Getting Horses to the Olympics (Book Excerpt)

Transport, regardless of method, is stressful to horses. From the days before air travel, when horses traveled by boat to reach competitions on faraway shores, to modern times, when horses and riders alike rack up their share of frequent-flyer miles, Olympic Games-bound mounts have endured their share of travel delays, cramped conditions, stale air, weather-related difficulties, and trip-related illnesses.

More Leg Room, Please

As Joseph C. O'Dea, DVM, the U.S. Equestrian Team's veterinarian from 1955 through 1975, recounted in Olympic Vet, the confined quarters of the shipping box themselves can cause a horse to panic and scramble. The USET veterinarian faced a particularly harrowing situation en route to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, when J. Michael Plumb's three-day-event mount, Markham, panicked in midair. The horse had recently suffered a bad experience on a van ride, and evidently the turbulence the Super Constellation propeller-driven aircraft encountered on the flight from New Jersey's Newark International Airport triggered bad memories. Markham became increasingly uncontrollable; and sedatives, twitching, blindfolding, and other attempts at restraint had little effect. The horse managed to get his front feet over the front panel of his shipping box--which was considerably smaller and more flimsy than today's "air stables"--and began bashing the aircraft's ceiling panels. The flight engineer ordered O'Dea and team coach Bertalan de Nèmethy to do something, and De Nèmethy reluctantly instructed the veterinarian to administer the lethal injection.


The only bright spot in the sad episode, O'Dea recalled, was the calm behavior of Markham's neighbor, the event horse Grasshopper. The Anglo-Connemara gelding "kind of looked at (Markham's hysterics) and said, 'You big dummy, what the hell are you trying to do?' He didn't break out and get all worked up. And it's helpful that he didn't because we had other horses that were behind Markham, and it could have gotten doubly serious."

Fortunately, "air stables" have become roomier, so tragedies like Markham's are less likely to occur today. "In those days," O'Dea said of air transport in the 1950s and 1960s, "the fronts and the backs of the boxes were not (permanently) in place, so you walked horses up a gangplank onto the airplane and then walked them all the way through the boxes until you got to the first set in place. Then you put up the front and back partitions and bolted them in place. Today, the boxes are like standing stalls in a horse trailer.

"When we went (from the smaller, older propeller-driven aircraft) to jet airplanes, we got the 'astro' boxes, which have more room. When a horse got his butt against the side of the stall partition in the old, narrow boxes, he would start to scramble to get upright. He would just keep on leaning more and more. We don't have that problem with the astro boxes because they've got enough room."

Recent research has produced new insights into the stresses of transport, as well as practical suggestions for helping to ensure that horses in transit--whether they're headed to the Olympics or to the next town--arrive at their destinations as healthy as when they left home.

Catherine Kohn, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, president of the FEI Veterinary Commission for the 1996 Games; Kent Allen, DVM; and Professor Leo Jeffcott, MA, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc, VetMedDr, of Australia's University of Sydney, a former chair of the FEI Veterinary Committee, together were concerned about the effects the very long journey to Australia would have on the 2000 Olympic horses, as practically all had to fly nearly halfway around the world to get to Sydney.

The three experts, who had worked together previously on the successful heat-stress studies conducted before the 1996 Atlanta Games, began discussing their concerns and realized that "There's a lot we don't know about the effects of transport on horses. And we've got horses shipping to Sydney for the Olympics, but we also have 4H kids putting their horses on trailers every day; and there are lots of people who ship across country."

As they and their horse-industry supporters had done with the heat-stress study, Kohn and her colleagues tapped into others' generosity to obtain the needed funding for their research project. The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sponsored a transport-stress seminar in March 1999, which "brought together people who had done work in transport (research) from around the world," said Kohn. "We had five state-of-the-art papers that reviewed the literature. And, with a sort of collective wisdom, we came up with guidelines for transport ... We also suggested what the research priorities should be in order to learn more and possibly improve our methods of shipping horses."

A Breath of Fresh Air

The researchers' primary goal: to learn more about the causes of respiratory ailments and "shipping fever" that plague transported horses. Said Kohn, "We think that the quality of the air in the transport vehicle is a very big contributing factor in challenging the horse's respiratory system. We know that a horse has to be able to clear his airway of all the particulate matter he's inhaled, and that he can do that only by putting his head down. But when you tie his head up in a horse trailer, he can't get his head down. Some work done in Australia and Washington state suggests that, the longer you tie a horse's head up, the more bacteria and particulate matter find their way into the lungs.

"The other thing we're concerned about is the quality of the air," Kohn continued. Exhaust fumes, pollution, dust from the road and from hay and bedding--all are bad news for a horse's respiratory system, and their effects are worsened when the vehicle is stationary.

"I think the key will be: Can we develop something that is better ventilated?" Allen added. "We don't even understand the ventilation system--how the air flow works. It's very complex aerodynamics. You would think it would be simple, but it's not. A researcher is trying to design a model that will mimic the conditions of road and air transport." When the research is completed, Allen predicts, "I think you'll see changes in the design of air stables and changes in trailer design."


"Many people used to think that you could simply stop for a half-hour every few hours to give the horses a break. The research proves that doesn't given them enough of a break; they don't recover." --Dr. Kent Allen

Rest for the Weary

"We've already learned that, if horses are going to travel for ten to twelve hours, they really need an overnight--six to eight hours to recover from the stresses," Allen said. "Many people used to think that you could simply stop for a half-hour every few hours to give the horses a break. The research proves that doesn't given them enough of a break; they don't recover."

Findings for the Future

The location of the Olympics host city has many implications for the equine athletes that must travel there. Atlanta, in 1996, was hot and humid but a relatively easy trip for most horses. Sydney, in 2000, required most to make grueling journeys but rewarded travelers with a temperate climate (September is early spring Down Under). Athens, in 2004, was hot but not scorching, with tolerable humidity levels. Hong Kong, where the 2008 Olympic equestrian events will be held in August, promised to be a combination of Atlanta and Sydney: hot, sticky, and really far away. USEF president David O'Connor and others have praised the main equestrian venue, Sha Tin Racecourse, for its excellent facilities--but admit that the venue was available for the Olympics because there's no racing held at Sha Tin in August because of the high heat and humidity. Officials and equestrian organizations are surely thankful for the insights that previous equine-welfare research have given them on preventing transport and heat stress in horses.


Depending on a given country's indigenous equine diseases, that country passes laws mandating a quarantine period for horses imported from other parts of the world. With the numbers of countries represented at the Olympic equestrian events, it stands to reason that importation and quarantine can be thorny issues.

Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games. Horse enthusiasts may not realize that, technically, the equestrian Olympic events should have been held in Australia once before, in 1956, when all the other events of that Olympiad took place in Melbourne. But "because of the restrictive animal import requirements then in force in Australia," 11 the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, Sweden.

History repeated itself in the planning stages of the 2008 Beijing Games. Beijing, China, the site of nearly all of the other Olympic sporting competitions, originally was scheduled to host the equestrian competitions as well. But the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), citing the existence of equine diseases in the Chinese capital city and elsewhere, successfully lobbied to have the equestrian events moved to Hong Kong. Although the proposal met with resistance at first from the equestrian community, BOCOG officials argued that Hong Kong, with its existing racetracks and quarantine protocols, was best equipped to ensure the welfare of the equine athletes. (Some of BOCOG's rationale was financial: Using existing facilities would save significant amounts of money.) The IOC accepted BOCOG's proposal, and Hong Kong became the official equestrian host site. Horses traveling to China for the 2008 Games will be quarantined for seven days prior to export from designated "transportation hubs" worldwide and for an additional ten days after they reach Hong Kong.

Animal-import and quarantine issues are just another reason that the equestrian sports differ from the others--and can pose more challenges--at an Olympic Games. As Jeffcott explained, "The quarantine is governed by the country that's running the event. So in the case of the 2000 Games, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) set down standards of what they require. They require most horses from countries that have no serious disease problems--the US, most of Europe, certain parts of South America and Asia--to do two weeks' quarantine in their own country," followed by fourteen additional days of quarantine upon reaching Sydney.

The dangers of disease, and the measures taken to prevent it, are not exaggerated: A disease outbreak almost shut down the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Cases of African Horse Sickness cropped up in southern Spain in 1989 and 1990, said Jeffcott; had the outbreak proved uncontainable, it would have been impossible to hold the equestrian events in Barcelona. Fortunately, though, the area of the outbreak was a considerable distance away from the Olympic city; and organizers were able, in part by enacting some special restrictions, to create a large disease-free zone so the Games could proceed.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site,

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