Olympics: Nerves jangle at eventing trot up

By Michael Brown

Andrew Nicholson with Nero during the eventing horse inspection. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Andrew Nicholson with Nero during the eventing horse inspection. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The hush around the stadium was discernible. Zara Phillips' horse High Kingdom - as if the Queen's granddaughter could have a mount with a plain name such as Barbara, like Brazil's Serguei Fofanoff - was asked to jog twice in front of the judging panel and a vet at yesterday's pre-competition inspection.

High Kingdom had been a bit frisky and Phillips, who showed signs the previous day she was tiring of the unwanted attention she was getting from the British media, glared at photographers as she ran him again.

After a longer-than-normal conference between the panel, the word all riders want to hear - "accepted'' - was announced and a ripple of relieved applause broke out around the stadium.

"They wouldn't have been brave enough to [eliminate her] on the first inspection. If her horse hadn't been passed fit the judges would have been taken to London Tower and shot and hung,'' New Zealand high performance director Eric Duvander jokes.

The pre-competition trot up, however, is no laughing matter. Olympic dreams rest on the fitness and wellbeing of the horses and the inspections - there's one the day before competition and another the morning after the cross-country - are vitally important.

There were no concerns for the New Zealand team as each of the five horses were displayed and signed off within seconds. All 75 horses were eventually passed fit, although a handful were asked to present a second time.

"Ninety per cent of the time you hold your breath a little bit but this time we knew it,''
Duvander says. "The horses are spot-on. We go into this competition with no worries so there's no point worrying about the last five minutes before inspection.''

A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make that happen because the New Zealand team is made up by a lot more than just five riders and horses.

Each combination has a groom and the team also has two coaches, a vet, farrier and even a chiropractor (for the horses, that is, not the riders).

The grooms are often the busiest individuals during competition. They take care of the horses, almost around the clock, and work to present them immaculately.

It took around 90 minutes to dress the New Zealand horses yesterday, complete with polished brass buckles, softened leather and the silver fern quarter-marked onto their rump, even though their examinations were over in seconds.

Vets aim to be the least busy member of the team throughout competition but it's not always like that and there will be particular concern after the cross country when both horse and rider will tackle 28 sometimes dizzyingly high obstacles across 5728m and must do it within 10 minutes and three seconds.

"We ask the horses to do a huge amount,'' New Zealand vet Ollie Pynn says. "We ask them to complete the cross country and then they're not allowed the equivalent of Nurofen afterwards. They are going to be sore and sometimes a little bit lame and we have to manage that through the second trot up. I won't sleep much the night before that one [because of worry].''

All Pynn can really do is advise each combination on how to manage stresses and strains with little more than ice, vitamins and electrolytes in his medicine kit. Regulations around drug use are as stringent for horses as any other athlete in the Olympics and horses, as well as athletes, are tested.

The first day of dressage, which is the least demanding of the three disciplines, got under way last night (NZT). It's traditionally been New Zealand's weakness and, although considerable time and money is being spent to find improvements, Duvander thinks it would be foolish to focus too much on it.

The Germans, in particular, are good dressage exponents but it's a sport that is often seen as more important than eventing in that country and horses are often bred specifically for the discipline.

"Everyone knows the game is changing and the dressage is becoming more important,'' he says. "But there are two phases of jumping and one of dressage and we still think it's more important to focus on those two. There's no point being in the lead and then failing. You have to be able to jump and you need to be fast.''

Phillips has proved she can do that, considering she is a former world and European champion. She left the arena yesterday with a slight limp as well as her scowl.

Fortunately for her medal chances, she didn't have to pass a medical inspection.


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