The results of a major research study commissioned by the FEI aimed at identifying best practices and management of horses training and competing in hot and humid environments, have been published ahead of next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Conducted at the Ready Steady Tokyo Test Event in August 2019 – which was won by Michael Jung and Fischerwild Wave – it was led by the FEI’s climate expert Dr David Marlin and monitored the combined effects of long travelling times and distances, time zone disruptions, and heat and humidity on competing horses.
Seventeen horses participated in the test event; three from Germany, two from Great Britain, one from Australia and 11 from Japan, of which six horses travelled to the event from Europe. Horses were monitored before and during the test event, including how they adapted to the ch
allenging climate in Tokyo. Central to the report was data collected on-course and post-competition, which allowed for detailed analysis of the cross-country test.
The study findings show that horses generally coped extremely well with the conditions and remained in good health for the duration of the test event, held at the same time of year as the Games in 2020, despite the fact that conditions were thermally challenging, with Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (WBGT) Index readings – which is used to measure heat, humidity, solar radiation and wind factor – frequently in the region of 32-33°C.
The report confirms that on cross country day, the high WBGT Index, steep initial climb and sharp turns on the course produced a significant challenge for competing horses. Heart rates during cross country, and blood lactate, heart rate and rectal temperature after cross country, indicated that horses were working at close to maximal capacity.
A new heart rate monitor that also displays the ECG, plus infra-red thermal imaging to provide a rapid and accurate estimate of horses’ temperature were key pieces of technology used in data collection for the study.
The report highlights that “all possibilities must be explored to mitigate the effects of the likely climatic conditions, including reduction in distance appropriate for the conditions and bringing the cross country start time forward to avoid the highest WBGT conditions that would normally peak between late morning and mid-afternoon”.
Horses exercising at maximal intensity at WBGT Index values over ~30°C are at increased risk of early fatigue, errors, falls, injuries and heat-related illness. Historic record analysis and onsite data collection show that very high values of WBGT Index are frequently reached between 11:00 and 12:00 in Tokyo during the Games period. Competition and training schedules have been set to reflect this. However, the cross country at Sea Forest (SFC) is currently scheduled to end at approximately 12:00 and clearly it would be extremely advantageous for horse and athlete welfare if it could be completed by 11:00.
Following discussions between the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), the IOC and the FEI, consensus has been reached on advancing the cross country start time to either 07.30 or 08.00 as part of the heat countermeasures.
A final decision on the move, which is fully supported by the findings in the Marlin report, will be made by the IOC Executive Board.
FEI Veterinary Director Göran Akerström commented: “We have worked very closely with TOCOG to put in place the best possible heat countermeasures for both our equine and human athletes for Tokyo 2020, and the findings in this important research study will play a crucial role in guiding final decisions on appropriate facilities and support. The report will also be a valuable tool for athletes and National Federations as they prepare their horses in the build-up to and during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
Heat countermeasures that are already in place for horses include air-conditioned stables at both equestrian venues at Bajikoen and Sea Forest – where the cross-country phase takes place for the eventing competition, early morning and evening training and competition sessions under floodlights, constant and close monitoring by a world class veterinary team, and multiple cooling facilities including the provision of shade tents, cooling fans, ice and water, and mobile cooling units.
The FEI has been working on optimising equine performance in challenging climates with Dr Marlin since before the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. Dr Marlin has been working with the FEI for the past three years specifically on Tokyo, reviewing historical climate records, analysing data collected at the main venue at Bajikoen and at the cross-country course at Sea Forest.
Key elements to ensuring both health and performance in a thermally challenging environment such as could be experienced during Tokyo 2020 are:
· Ensuring horses are in good health before travel
· Ensuring horses are fully fit to compete
· Allowing sufficient time to recover from travel
· Implementing measures to minimise risk of over-exerting horses in the most thermally
· Modifying training and warm-up to ensure horses do not become too hot
· Using aggressive cooling techniques