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Equestrian events for Tokyo 2020 pose unique problem of keeping horses cool

A horse is splashed with cool water to lower its body temperature after completing a tough cross-country race. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Racing Association)

As the only Olympic sport to include animals, the equestrian competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games comes with its own set of worries when considering the searing heat of the Japanese summer.

In a scene from the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials held this May in England, after finishing clearing hedges and water jumps along a roughly 6,000 meter equestrian cross-country course, a horse walks in circles to control its breathing and cool down. Staff and others run with buckets in hand, splashing freezing water over the horse's body countless times.

"Horses can't be compared to other animals when it comes to whether they are strong or weak to the heat, so a single judgment can't be made. Still, the 'two heaviest sweaters' in the animal kingdom are horses and humans. They also get symptoms of heatstroke," explained Japan Racing Association Equine Department veterinarian Hiroko Aida, who is also involved with the management of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Horses have a basic body temperature that is roughly two degrees Celsius higher than humans, and after running a tough cross-country course, their body temperature can exceed 40 degrees Celsius, according to Aida.

Cooling their bodies with chilled water is a simple method to lower their body temperatures. In order to cool the animals down even further, the staff uses equine "sweat scrapers," equipped with a round ring made of metal or other materials, to remove sweat and water from the horse's body. By repeating these procedures for roughly 10 minutes, a horse's body temperature can fall by as much as 2 degrees.

The importance placed on measures to battle the heat comes from a situation unique to the sport that is not uncommon -- having to withdraw in the middle of competition due to the condition of the horse itself. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, equestrian will be divided into three events -- dressage, eventing and jumping. In the eventing competition, horses and riders compete in dressage, cross-country and jumping, in that order. Once the cross-country section is completed, veterinarians and a group of judges check the heart rate, body temperature and other vitals of the horse to check the animal's condition. If the horse's condition is judged not to be appropriate, it will not move onto the final jumping section. It's not uncommon for horse-human pairs that come out on top after the cross-country section to then be eliminated from the competition completely, experts say.

In Olympic equestrian competition, full-scale measures to battle the heat, such as water misters, began from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Tokyo Games will also see the installation of large tents, and there are plans to also have giant fans and water misters to create an environment to keep the horses cool.

"I would like to create a setup where horses can compete at peak physical condition, leading to a successful Tokyo Games," said Aida.

But the measures against the high temperatures are not limited to just after the completion of the race. The stables where the horses will be spending the majority of their time in Tokyo will also be fully equipped with air conditioning. There are also plans to prepare special transport vehicles for the animals that also have air conditioners.

During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the cross-country event held in Hong Kong was scheduled for the evening to avoid the midday sun. The Tokyo Games will also be dividing the starting time for each of the equestrian events between the early morning and later in the evening. The cross-country section has a planned starting time of 8:30 a.m.

Those involved in equestrian events in Europe, the home of the sport, have been voicing their concerns about the high-temperature and high-humidity conditions in Tokyo. Olympic organizers in Tokyo must devise countermeasures so that horses are not defeated by the searing heat, but are left to battle the competition.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department)

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