Thursday, July 24, 2008

First-Class Treatment for U.S. Team’s Horses

New York Times

Published: July 24, 2008

Tim Dutta has learned that satisfying his well-heeled clientele means attending to the smallest of details. One of his frequent fliers loves orange Gatorade, for example, but turns up his nose at lime. Another drinks water only if it has been sweetened with a touch of apple juice. Some ease their nerves by nibbling on wet hay, while others take it dry.

“These are high-end athletes,” Dutta said. “And our main job is to make sure they are as stress-free as possible.”

His clients, of course, are not human but equine — Dutta is a shipping agent for the United States equestrian team, responsible for flying the team’s horses to Europe for the first leg of their trip to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

After a seven-day quarantine in Britain or Germany, the horses will depart later this month and in early August for the equestrian site in Hong Kong as part of a global migration that will ultimately include 297 horses from 47 nations traveling on 57 airplanes.

With their superb training, million-dollar price tags and often excitable temperaments, many Olympic horses are celebrities in their own right. “They are rock stars,” Dutta said. “And we treat them like rock stars.”

Martin Atock, who has shipped horses for every Olympics since the 1988 Seoul Games, has been planning for this summer’s Games since 2001 and has already made 16 trips to Hong Kong. “The trick to help them recover is you keep the whole transport as smooth and stress-free as possible,” said Atock, managing director of Peden Bloodstock, the German agency that is arranging the transport of every national team’s Olympic horses.

Olympic riders say they cannot help but worry while their horses are in transit. Because horses and riders work together for years, if the animal becomes injured, the rider cannot simply find a new horse. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s daughter Georgina, for example, had to remove herself from contention for the Olympic team because her top horse, Cim Christo, injured his leg last fall.

“Traveling is one of the most stressful things a horse has to do,” said Beezie Madden, an American show jumper who competed on the gold-medal-winning United States jumping team in Athens in 2004. She competes with the 13-year-old Dutch-bred warmblood, Authentic. If a plane is delayed, “it can end up being a much longer experience than it needs to be,” she said.

The horses fly with an entourage — team grooms, veterinarians and at least one “flying groom,” an equine flight attendant whose job is to make the horse as comfortable as possible. Tim Rolfe, the senior flying groom for Peden Bloodstock, said his job was as much about calming nervous handlers as about taking care of the horses. “Basically, this is really like a giant baby-sitting job,” he said.

As with humans, a horse’s primary health concern during flight is dehydration, which explains why Dutta is so attentive to his clients’ drinking preferences — water sweetened with Gatorade and apple juice, for example.

Horses can also lose their balance, so cargo plane pilots use the full extent of the runway to make takeoff and landing as smooth as possible. Even air traffic controllers become involved, Atock said, approving a flight path devoid of sharp, unpredictable turns. “We take a very slow curve,” he said, “to let the horse anticipate the movement.”

The horse’s trip begins in a warehouse near the airport, where it is loaded into a container that resembles a standard horse trailer. From there, the animal is wheeled onto the tarmac and lifted into the belly of the cargo plane. Apart from wearing protective foam boots and, occasionally, ear muffs to block engine noise, the horse has an experience similar to riding in a trailer, Atock said.

Besides, most horses who will travel to the Olympics have already logged many thousands of miles in the air. Brentina, a 17-year-old mare who competes with the American dressage rider Debbie McDonald, travels to Europe at least twice a year. “She’s a pretty seasoned flier,” said McDonald, who competed in Athens in 2004 as part of the United States team that won a bronze medal.

The United States plans to send four show jumpers, three dressage horses and five eventing horses to the Olympics, in addition to two alternates in show jumping and dressage, said James Wolf, executive director for sport programs for the United States Equestrian Federation, the sport’s national governing body.

Because of differences in their competition schedules, the horses will travel to Hong Kong separately. Eventing horses will leave from Stansted Airport outside London on July 30. The dressage horses will leave the same date, from Amsterdam. The show jumping horses leave last, on Aug. 6.

Once in Hong Kong, the horses will be transferred to air-conditioned trucks — the temperature set at 73 degrees — for the 30-mile trip to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the site of the equestrian events. During a test event last summer, Atock clocked the journey from the tarmac to the stables at 1 hour 40 minutes.

By that time, humans are “basically still collecting your luggage at the passenger terminal,” Atock said. “We’re already in the stables.”

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