Veterinarian's Input On Olympics Horse Events Has Had Global Impact

The 1996 Summer Olympics may be over, but a success story involving veterinary medicine and horses that went virtually unnoticed then has had a lasting impact.

Despite the heat and humidity of Atlanta, only two of 99 horses were pulled from three-day competitions because of excessive fatigue. That success was fueled by a team of volunteer veterinarians, who four years earlier went into their laboratories and into the field to study the potential impact of Atlanta weather on the metabolic health of horses, specifically dehydration and heat stroke resulting from excess muscle heat built up during intensive competition.

Their findings led to a shorter steeplechase course, closer monitoring of the horses and more authority for veterinarians on site. The research was summarized by Jonathan H. Foreman, a University of Illinois veterinarian and exercise physiologist, in "The Exhausted Horse Syndrome," a chapter written for "Fluids and Electrolytes in Athletic Horses," published in April by W.B. Saunders in a recurring series called "Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice."

"It's very gratifying for a veterinarian on the clinic floor to save the life of a sick foal, but in a much shorter time span we've probably affected more horses around the world with this work than I'll ever be able to do on a case-by-case basis, " he said. "Case by case is still very important, but this work essentially changed the sport for the better."

Because he had attended veterinary school at the University of Georgia in nearby Athens, Foreman was concerned when Atlanta was picked for the 1996 games. "I knew there would be real safety concerns. A group of us [exercise physiologists] got together and decided to identify the potential problems and seek solid data based on lab and field trials for making informed changes."

With funding from the American Horse Shows Association, veterinarians at Canada's University of Guelph, Ohio State University and the U. of I. began work, focusing on the grueling second, or endurance, day of the three-day "triathlon" events.

Using steam pumps to create varying levels of heat and humidity, Ohio State researchers found that at 90 degrees and 85 percent humidity (a common July morning in Atlanta) a horse would become fatigued in half the time as in the 45 degrees common to the event's origin in Northern Europe.

At the U. of I., under the same steamy conditions, Foreman found that horses could not cool off during the post-steeplechase trot. In subsequent laboratory tests, Foreman determined that stopping twice for ice-water baths allowed the horses to recover quickly and safely.

The veterinarians' recommendations showed up in the Olympic games, with shorter steeplechase courses, a longer cool-down period with two ice-water baths and closer medical monitoring. Allowing for changes in both event courses and in horse care because of weather-related conditions has proven effective in other horse competitions, Foreman said.

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