best on Europe’s home turf.

Conditions differ in such big shows as Aachen or a World Cup. For example, Jessica Ransehousen, chef d’equipe of the dressage team at the 1998 World Championships, noted in Rome the challenge for riders’ warm ups: ‘Going between two rings—it’s very distracting to go from one to another, a very big thing to keep the concentration between the rotation. The riders have to get that experience.

‘The top riders know what they will do in Ring 2, then Ring 1. They go from one to the other. Their concentration never wavers. They know what they want to do in here; they know what they want to do in there. They don’t have a tremendous repetition because already they know their horse will perform. All they do is get him ready.’

In order for the horse to gain that ability, trainers develop programs to balance fitness against stress. Succeeding levels of shows prepare the horse for the intense athletic demands of international competitions, while also coping with the adjustments of travel and spectators.

One Olympic hopeful, the dressage horse Etienne, has followed a thoughtful program of preparation. This horse was purchased from the Netherlands in 1997 as a candidate for the 2000 Olympics. Rider and trainer Christine Traurig has conditioned him for competition since his first U.S. show in 1998, when he began competing at the international level. She has shown him in carefully selected shows since then.

In 1998, Traurig described Etienne’s qualities that predicted his talents. ‘Nature gave him a brilliant set of gaits. He is almost 18 hands, and he rides like a 16-hand Thoroughbred. He has a mind of a very intelligent horse. He never feels like he wants to set his training back.’

Etienne fulfilled his early promise by winning the National Championship at Intermediare I in 1998. In 1999, he moved into the Grand Prix level and spent the summer in Europe.

As our national federation and national governing body for equestrian sports, the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) oversees Olympic qualifications. The U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) selects, trains, equips, and finances teams to represent the United States. Since 1952, USET riders have won 27 Olympic medals.

With Olympic medals in mind, the USET aims to select teams that challenge the world’s best. USET prepares lists of ‘Developing’ horses, for support in gaining international experience. A ‘Long List’ includes those horse and rider combinations that are the strongest candidates and eligible to compete abroad. In the summer of 1999, U.S. jumpers and dressage horses competed on European tours to gain experience in international venues.

Timing is crucial, as the horse has to be at top form in an Olympic year. Some candidates aren’t yet seasoned enough. Other champions might not continue at the top, or be able to return to competition after layoffs due to injuries. Because the Games form a single competition among many human and equine athletes, relative unknowns have peaked and upset proven champions.

U.S. horses must be eligible according to the rules of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), along with AHSA and USET. Candidates prove themselves through performance and soundness, and earn an FEI Certificate of Capability.

Horses qualify for the team through a series of Olympic trials. Due to lawsuits in recent years, selection committees for each discipline have set objective standards for the teams.

Riders aim to make next summer’s ‘Short List.’ In dressage and jumping, they qualify for selection trials at the Festival of Champions, held in June at the USET complex in Gladstone, N.J. Results will rank candidates. Selectors will choose the team of the top five dressage riders, with up to eight horses in all. These horses will travel to Europe for pre-Olympic competitions.

For jumpers, Gladstone will be the first phase of selection, followed by trials in

California. In recent years, horsemen complained about jumper trials. Selection procedures now reflect the concern that trials overface horses, or ask questions above and beyond the horses’ knowledge, experience, and ability, and might eliminate the top candidates. The two phases spread out the trials. Before the first trial, selectors might pre-select a single horse/rider combination as the Number One ranked candidate, requiring the horse to jump only trial rounds at Gladstone. At trials, jumpers will be stabled together, with schooling supervised and security tight. After the final trial in August, selectors will choose a team of four.

Horses at the trials show they can stay sound before, and hopefully during, the Olympic Games. The top performers are examined and considered sound by panels of veterinarians. For dressage, the panel examines horses before Gladstone. A majority vote can eliminate a horse found to be unsound. A panel also will examine the team horses before they ship to Europe.

In jumping, the panel examines horses before the first selection trial at each location. Any veterinarian on the panel might request an applicant to deliver the horse’s veterinary records. The applicant must obtain any follow-up diagnostic information and follow prescribed treatments. The three-day eventing horses must observe these same requirements.

USET’s Three-Day Event Selectors will prepare a Short List in May and June. Horses qualify by fitness, soundness, and ability to meet the demands of the cross-country course. They must participate in mandatory advanced horse trials and training sessions. Selectors will choose horses for the squad, then determine the team of four and the additional individuals.

Contenders prepare for the Olympics at the World Championships (and vice versa). In Rome in 1998, the following horses represented the United States, and might qualify for the Olympics. Ages of horses listed reflect their age in 2000. (Olympic horses usually are between the ages of 10 and 15.)

Jumpers—Eros, 12, was on the 1996 silver medal team; Rhythmical, 15, is another consistent athlete.

Dressage—Flim Flam, 13, first major international competition in Rome.

Eventing—Giltedge, 14, ridden by David O’Connor, team silver 1996 Olympics, team bronze 1998 World Championships, individual silver and team gold 1999 Pan American Games.

Other Olympic candidates competed at the 1999 Pan American Games held in Winnipeg 13 months prior to Sydney. The jumper, Hidden Creek’s Alvaretto, 14, was reserve horse in Rome and won team silver in Winnipeg.

The U.S. horses will face the best in the world. One of the superstars is Calvaro V, winner of the ‘Best Horse’ honor at the 1998 World Championships. This gray Holsteiner jumper has continued his winning ways in 1999 on the Swiss team that won the silver medal at the European Jumping Championship.

Another European power returning from the 1996 Olympics is France’s Rochet M, winner of the 1999 European Jumping Championship.

The U.S. teams will submit definite entries to the U.S. Olympic Committee, with reserve horses (alternates) also named. Team horses are champions, and are recipients of the best in nutrition, shoeing, and veterinary care. Their owners entrust them to top riders and trainers. Proper feeding and appropriate medical treatment maintain fitness and the energy level necessary to cope with the stresses of qualifying for the Games.

A New Facility

Australia built a new facility for the Games, the Sydney International Equestrian Center. Construction began in November 1997 and is nearing completion. The venue of 90 hectares is located at Horsley Park, 45 kilometers west of the city in the Western Sydney Regional Park. The main arena, for jumping and dressage, has permanent seating for 2,000. Temporary grandstands will increase the capacity to 20,000 for the Games.

For training prior to the Games, the center has an indoor arena of 30 by 35 meters, seating 800 spectators. The stable includes 224 stalls, and will be extended for 340 horses. Outdoor tracks span 25 kilometers for training and the three-day event. The cross-country course is 7.4 kilometers, with 42 jumps.

Australia already has verified the site, by a test event Sept. 23-26, 1999. This two-star event attracted 70 horses from four nations (see page 76).

Frits Sluyter, DVM, Manager of the Veterinary Department, FEI, attended the test event. Leo Jeffcott, BVetMed, MA, PhD, DVSc, FRCVS, Chairman of the Veterinary Committee, and Kent Allen, DVM, Foreign Veterinary Delegate, led a seminar for veterinary preparation of the Games. These three are the chief officials representing the FEI at the Olympic Games.

The major health concern has been quarantine restrictions. Australia controls infectious animal diseases through tight restrictions. However, through intense risk analysis, Australia has developed new conditions for temporary importation. The Commonwealth and the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) agreed on quarantine restrictions for the 260 international horses expected.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) has handled quarantine preparations. Horses will undergo a total of four weeks of quarantine prior to the Games. Before they travel to Sydney, they must be under pre-embarkation quarantine for two weeks. At that time, a limited number of travel hubs in Europe and North America will be used as quarantine and embarkation sites.

Australian veterinarian Jennie Hodgson, DVM, is involved with managing laboratory services at the Olympic site. She is Director of Laboratory Services, University of Sydney. She explained, ‘There are two options for horses to come into Australia. If they want to come in early, they can go through a normal quarantine. Eastern Creek is the normal quarantine station.’

She said that station has added a dressage arena, so horses can school while under quarantine. It is located five minutes from the Sydney International Equestrian Center. Horses which arrive early have the opportunity to compete in Australia.

‘What is a bit difficult is that they come into our winter,’ said Hodgson. ‘If they come in July or June, they come into winter from their high summer.’

Olympic Equestrian competition will begin Sept. 16, which is during Sydney’s spring. Although thunderstorms might drench the site, the temperature should stay within the typical 54° to 75° F. Horses won’t be faced with heat, a concern at both Olympics of the 1990s.

‘Rain is uncommon in September,’ said Hodgson. ‘In the test event, cross-country was perfect at 25 (degrees Celsius). It was just gorgeous.’

She explained that the incoming horses’ second option is to arrive Aug. 21-25. SOCOG will provide air transport to and from Sydney. Horses will remain in quarantine at the Olympic site for the two weeks before the Games begin. They will be under AQIS veterinary supervision.

U.S. Olympic candidates are seasoned show horses, already well-accustomed to international travel. The jumper team probably will leave from California, after the final selection trials. Dressage horses probably will travel from Europe, and event horses might arrive earlier for a training session in Australia.

Like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Australia’s AQIS has addressed the risks of equine piroplasmosis. AQIS provided an ‘issues paper’ for public comment, examining risk reduction measures. The Commonwealth will allow the temporary importation of animals which are serologically positive for the disease. Horses will be tested and inspected for ticks prior to travel. They will be managed while in quarantine.

Hodgson noted, ‘They will be allowed to come in. It probably won’t be as over-the-top as Atlanta. We don’t have ticks on the site.’ The expected number of piro-positive horses is few; possibly as many as six.

One unique situation is the restriction on imported feed. Horses will be limited to Australian hay. Hodgson said that any problem would be ‘that the horse isn’t used to it, not with palatability. With horses coming into the country, the people I’ve talked to have never mentioned a problem. It’s good-quality feed.’

For U.S. horses, Kentucky Equine Research has an office in Australia, through which the firm can provide feed. Mike Lennox, a nutritionist for KER, said, ‘For the teams, we make sure the horses eat what they’re normally used to. They have the quarantine period to get acclimatized, too.’

Another limitation involves wooden saddle trees. Australia restricts importation of wood to prevent the introduction of borers. These trees are subject to inspection, with the type of wood described in detail.

At the venue, footing will meet standards of excellence. The Danish expert Hermann Duckek is slated to prepare the arenas. Duckek has been responsible for six previous Olympic Games, all three World Equestrian Games, and about 40 shows a year in Europe. The world’s top riders trust his footing as the best available. In Rome, he was able to develop the ideal surface to cover grass in the Flaminio Stadium. The mixture of sand, stone dust, and river silt, built on special plastic mats, was able to withstand downpours and still provide excellent ground for the dressage and jumping horses.

Jumping courses must be world-class, to test the best. Yet the design and construction should not pose dangers for the horses and riders with less experience. At the World Championships, 75 eventers began the cross-country course. Of those, 16 retired on Phases C and D.

"Endangered Sport"

Recent headlines about the International Olympic Committee haven’t affected equestrian sports. Through its Olympic Regulations, the FEI continues to govern Olympic competition.

The equestrian events are considered an ‘endangered’ sport in the Olympic Games. As a sport associated with the elite, these events face public scrutiny for their cost and animal welfare issues. To keep equestrian events as part of the Olympics, the FEI strictly enforces its rules.

A structure of committees set rules for all international events. They also enforce the rules that support the code of conduct. For example, the Veterinary Committee reviews issues, and a Judicial Committee hears cases that arise during competitions.

Restrictions on medical treatments require testing for substances forbidden or controlled by the FEI. During U.S. qualifying competitions, veterinarians will collect blood and/or urine samples for testing according to FEI rules. As a result, any horse might be eliminated from the selection process.

Drug testing does reveal results that alter the slate of medal winners. Months after the World Equestrian Games, the FEI reported that a horse on the bronze-medal-winning eventing team had tested positive in a random test in Rome. Coral Cove, a British horse ridden by Polly Phillipps, finished seventh individually. As reported in the FEI Press News, ‘The Judicial Committee concluded that Coral Cove, tested at the WEG on 4 October, 1998, was found to have salicylic acid at a level exceeding the internationally established threshold level. Salicylic acid at a level exceeding the threshold level constitutes a prohibited substance. The Judicial Committee further concluded that there was no deliberate attempt by Mrs Phillipps to affect the performance of Coral Cove.’

This committee disqualified horse and rider, and, therefore, the British team in May 1999. The bronze medal went to the fourth place team, the U.S. riders.

The FEI sets quotas of horses which a nation might declare as definite entries. The host nation automatically qualifies for each discipline. Placings in the Olympic cycle qualify nations who might compete as teams or individuals. Placings are counted at the World Championships, 1999 European Championships, and Pan-American Games.

At the World Championships, eight of 18 dressage teams qualified. The Olympics allow a total of 10 dressage teams.

Two of the three U.S. teams qualified at Rome for Olympic competition. The dressage team earned fourth, while the eventing team was third after Britain’s disqualification. The jumping team’s mediocre performance resulted in a ninth-place finish, so it failed to qualify. However, the team’s silver medal at the Pan-American Games redeemed its standing, and qualified the U.S. team for Sydney.

At the Olympics, official veterinarians include Sluyter, Jeffcott, and Allen. On the Australian side, Nigel Nichols will coordinate veterinary services. The veterinary clinic at the venue currently is under construction.

The U.S. contingent will include a chef d’equipe for each discipline, and at least one veterinarian. Like the horses and riders, a team veterinarian has qualified through experience at national and international competitions.

Horses will be under veterinary control upon arrival, and so will veterinarians. Team veterinarians will not be allowed to bring veterinary drugs, therapeutic substances, or dietary supplements into Australia. Hodgson said, ‘The team veterinarians have to rely on us for any drugs that we can use in the country. We will have a complete clinic set up with ultrasound, radiography equipment, and a fully equipped laboratory. All the tests that they are used to running, they can do on site.’

She added that Eastern Creek offers more extensive services, such as surgery. Horses will not be allowed to travel outside quarantine to the equine clinic of the University of Sydney, 20 minutes away.

As in other international events, FEI officials will conduct inspections of horses. Besides viewing horses in the stall, they will observe horses at the jog (called the ‘trot-up’ in eventing).

At Rome, 105 eventing entries all passed inspection. Of 92 dressage horses, all but one passed.

Officials have demonstrated objective decisions. In Atlanta, the popular dressage champion Bonfire (the Netherlands) had to return for a second inspection before being accepted by the jury. Another champion, the New Zealand horse Red, had to be re-presented in Rome. (Red was the winner of the 1998 Rolex event.) In a more controversial judgment in Rome, the officiating veterinarian did not permit injections for non-emergency reasons, such as vitamins or electrolytes.

Horses undergo stresses at major shows. The electric atmosphere of the Olympic arena affects riders, who transmit their emotions to their horses. Cheering crowds can distract the horse from his work on course.

Horses are allowed to school in the Olympic stadium, according to a timetable.

The medal winners prove themselves through the Olympic cycle, in the test of endurance to reach the top. They deal with stresses of the Olympic year, then perform at their best to win the highest honors.

For the Olympics, the equine athlete must have a strong constitution and brave attitude. The courses are difficult and the crowds of spectators are noisy. With a big heart and supreme confidence, champions can perform to the highest standard. Their riders will stand on the podium, proudly wearing Olympic medals and hearing the winning country’s national anthem.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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