'People have got to prepare'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

The record cold spell, the summer typhoon threats or the coming humidity - weather has always made the best small talk. In recent weeks, however, talk of the weather has been anything but trivial, as the climatic predictions for the Olympic equestrian events have emerged as one of the most salient topics in the lead up to August's events at Sha Tin and Beas River.

Among the riders opinion is divided - some have made a decision not to come, while others, in jest, say the horses will be treated to better facilities than their human counterparts. The sticky conditions in typhoon season raise sticky questions, but equine experts believe they have the answer: science.

A workshop in Lausanne, Switzerland, today is intended to highlight methods that can be used to ease the climatic effects on the horses during the Games. Presentations to veterinarians and national federations will be given by internationally respected veterinarians working on the Hong Kong events, as well as by Equestrian Company chief executive Lam Woon-kwong and two Hong Kong Jockey Club veterinarians, Keith Watkins and Chris Riggs (pictured).

Though it was not specifically organised in response to fears over heat, the timing of the workshop, organised by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), is apt.

Riggs, head of veterinary services at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, says: 'No one's pretending it's going to be very simple or very easy, but this is the Olympics and people have got to prepare.'

From an organisers' perspective it means having precautionary and reactionary facilities available, everything from giant misting fans to 40 tonnes of ice on the cross-country day alone. From the competitors' point of view, preparation is simulating the weather conditions during training for both horses and riders.

'Of course these horses are going to be hot,' Riggs said. 'It's going to be hot and when you read in one of the German papers that it's a disgrace, you walk four yards and you're soaked, well, yes you are. Sorry, that's the way it is in Hong Kong. You might be soaked from the rain. But this is where the competition is happening, these are the conditions it's going to be - sticky and wet.'

Riders have been warned.

'We were told to be fit for Atlanta, but we have to be fitter for Hong Kong,' says British dressage rider Jane Gregory, whose husband, Aram, competed for Hong Kong at the Doha Asian Games. 'I think the humidity may just be a bit more intense.'

Gregory competed at Atlanta 1996, where the temperature was expected to average 31-36 degrees Celsius with humidity that could approach 100 per cent. However, when the competition was finished, equine veterinarians concluded that the horses were in the same conditions in Atlanta as they would have been under good European conditions.

Last month's commotion involving the withdrawal of the Swiss dressage team threw the heat and humidity concerns into the spotlight around the world. But organisers anticipated the attention would arrive.

'There was the exact same attention before Atlanta,' Riggs said. '[It] is exactly predictable that you would have this sort of reaction, and sooner or later the world's going to focus attention on that and we welcome it, quite frankly, because it gives us an opportunity to discuss it and get the facts out.'

History has a habit of repeating itself in the sport: prior to the Games in Atlanta, Barcelona 1992 and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles 1984, the talk was all about the conditions. It was as though competitors, trainers, organisers and media were all attempting to grasp onto a climate comparable to the one they would be experiencing.

But while Atlanta was often referred to as 'Hotlanta' and 'Sweatlanta', Gregory says neither she nor her horse, Cupido, felt any distress. 'The truth is we were prepared,' she says. 'We went out [to Atlanta] two weeks before and started riding early in the morning, riding at 6am.'

While some suggestions to cope with the weather have been adopted from Atlanta and applied to Hong Kong - for example early acclimatisation and giant misting fans - there have been many advancements in equine care. Reports on horse monitoring and on a two-year study involving the Hong Kong Observatory are expected today as is information dispelling the notion that horses will have to be encased in ice in order to remain cool.

'Everyone's worried about horses suffering heat distress,' Riggs says. '[But] we see a very low incidence of that among our racehorses, a bit less than one in a thousand horses. I think the whole time I've been here, we've had one horse collapse and that was in winter.'

While some veterinarians are aware of the information, the same cannot be said for all the riders. Because of this, organisers are now trying to disseminate as much information as possible into the public domain. This may be, in part, because news of the Swiss dressage team's withdrawal - due more to travel issues than those related to weather - propels faster than the results of a study on the effects of different feed compositions.

Riggs and his colleagues aim to provide what he calls 'nuts and bolts' information - boring, logistical and necessary.

When the horses arrive in July, for example, they will come via combi flights, containing both passengers and cargo. Procedure usually dictates the plane parks at the passenger terminal, meaning the horses would have to be driven a fair distance before they could be loaded into the air-conditioned lorries. Riggs worked to ensure the flights would instead park at the cargo terminal and the passengers would make the 40-minute journey.

'I think that really does underline the fact that a huge effort at the highest levels has gone into this,' Riggs says. 'Inevitably, some things move rather slowly and bureaucratically, but at the end of the day, it's probably worth it for the support at the highest level. There is a level of support here for the horses that probably doesn't exist in many other places.'

Last summer's test event was noteworthy. When the first horses arrived near the end of July, it was among the hottest periods of the summer. A few weeks later, there were disruptions by typhoon Pabuk. Riggs said the ideal conditions would be overcast and mild rain because those would help bring about milder temperatures.

'The feeling is, the facilities are going to be so incredible that if you have to be outside for a short time, it will be fine,' Gregory says. 'From what I've heard, people are desperate to try to compete in Hong Kong, come what may.'