Fighting off disease risk
Once the horses touch down, doctors will immediately draw blood and send the samples via jet to the National Veterinary Services
Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. There, veterinarians will assess the samples for four diseases — dourine, glanders, equine infectious
anemia and piroplasmosis.
If the blood comes back clean and horses show no signs of illness during the required minimum 42-hour quarantine, monitoring
and observation, they will travel in sealed vans to Kentucky Horse Park. Under normal USDA regulations, horses that test positive
for any of the aforementioned diseases could not stay in the country. "Usually, they would not get out of quarantine," explains
Madelaine Fletcher, a USDA spokeswoman.
But the size and scope of the World Equestrian Games merited changes in procedure. In fact, to even be considered to host
the games, Kentucky organizers had to show the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), which governs equestrian sports worldwide,
that it could accommodate piroplasmosis horses during competition.
And, so, after more than a year of discussion and negotiation, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the USDA and others
agreed on a process that will allow for a temporary importation waiver on horses with piroplasmosis.
Unlike diseases transmitted directly from horse to horse, piroplasmosis spreads from bacteria living on certain ticks. So
controlling the tick population is critical in preventing the spread of the disease, Fletcher says. Luckily, it's far from
an impossible task.
To start, Mother Nature will give organizers a hand. September and October are not tick season in Kentucky. "The tick population
is naturally reduced in the fall," says Dr. Ruth Buck, who deals with equestrian importation issues for USDA. Still, no risks
will be taken.
Prevention starts before the games begin. Specialists will conduct tick surveys to assess the size of the tick population.
The lawns of Kentucky Horse Park are well-manicured, further reducing the chance of infestation, as ticks prefer tall grass
and bushy areas. Furthermore, all of the horses will receive an anthelmintic two to four weeks before arriving in the United
States. Thus, all the competing horses should be tick-free when they enter the country.
Once the horses are in the park, officials will check for ticks each time horses leave their stalls and return. As an additional
precaution, piroplasmosis-positive horses will wear a halter or other identifier, live in a separate barn and graze in a designated
This is not the first time piroplasmosis horses have been allowed in the country. A similar exception was made for the 1984
and 1996 Olympics. However, in those cases, horses could not compete in the endurance competition (a 100-mile race), which
exposed them to vegetation (and, potentially, to ticks). But with the added measures in place for the 2010 games, those restrictions
have been lifted.
"You can't ever reduce the chances to zero," Allen says, "but it's pretty doggone close to it."
More veterinary challenges
Although the inclusion of piroplasmosis horses is one of the more complicated issues veterinarians will face during the games,
it is not their only concern. To ward off worst-case scenarios, professionals will stand by, "waiting for something not to
happen," like an invisible safety net, Allen explains. "The ideal at an event like this is that no one knows veterinarians
Team veterinarians accompany horses to competition, though most of their heavy lifting takes place before arrival. Under FEI
rules, there's a firm medication policy that ensures horses compete on their own merit and do not receive harmful doses of
medication. So while team veterinarians can recommend treatment, they cannot administer drugs to horses.
"If a horse gets a wound, you can use antibiotics and medications that can be used to treat wounds and injuries. It just means
there's oversight and strict guidelines so there's no foul play," says Duncan Peters, DVM, head of the Sport Horse Division
at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky.
A tragedy similar to the one that led to the deaths of 21 polo horses in Florida last April would be devastating — but nearly
impossible under the stringent governing FEI regulations. "The welfare of the horses is always of the utmost importance,"
adds Amy Walker, spokeswoman for the World Equestrian Games 2010 Foundation. "We understand the responsibility we have."
While events are underway, Peters estimates there will be a minimum of 28 veterinarians on the course, with another six to
eight at the finish and an additional eight to 10 in the barn at any given time.
In addition to members attending to horses on specific disciplines, a separate group will conduct drug testing, and Lexington's
Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, the official clinic of the games, will provide additional treatment.
"Once you set the process and procedures and personnel, it's dealing with the crisis du jour, which you can never predict.
So you have good people and stay in communication with them," Allen says.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) will supply equine ambulances staffed with trained
personnel who have, in addition to equine medical expertise, discipline-related know-how. "This saves time," says Joe Silva,
director of the MSPCA's Nevins Farm and Equine Centre. "Nothing will be introduced that these people haven't seen, for the
Should issues arise that on-site specialists can't address, MSPCA vehicles will deliver horses to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital.
"Hopefully, these horses are coming to compete and not coming to the hospital," Allen says. "If something happens, we have
a great staff, excellent equipment and all sorts of procedures in place."
Tyler Blue and Mary Squillace are journalism students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.