The System Is Working: Healthy Horses after Olympic Eventing

The System Is Working: Healthy Horses after Olympic Eventing

Photo: Kit Houghton/FEI

There were thrills and there were spills, but fortunately there were few chills during the eventing competition at the 2012 London Olympic Games, according to Kent Allen, DVM. Allen, of Middleburg, Va., is the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) foreign veterinary delegate at these Games. (To learn more about Allen’s role, read the blog post “The Role of an Olympic Veterinarian.” He took time out from checking in the arriving Olympic jumpers to give The Horse an exclusive update on the event horses that didn’t finish, as well as his thoughts on the Olympic equestrian competition and the venue at Greenwich Park.

Dr. Kent Allen

Dr. Kent Allen (left), FEI foreign veterinary delegate for the 2012 Olympic Games equestrian events, studies U.S. event horse Ringwood Magister as rider Tiana Coudray jogs him during the first horse inspection.

Positive Prognoses

Some of the event horses fell on cross-country and a couple left the course in an equine ambulance. Some that did finish were withdrawn prior to the second and final horse inspection. Two, including U.S. rider Boyd Martin’s mount, Otis Barbotiere, were withdrawn during the horse inspection, having been judged unfit to compete.

So the first question to Allen, naturally, was about all those horses and how they’re doing. Let’s start with Otis.

Otis was footsore at the jog, Allen said. The good news is that “It’s not a big deal and the horse should be fine, but the criterion is ‘fit to compete on the day,’” he said.

“Sore feet” isn’t in the veterinary handbooks. What does Allen mean?

According to Allen, “sore foot” is a catchall term that refers to any as-yet undiagnosed hoof pain. There are so many soft-tissue and bony structures in the hoof that it’s usually impossible to determine the source of the pain from a quick clinical exam. But it’s fairly common for the rigors of cross-country to result in some transient ouchiness (and the slick footing, super-studded shoes, and lost shoes took their toll at Greenwich Park), and rest and good care usually remedy the problem, Allen said. If within a couple of weeks of returning home Otis is still sore, then his team will surely call for a complete diagnostic workup.

Allen is equally sanguine about Wag, the horse ridden by Polish competitor Pawel Spisak that, like Otis, was withdrawn during the second horse inspection. Wag’s situation was “very similar to what they did with Boyd’s horse,” Allen said. “The holding [box] veterinarian examined it, talked it over with the [Polish] team veterinarian, and they decided to withdraw the horse in the hold.”

Canadian competitor Michelle Mueller and her mount, Amistad, had a stop at fence 3A, the first element of the Bandstand Rails obstacle that “gave more troubles than a lot of people anticipated,” Allen said. (For more on the course specifics, see the blog post “A Slippery Slope to the Top on Cross-Country at Olympic Eventing Competition”). It was later discovered that Amistad had torn a tendon during the cross-country phase and, according to a statement on Mueller's website, will be retired from competition.

Even the worst fall of the day appears to have had a happy ending. Competing for Ireland, the gelding Portersize Just a Jiff “took a bad spill,” according to Allen. At fence 24, the narrow right-hand-angle Rose Garden, the horse fell on the landing side of the obstacle, in the process pinning his rider, Camilla Speirs, beneath him.

“The horse was trapped for a little bit; the rider was trapped for a little bit,” Allen said. “He had his legs up against the fence. I was there. The veterinary team and the jump crew performed perfectly. The Irish team vet arrived, Irish team members. They freed the rider, and then they stood the horse up. The horse was a champ. He knew he was in a bad spot with the rider, and he didn’t try to stand up.” After Speirs was freed, Portersize Just a Jiff was held down as one would any cast horse, to keep him from injuring himself thrashing around before he could be moved away from the fence.

“The horse went back to the clinic, and he had some bruising in his chest area, but even that evening I saw him, and he was standing there eating happily and he will be fine. He’ll compete again, although I’m sure he’ll need some rest and recuperation,” Allen said.

Meanwhile, Back at the Olympic Compound…

Stables, footing, the on-site veterinary clinic—Allen calls them “superb” by all reports. The stalls are large—perhaps 13 feet by 14 feet or 15 feet, in Allen’s estimation. The stables are outfitted with closed-circuit television cameras and round-the-clock security, and the lights go out from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. (midnight to 5:00 the night after cross-country) to give the horses a chance to rest. If a groom, say, wishes to enter a stable during the nighttime hours, he or she must be escorted in and out by an FEI steward to ensure proper security.

“The FEI equine athlete is the most monitored athlete in the world," Allen said. "There is no track-and-field athlete that’s monitored and inspected the way these horses are. They go through biosecurity checks to make sure they have no illness when they come in. That’s a big deal that it happens here at the Olympics, but the reality is it happens at FEI competitions all over the world every weekend. We check those horses before they go in the barn, we make sure their influenza vaccination is current, and then at the horse inspections, we make sure they’re fit to compete.

“When I talk to the sports-medicine docs, they’re always amazed at what we do,” Allen continued. “ ‘Wow, you have all that stuff? You have a clinic all set up right there?’ Yeah, of course we do that, don’t you?”

So far, these have been a relatively “trouble-free” Olympics, as Allen sees them—no major incidents or illnesses. He attributes the lack of the latter to the fact that London is a relatively short journey for many equestrian teams: “The longer you haul horses, the more problems you’re going to have.”

Although some horse-sport fans might have been disappointed when their favorite competitors did not pass the final Olympic eventing horse inspection, Allen actually views it as “good news.”

“That shows the system’s working,” he explained. “We inspect the horses. The horses that were not looking like they were ready to go that morning, they went to the hold. The team veterinarians and the riders, they got a chance to talk about it, think about it, and say, ‘This isn’t our day.’ Yeah, this is the Olympics, but it’s about the horse.”

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, www.jenniferbryant.net.

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