Olympic horses at Sart Tilman
First the horses are examined outside the laboratory. They undergo an echocardiogram that gives information about the shape of their hearts and their condition. Next, the horses’ respiratory capacity is tested in two ways: one test measures overall pulmonary function, and then an endoscopy is performed to check the upper respiratory tract. Blood tests check the possibility of medical problems that might unexpectedly be revealed in competition. “The tests at rest are intended to detect possible sub-clinical cardiac or respiratory problems, problems that might not appear with normal activity, but which show up in these in-depth tests,” Tatiana Art explains. These tests reveal to rider and veterinarian problems that might declare themselves under the extreme conditions of effort experienced during competition riding.
After tests “at rest”, tests during exertion
The second series of tests are conducted in a laboratory that is temperature-controlled in order to reproduce conditions that will be encountered during the Olympic Games. “We recreated the conditions the horses will compete under by getting them to put forth degrees of effort in a space heated to more than 30°C, in which we ran steam machines (used for steaming off wallpaper) that allowed us to raise the level of humidity in that space to almost 100%,” Tatiana Art said.
One of the major problems that equine and human athletes encounter when facing high temperatures such as those they will experience in Hong Kong has to do with relative humidity that approaches 100% of saturation: sweat does not evaporate properly when the humidity is that high. “In order to maintain constant internal temperature, horses depend upon sudation (sweating),” says Tatiana Art. “If the horse’s sweat does not evaporate, it can’t get rid of the calories (as heat) it produces during effort, and thus its body temperature may rise to the point where there is a risk of hyperthermia (rise in body temperature above 40°C). The more the horse’s body temperature goes up, the more its body will attempt to sweat, and the horse will lose a considerable amount of water, but without managing to cool itself off.” In a half-hour, a horse can become dangerously dehydrated, such that not only its health but its very life is at risk.