Staging equestrian events for the Olympic Games—which include eventing, show jumping, and dressage, the horse ballet that Ann Romney's Rafalca helped popularize in 2012—are an incredible feat of planning, even under the most elegant of circumstances.
"It's a little more complex than say, getting a diver to the Olympics," said Will Connell. As sport director for the United States Equestrian Federation, he's tasked with coordinating the movement of horses and their human handlers for the 2016 Games, and while moving 15 prized horses across international borders is never easy, Rio is proving to be a particularly challenging destination.
Documentation required for horses to enter and leave Brazil are the main source of headaches for Connell and other equestrian officials. Such paperwork is commonplace for horses in international competition, but delays by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry in issuing the paperwork that horses need to cross crucial borders are pushing organizers far behind schedule—by at least three months for American horses—with no clear solution in sight.
"This needs to be resolved quickly," Connell said. "Everything revolves around the dates the horses travel—how many hotel rooms, transport, everything. In 2008 when we were preparing for the Olympics then, all of our horse and human flights were booked by this point. We're a long way off from that."
The Brazilian Agriculture Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ingmar De Vos, president of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for equestrian sports, said in a statement that officials "have been working for some time with Rio 2016, the Brazilian and Rio Authorities and the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture to get the Veterinary Certificate and Protocol approved." However, the approval process "is still not finalised. This has an important impact as it delays the planning and preparation of the horses that will take part in the Games."
The delay has led some to speculate that the equestrian events might need to be relocated from their planned venue in Deodoro Olympic Park to somewhere outside Brazil. Equestrian events have proved difficult to host before—in the 2008 Beijing Games, they were moved to Hong Kong because of its more accommodating facilities. But because the problems in Rio stem from the national government, and not a particular venue, simply relocating the events elsewhere in Brazil wouldn't be an option.
De Vos praised the work of Luiz Robert Giugni, president of the Brazilian Equestrian National Federation, and said that while discussions were continuing, she was "confident that our horses will allowed to travel back and forth to Rio."
Brazil is also a country that has struggled with equine diseases, heightening the pressure on the Agricultural Ministry and its role in biosecurity concerns. Trainers and organizers were already alert to the matter when this spring, a horse that had been stabled at the Olympic facilities tested positive for glanders, a potentially fatal infectious disease. The horse was immediately euthanized; officials with the FEI said they believed that the disease was contained and poses no danger.
Despite the scare, regularly scheduled test events at Deodoro this summer went well, according to equestrian officials, and the venue itself is sound. In addition to concerns about diseases, between now and the opening ceremony, officials from various national federations will run quality-assurance tests on hay at a given facility, as well as review whether any insects or other potentially harmful factors surround the Olympic stables.
According to officials, this summer's test events at Deodoro went smoothly. Photo by
Connell is still in limbo, but he hopes that the paperwork complications can be resolved sooner rather than later, reportedly by the end of the month. Even if resolved, a lot of work remains for Connell and other USEF officials planning the American equestrian team's trip to Rio.
Horses fly "business, not economy," Connell said, and in preparing travel plans, organizers must determine if their flight can also accommodate grooms, veterinarians, and other staff. Flight paths are analyzed, and factors like landing site surface (rubber matting is preferred) and the accessibility of veterinary services are also taken into account.
"Landing is actually more difficult than flying," Connell said. "Horses are a bit like humans. The more they fly, generally they get more used to it." Also like humans, some of the animals may take tranquilizers to ease their nerves in transit. (Horses participating in the Olympic Games, as well as their riders, are subject to drug testing.)The horses will arrive at the Olympic venue at least seven to 10 days prior to their events, in order to acclimate to the weather and any time change. From there, it's easy—all that remains is competing with the best athletes and horses in the world for a place on the podium and a medal to take home.