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Olympics: DVM performs equine surgery


Hong Kong -- A 15-year-old gelding sustains a hairline fracture and requires surgery.

Hong Kong

-- It's considered the most dangerous of the Olympic equestrian events, and at first it seemed the four-hour cross-country competition had gone without incident.

But then it was discovered that a horse on the Swedish team, Keymaster, a 15-year-old gelding, sustained a hairline pastern-bone fracture in its right foreleg in Monday's competition and would require surgery.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Magnus Gallerdal of Sweden rides Keymaster in the eventing dressage competition during the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Gallerdal was aboard Keymaster again in this year's cross-country competition in Hong Kong when the horse was injured.

It was a job for Jack R. Snyder, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, an equine surgeon and professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who along with his wife coordinates the equine veterinary facility at the Summer Olympic Games.

Iced and wrapped, Keymaster was taken by ambulance from Beas River Country Club, site of the three-day eventing competition, back to the main veterinary clinic at Sha Tin, 35 minutes away in Hong Kong. Surgery was scheduled for the next day (Tuesday).

Photos courtesy of Dr. Sharon J. Spier

Above are before-and-after views of the right foreleg of a horse that sustained a hairline pastern-bone fracture in Olympic cross-country competition. Jack Snyder, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, and another doctor made the repair with four compression screws.

Sharon J. Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, co-leader of the international veterinary team at the equestrian Olympic Games, tours the eventing competition site outside Hong Kong with Gordon Sidlow, BVMS, MRCVS, of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

"Yes, Jack and Dr. Cedric Chan performed the surgery at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The horse is doing well and should fly back to his home country at the end of the games. It sustained a spiral P1 fracture, which was repaired with four compression screws," Snyder's wife, Sharon J. Spier, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, tells DVM Newsmagazine in an e-mailed news update Wednesday from the equestrian venue in Hong Kong, 1,200 miles south of the main Olympics competition in Beijing.

During the cross-country event, 70 equestrians rode their mounts over an eight-minute course that includes changes in terrain and several jumps. For these games, the course was shortened by a third, to 5.7 kilometers, to lessen chances of over-exertion in the heat and high humidity. Contestants rode between 8 a.m. and noon to avoid midday heat.

Cross-country is part of a triathlon of equestrian events. The other two disciplines are show jumping and dressage. But cross-country is considered by far the most dangerous to horse and rider. A rider was killed executing a jump during the 2004 Olympics, a rash of deaths occurred nine years ago and injuries and deaths still occur often enough that a task force was formed this year to seek ways to make the competition safer.

In this year's games, a new rule requiring the elimination of any horse or rider who falls took out five riders, including a member of the American team, Amy Tryon of Duvall, Wash., who fell at Fence 10.

Germany won the team gold in eventing, Australia won silver and Great Britain the bronze medal.

Other than Tuesday's surgery, the veterinary team has not been particularly busy so far, says Spier, who wrote earlier about "working with various horses with fevers and colic and mild dehydration."

She and her husband lead an international corps of 30 "staff" veterinarians who advise the "team" veterinarians accompanying the 280 horses in the games. Snyder is in charge of surgical procedures, while Spier, an internal-medicine specialist who also teaches at UC-Davis, handles infections and internal diseases or disorders.

News reports a few days before the games mentioned two dead birds found on or near the main venue in Hong Kong. Are veterinarians concerned about bird flu? Is it a conversation topic?

"To answer your question about bird flu, Gordon Sidlow, BVMS, MRCVS, of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, told me, 'I would be worried about bird flu if I were a chicken,'" Spier writes.

"According to him, 'Bird flu has been endemic in the Guang Dong region for 15 years, and if it were going to mutate, it would have done it by now.' So, no, veterinarians here are not worried about bird flu."

Humans who travel to distant time zones seem to adjust quickly enough, but how well do horses adjust to changes of up to 12 hours?

"All of the horses seem to be acclimated to the time change - and even an entire seasonal change for horses from the Southern Hemisphere," Spier writes. "A few experienced fevers in the first few days after the long flights, but this is a common finding in horses transported for 24 hours."

Since the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta and the Sydney games in 2000, veterinary researchers have studied the effects of heat and humidity and long-distance travel on horses, Spier says. "So the Olympic games have produced some useful information for the welfare of horses around the world, not just those competing in these elite events. Heat is not as much an issue for the horses now, as all of the (remaining) competitions are in the evenings from 7:15 until midnight, well after sundown. The venue at night is beautiful," she writes.

Biosecurity and equine disease-prevention measures are always evident both in Hong Kong and at the Beas River eventing site, Spier says. "Going into the stables, there are security guards that enforce the use of hand sanitizers for all who enter or leave. All horses were screened for influenza and had veterinary examinations performed prior to entering the stables. We also have a fully staffed clinical pathology laboratory for blood samples, fecal cultures or PCR for infectious diseases. This is the best-prepared veterinary facility for any Olympics I have seen."

Spier and Snyder have worked with Olympic veterinary teams since the 1988 games in Seoul.

Fellow veterinary team member Catherine W. Kohn, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, who teaches in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at The Ohio State University, earlier told DVM Newsmagazine that the HKJC veterinary clinic is "second to none that I have seen."

And Spier complimented the HKJC's Dr. Chris Riggs for "a superb job of organizing every detail."

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