How equestrian teams and their horses get to the Olympics:
The nine U.S. equestrian athletes set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics are a small slice of a delegation of at least 64 people and 16 horses. Transporting that group halfway around the world is no easy feat.
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty ImagesNine U.S. athletes are set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics across the three equestrian disciplines, plus three athletes at the Paralympics. But putting a team in the ring isn’t as simple as putting 12 bodies on a plane.
There are the four traveling reserve riders, who would step in in the event of an injury. There are the seven coaches. There are the six team leaders, who manage logistics. There are the 16 grooms, to care for the horses. Then there is the farrier, to look after the horses’ hooves and handle their shoeing. And the four veterinarians. And the two equine physical therapists. And the human physical therapist.
In all, the U.S. equestrian delegation in Tokyo will be made up of at least 64 people, and the number would have been even higher, at 76, if not for Covid-19 restrictions. And that doesn’t include the mountains of equipment or the real stars of the show—the 16 horses. headtopics.com
It shouldn’t be all that surprising, then, that even setting aside the contributions from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the considerable costs shouldered by athletes themselves, the Tokyo Games are carrying a six-figure price tag for U.S. Equestrian, the sport’s national governing body. That money is needed for an endurance event that is just as astounding as the Olympic competition that follows: getting those horses, and that legion of support staff, halfway around the world.
The U.S. eventing horses arriving in Tokyo.US EquestrianIn an ideal situation, the coordination for an event of this magnitude takes years. Athletes take on much of the financial responsibility for competing—riding their own horses, employing their own grooms and buying much of their equipment—but the global travel leaves plenty for the national federation to do. Accommodations are arranged a couple of years in advance, and the horses’ flights are booked as much as a year out. Plans are made for the horses’ pre-export quarantine, a requirement under each country’s agricultural regulations around transporting livestock. General team equipment—everything from horseshoes to manure forks to chairs and coffeemakers—is sent by container ship. Will Connell, U.S. Equestrian’s sport director, says the federation is already planning the logistics around the
nextOlympics, in Paris in 2024, and developing the program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.Dr. Susan Johns, the U.S. eventing team veterinarian, during the pre-export quarantine in Germany.US EquestrianBut 2021 is hardly an ideal situation. Arduous Covid-19 protocols imposed by the Japanese government and Olympic organizers made accreditation a long and grueling process. Even more important, the pandemic’s impact on airlines left few freight flights available for the horses and sent prices skyrocketing, when a round-trip business-class ticket to Europe for a horse and its kit normally costs $25,000. So in late April, with assistance from the horse transportation logistics company Peden Bloodstock, the federation decided to send the teams’ U.S.-based horses to Europe for their pre-export quarantine and then onward to Japan, rather than flying them directly from Chicago to Tokyo as originally planned.
“That has basically meant that we’ve done six months of planning in six weeks,” Connell says.Dr. Susan Johns, the U.S. eventing team veterinarian, checking on a horse.US EquestrianThe additional travel legs added to the cost for the federation—particularly because the group in Europe included some reserve horses and staff members who were not expected to make the trip to Tokyo—as did the $30,000 or so it has had to spend on Covid-19 testing for the humans during the horses’ quarantine. But many of the American horses in the equestrian disciplines show-jumping and dressage are based in Europe anyway, and traveling from Liège, Belgium, allowed the U.S. teams to share flights with other countries headed to Tokyo. headtopics.com
The flights themselves area huge production, even under normal circumstances. First, the horses have to be taken by trailer from their farms to the vicinity of the airport, where they’re examined by a team vet for soundness. When it’s time to fly, they’re walked for 20 minutes or so to improve their circulation before the long trip, and another trailer ride gets them to the horse export area at the airport—seven hours or so before departure time. There, they are eventually given another health check and, using a dolly and a scissor lift, loaded onto the plane in jet stalls. (Business class, of course, with two horses to a stall rather than three.)
Emma Ford, right, the groom for eventing athlete Phillip Dutton, unloading the horse feed.US EquestrianEach horse’s groom and the team vet take the same flight, to check on and feed the horses every few hours through the journey (16 or 17 hours from Liège to Tokyo, with a stop in Dubai to refuel). The vet transports medicine, in case of an emergency. The grooms, meanwhile, try to pack everything they might need for the month or so they will be away from home into three large, 68-gallon trunks each (although Emma Ford, a longtime groom for the eventing athlete Phillip Dutton, acknowledges that Americans “are known for sort of overpacking” and often end up with a fourth). The haul includes about a thousand pounds of feed for each discipline’s horses, stomach supplements to help with ulcers, each horse’s bedding and favorite buckets to eat out of, and all of the tack: bits, bridles, saddles, stirrups and more.
“I think that the captain on our flight over said we had 14 tons of equipment,” Dr. Susan Johns, the eventing team vet, says of the seven-horse trip from New York to Liège.Touching down overseas begins another operation that can last an hour or three. Horses, just like people, have passports to log their movements, and those records are checked, along with microchips embedded in the horses’ necks, to confirm their identities. The equipment has to pass through customs, and vets have to clear the horses again.
Dressage tack in Tokyo.US EquestrianThe whole process happens four times—once for each of the Olympic equestrian disciplines, whose schedules are staggered during the Games, and once for the Paralympics.Horses have passports, just like humans.US Equestrian headtopics.com
And that’s to say nothing of what comes after the travel. There’s the quarantine period—a week or so spent training and resting up in Aachen, Germany—and then the Games themselves, which are all about keeping the horses in peak-performance shape, whether that’s with training rides, shoeing, massages or acupuncture. Beyond Covid, Tokyo presents two somewhat unusual challenges: An overlap in the Olympic schedule means all three U.S. teams must share the stable for a few days, putting storage space at an even higher premium than usual, and the events will be held in short sessions in the morning and the evening, rather than one long session, to keep the horses out of the afternoon heat. That’s an adjustment for the whole delegation but especially for grooms, who are building naps into schedules that see them arrive at the barn around 5:30 a.m. and leave around 10 p.m.
Still, those involved are confident they can navigate the challenges. “We’ve got this kind of down to an art,” says Johns.Once the Games are over, the delegation can take a moment to relax, but not for too long.They have another quarantine to get through, and another long trip home.
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