To treat the Canadian Olympians under her care in Tokyo, Usha Knabe might perform massages or acupuncture, use therapeutic lasers, or an electromagnetic blanket.
She may dangle a carrot as motivation during her therapy session – literally.
Knabe, a veterinarian and equine therapist, is part of a multiskilled group that cares for the horses on Canada’s Olympic equestrian team inside the state-of-the-art competition venue in Tokyo.
As with any athlete at the Games – from swimmers to gymnasts and sprinters – the horses have sports-medicine experts to ensure they are healthy, happy and peaking for optimal performance.
An expert in horse bodies, Knabe can gently create an effective neck stretch by holding a carrot at the horse’s side to encourage him to turn his head. That includes the Jessica Phoenix-ridden eventing horse Pavarotti, who the doctor calls the most flexible horse she has ever treated, one who can reach back nearly to his tail when seeking a carrot.
Knabe often uses alternative medicine on these shiny-coated, fine-tuned muscular animals, doing a diagnostic scan for stomach trouble by touching a trigger point on the temple, or identifying a foot problem through an acupuncture point on the neck.
“You have to pay attention to what the horse is telling you,” said Knabe, who has a practice in Hockley Valley, Ont. “Each horse has his own little recipe and protocols.”
Knabe joins veterinarians Alan Manning and Jan Henriksen as part of a large support team for the Canadian horses in Tokyo. The group includes coaches, riders and team leaders, grooms and a farrier who specializes in horseshoes and hoof care.
Canada qualified six athletes for the Games – three in dressage, two in eventing and one in show jumping. Vets are specific to the disciplines, because their care is so nuanced. Dressage and eventing are first up, and then a different vet will arrive for Canada’s solo show jumper, Mario Deslauriers, and his horse Bardolina 2.
A lot could go wrong for the elite four-legged competitors – from sickness after the long flight, to injuries large or small. Many things can spook a horse, from sudden sprinklers to a noisy air conditioner.
Another challenge in Tokyo is protecting the horses from exhaustion, with temperatures surging into the mid-30s C each day with high humidity. Horses are accustomed to competing in daytime, but the Tokyo equestrian events are scheduled for evenings to avoid peak heat.
Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., all horses remain indoors and out of the sun. There are misting fans all around and tubs full of ice water to sponge down an overheated horse. Meticulous care is taken to ensure they are well hydrated. Some horses even consume electrolytes by mouth from a toothpaste-like tube – just as marathon runners and other endurance athletes do.
The most pressing time can be when the eventing horses finish their cross country portion. The vets immediately begin monitoring the horse’s temperature, heart rate and breathing after they have been jumping, cantering and galloping full-bore. There is even an emergency clinic close by in case horses get injured or require surgery.
After the Olympics, Manning will make a brief trip to his native Prince Edward Island before returning to Japan for the Paralympics, where he’ll care for Canada’s para-dressage horses.
A limited number of vets stay on-site with the horses in Tokyo, including Manning, housed in a dorm “just like back in university,” he says.
The vets call this venue one of the best they’ve seen, from its well-appointed barns to its warm-up spaces, well-manicured grounds and eye-popping competition stage, complete with Japanese plants as decorative dressing.
The vets monitor the animals’ appetites and watch for gastric ulcers. Many are injected with joint supplements to protect their legs from the rigours of exercise. Weight loss can be a sign of distress; Henriksen says he’s seen a horse of approximately 1,100 to 1,300 pounds lose some 50 to 100 pounds during a flight. In Tokyo, the horses are weighed often by walking across a scale. The horses will also dine on similar feed to what they are used to back home, so their digestive systems are not disrupted with new food.
Henriksen flew from his practice in New Jersey, via JFK airport in New York, with some of the Canadian eventing horses to the quarantine site in Aucken, Germany. There they were tested for a contagious virus that had concerned the horse community last year – Equine Herpesvirus. They were also tested for influenza. The horses are “frequent flyers” and have been healthy in Tokyo.
“When they get off a plane, you make sure there’s no cuts and scrapes or bruises or swollen legs,” Henriksen said. “You make sure they’re passing manure normally, have a good appetite and their water drinking is up to par.”
Knabe uses a variety of equipment to get the horses feeling good in the lead-up to competition. She puts a special heavy blanket, which produces a very low level pulsed electromagnetic field, on their backs to relax the muscles. She can have them stand on an electromagnetic plate, which sends energy into the horse’s legs.
She says they respond well to acupuncture. “Horses love acupuncture – they’re one of the most sensitive creatures in the animal kingdom to acupuncture,” Knabe said. “You put a needle in and you get this licking and chewing and sighing and the eyes shutting and they fall asleep and you know that they’re happy with what you’re doing.”
It’s a passion for these vets. “We observe every single horse, every time it’s out of the barn when it’s being ridden and we’re all watching and looking for any subtle changes so we can communicate to the trainer, the coach, and the rider,” Knabe said. “It’s really was a dance between the groups, the way we care for a horse.”
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