Olympic Soundness: For Peak Performance
Olympic champions excel due to talent and durability. Only a few earn the coveted medals, but horses of international quality prove they are true equine athletes. Like a classic race, the Olympics are a goal. A horse's owner and rider might determine the aim years in advance, then target the animal's training, competition, and conditioning toward the goal.
To enter an Olympic arena requires a healthy, sound horse. Each U.S. Olympic contender has benefited from the best equine sports medicine. Rider, coach, veterinarians, and grooms support the horse's physical and mental needs while the horse progresses toward Olympic competition.
"The better care the horse gets, because he is an athlete, the more it makes a difference," says U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) rider Mike Huber: "Not only does he feel better, but we can expect more from him."
Horses receive care at a professional level, as partners of their riders. They work together to achieve performance goals.
"For a horse at the international level, you don't make it too much of a pet," says Huber: "You don't get too emotional. If a horse feels sluggish one day, you tell him, 'Come on, let's do it!' "
These athletes qualify through extensive training and conditioning. They must prove themselves fit and sound in order to wear the colors of the USET.
Selecting Sound Athletes
In each of the three Olympic disciplines, only a few proven champions can make the team. Officials of the USET, in cooperation with the American Horse Shows Association, aim to name the best candidates to Olympic squads. Each discipline is represented by a team of four riders--at least three must complete that discipline's test in order to compete for a team medal. Each horse's soundness contributes to the team results; the elimination of any horse affects the final score.
The selection process begins with each rider applying for consideration to the team. Officials rank the equine candidates through performances at specific trials, and part of the screening involves evaluation for soundness.
A horse's support team guides it through a progression of trials. The late A. Martin Simensen, DVM, who served as a veterinarian for the USET from 1974 until his death earlier this year, once said, "The horses that compete for USET are individually owned. Therefore, their day-to-day treatment up to the competition time is handled by their own veterinary practitioner."
Each international horse must be accompanied by credentials. The horse has an FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) passport (issued by each country's national federation) that grants him entry into competitions such as CDIs, CCIs, and CSIs (Concours Dressage Internationale; Concours Complet Internationale, which is eventing; and Concours Saut Internationale, which is jumping). The passport includes an official description and vaccination records required for FEI competitions. The FEI Veterinary Delegate examines each horse against its passport to verify its identity and vaccination status. When the horse is accepted, the official stamps the passport to indicate that the horse may compete.
At the trials, appointed veterinarians examine horses for soundness. This year, Catherine Kohn, VMD, Diplomate ACVIM, is the Veterinary Advisor to the selection process for the Three Day Event. Kohn, an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, assesses each animal's physical condition.
"I attend the trials to observe the performance and the soundness of the horse as it's competing," she explained. "My job is to evaluate soundness and the horse's fitness to continue."
She monitors horses during the competition phases, recording temperature, pulse, and respiration at rest stops and during recovery from the demanding cross-country phase. She noted, "We collect a lot of objective data at the end of the second day, along with observations about how the horse handled the competition. That data lets me know about musculoskeletal soundness, plus I use the recovery rate to get a good indication of overall soundness and metabolic fitness."
Officials then choose horses judged able to perform to standards of Olympic competition, and Kohn conducts a formal examination. She tries to schedule each horse at a similar time interval after the trial.
Using information provided by the rider on the horse's performance history, she examines the horse to establish a baseline.
"I do a complete physical exam, including a careful palpation of the limbs," she said. "I watch the horse walk and trot in hand and on a longe line, and I do some flexion tests.
"From this evaluation I make an assessment of how physically sound the horse is. Does he have evidence of soft tissue disease, such as a bowed tendon or pulled suspensory? Is he sound to trot on the straightaway and on the longe line?"
The soundness evaluations combine objective data with subjective judgments so the selection officials can make their final choices.
Specific rules control the horses during and after selection trials. For example, for 24 hours prior to post-selection veterinary inspections, dressage horses may not have any analgesic or anti-inflammatory medications, or be treated with ice or heat.
Maintaining The Campaigners
Conditioning brings the horse to fitness, so he is able to cope with exacting competitions. The rider and coach follow a strategy to school and campaign the horse to excel through the trials.
Two-time Olympian Hilda Gurney described how schooling alters the body of the dressage horse. With careful riding, the horse is trained to be supple for the difficult movements of FEI tests.
"Dressage develops the horse," said Gurney at a clinic after the 1984 Olympics. "These horses didn't start out with the round backs and arched necks. It's a result of dressage training; and the horses grow beautiful."
Demonstrating on her Olympic horse Keen, she explained the importance of stretching the longitudinal back muscles and lateral ribcage and back muscles. "You warm up the horse by stretching him. You get the ribcage muscles more supple so the horse can bend both ways. It takes four to eight minutes to get the circulation going in the muscles.
"If I ask a lot from a muscle and that muscle is cold, I can tear it. In dressage, you spend so much time training horses that you don't want to lose a muscle because you're careless. We take very good care of our horses, so they last us a very long time. Keen works every day--he works hard, but it's in a very careful way."
Olympic horses are seasoned, consistent performers. They have endured the rigors of world-class competition. Simensen said, "We're dealing with highly trained athletes who for many years have reached the pinnacle of their careers. They've suffered numerous injuries along the way."
Canadian veterinarian Denys Frappier, DVM, was the Chief Veterinary Surgeon for the 1976 Olympics and the Canadian Team's veterinarian at Stockholm's World Equestrian Games. In 1990 he said, "These horses cannot be 12 years old or more and come to these Games with no problems. These horses are athletes, like football or basketball players. We know that the human athletes go to the therapist for their shoulders and legs--our horses are the same way, but we need to know exactly what their problems are."
Only the exceptional athletes survive the rigors of the trials, and accidents sideline many champions. Veterinarians aim to promote safety in these demanding competitions. With the world watching, the riders need to guide horses through the competition with minimal incidents.
"I'm looking for the horse that's as sound as possible," Kohn said. "The term soundness means free from the seeds of disease--I don't think there are any horses, or people, that are completely free from the seeds of disease.
"I quantify the horse's aches and pains, to determine what they are and how manageable they are," she added.
She applies a grading system--a scale of soundness, as it were--in her examinations of each horse. At the higher
levels of the sport, she maintains records on a corps of veteran campaigners, so she sees familiar horses over the seasons.
International horses sustain stresses and show the same problems as other performance horses: lamenesses in the fetlock, tendon injuries, and pulled suspensories. Treating veterinarians also note cases of tying up.
"Feet take a beating when horses compete," Kohn said. "At the 1-, 2-, and 3-star level (CCI), you tend to see 3% or less of horses with a tendon injury. There tends to be fewer of them as you get to the higher levels of competition."
Optimum Fitness For Maximum Stress
Prior to every Olympics, equine professionals must consider the effects of summer weather on transportation, stabling, and training. In 1992, Daniel Marks, VMD, the veterinarian for the USET dressage and jumping teams, observed that air transport required the usual precautions of eliminating any stress that could upset the athletes while maintaining comfortable temperatures. Both he and Michael Page, Olympic medalist and chef d'equipe for the USET three-day team, mentioned Barcelona's heat and humidity as possible causes of stress.
"Heat is not as important a factor with the jumpers and dressage horses," Marks said. "It'll be like it was in 1984, at Los Angeles."
At the California venue, planners were also concerned about the heat, but horses coped well with the hot, dry climate. The 1996 Games have an adjusted three-day endurance phase to reduce stress. The competitions for dressage and show jumping have not been modified for Atlanta's heat.
Arizona veterinarian Kent Allen, DVM, who is coordinating Olympic veterinarian services, said that tests have shown that dressage horses are affected by the heat and humidity.
"Horses that had normal resting temperature rates before they went into the warmup--they would come out of the ring at 104 and 105," noted Allen. "That's the same as the three-day horses. When you put your horse in a hot or humid environment, the horse will heat up and you have to cool it."
Allen mentioned the use of evaporative cooling, using misting fans that are staples in the Arizona climate.
"The way misting fans work is you pressurize the water to 500 to 1,000 psi, and blow it out through a microfine nozzle. It causes a fog that evaporates in the first 15 feet. You should not get wet, and the evaporation cools. You drop the temperature of that air mass, and the fan continues to blow that air mass out. We can cool areas of 100 square feet, even in the face of deep humidity. The worst we did was seven degrees, and the best was 15 in Atlanta's and Chicago's heat and humidity."
Besides vaccinations and parasite control, Frappier emphasized a nutrition regimen tailored to each athlete's needs and taste. He stressed soluble carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes to offset fluid loss.
"For prolonged competition horses like three-day eventers, high muscle and liver glycogens are required. Until obtaining this glycogen, the energy intake must be
adequate. Fat prevents the drop of glucose. If the horse has to go miles for three days, it must maintain its glucose level during intensive work."
He recommended an 8% fat diet, suggesting small amounts of corn oil spread over three different meals a day. About protein, he said, "8-12% is plenty. The excess of protein will be turned into energy, and it's a very expensive form of energy. Starch is a very good energy source, which is readily digestible and cheaper than giving protein. Protein will increase the waste product. The body has to work harder, so it may become detrimental."
At the competition site, the support team prepares for the long-awaited day. As the riders cope with increased pressure, horses also display the effects of stress.
Simensen noted that the USET veterinarians attend horses daily. They must deal with accidents, illnesses, and intestinal disturbances. "It's not uncommon for horses to have mild digestive upsets, or minor problems with their limbs, that need immediate attention. It's a 24-hour-a-day situation, both to treat the horse, and probably more significantly, the rider.
"As each day passes, the riders obviously become more tense. It's essential to continually reassure them that all is going well with their horses. If they have a problem, we attack it immediately to resolve it."
As the hour of the Olympic test nears, each campaigner proves his ability to maintain performance and withstand the rigors of the final preparations. Kohn said, "We need the horses with the experience. We've got to balance the soundness issues that are present in every case with what's fair to the horse, and what's reasonable in terms of management during the competition."
At international events like the Olympic Games, one or more veterinary commissions enforce FEI regulations and oversee the horses' care. The panels usually include veterinary practitioners and professors.
Riders must present horses to the FEI ground jury to demonstrate the animals' soundness. This panel of horsemen watches each horse jog, and they accept horses or eliminate them prior to the competition. (Three-day horses must jog each day of the event.)
Even with a sound horse, a hidden condition can eliminate the contender. At the 1995 Volvo World Cup of Dressage, USET rider Robert Dover had to withdraw his horse two days before the Grand Prix test. Although the horse jogged sound to the ground jury, a foot abscess was discovered the next day.
The USET veterinarians work long hours, especially during the three-day competition. In the second day's endurance phase, equine practitioners monitor each horse closely during the mandatory halts. Besides treating any minor injuries, they also work during the night after cross-country, advising the horses' attendants on necessary therapy so the horse will jog sound the next day. The FEI dictates the extent of care, so the team veterinarian must work within those rules.
"It's important that you spend a lot of time with your horse," Simensen said. "Making that cross-country run, injuries are not uncommon, so there is a bit of patching up to do that night."
FEI rules forbid medications, so grooms must rely on alternative treatments. To present sound horses at each vet check requires treatments such as walking, manipulation, and hydrotherapy. Pulsating electromagnetic field therapy also has a moderate effect in increasing circulation. "It does help heal," Simensen said. "There's a place for all the above therapy in our armament."
Each horse's dedicated support team assists the veterinarians during selection and competition. The horse's groom knows the horse intimately and can share useful information about the animal's well-being. Kohn noted, "We have tried very hard to foster a full disclosure approach. We are there to help the riders, and the only way we can help is if we know what's going on."
Groom, rider, trainer, and equine practitioner all cooperate to bring the best horses to the Olympic Games. With the focus on preparing sound athletes, horses of the USET will proudly represent the nation.
About the Author
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.