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Heat will be on for Olympic horses, riders

  • Story Highlights
  • Equestrian competition held August 9-21 in Hong Kong
  • Measures being taken to offset tropical heat, humidity in Chinese region
  • Equestrian riders say they are not concerned by pollution, storm worries
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By Tiffany Wong
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Dr. Chris Riggs may have the easiest way to explain how Hong Kong will successfully stage the equestrian events at this year's Summer Olympics.

Horses are moved to the Olympic equestrian venue in Hong Kong's Sha Tin district last week.

Horses are moved to the Olympic equestrian venue in Hong Kong's Sha Tin district last week.

"Enough ice to have a few dry martinis at the end of the day," joked the head of veterinary services for the Olympic equestrian events, when asked about receiving 30 tons of ice shipped to Hong Kong for next month's competition.

Heat is no stranger for Olympic horse and rider: Past competitions in cities such as Athens, Atlanta and Barcelona have been staged in sizzling summer temperatures. But tropical Hong Kong also brings high humidity with the elevated heat.

Typical August temperatures in Hong Kong hover around 28 degrees Celsius (83 degrees Fahrenheit) with 82 percent humidity, according to Hong Kong Observatory's published data. Hong Kong's stifling August heat even forces the annual suspension of one of the most popular sports in the region: horse racing.

There will be "a certain amount of grumbling about the heat," says qualified rider Megan Jones of Australia. Yet optimism runs high: "I think it will be a great Olympic Games."

Concern about the impact of Hong Kong's summer weather on the performance of horse and rider occupies the Olympic, equestrian and Hong Kong sporting officials. There's a reason: More than 200 horses, each worth millions of dollars, are considered the Olympic sport's most expensive equipment..

The Olympic equestrian events will be held in Hong Kong between August 9 and 21. They were moved from Beijing to the former British colony because of Hong Kong's quarantine procedures, considered by sporting officials to be superior to the mainland. Video Watch more about testing procedures for this year »

Two members of this year's Australian Olympic Equestrian team had a sneak preview of Hong Kong's facilities last year.

"It probably doesn't affect the Australian riders as much as maybe some of the riders of European horses because they are probably not used to those kind of conditions," says Shane Rose. His team is no stranger to heat and humidity back home, but Rose still voices concern about Hong Kong's "oppressive" humidity.

Cooling off important

Olympic riders and equine veterinarians emphasize the importance of post-competition cool down.

"Horses are just like humans in that their primary way of cooling is to sweat. The evaporation of the sweat that cools the skin and cools the body," explains Dr. Riggs. In a humid environment, moisture does not evaporate and "therefore, that primary mechanism is lost."

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To cope with the risks, air-conditioning is a constant. Cooling systems are in the vans that pick up the horses at an airport, and are installed in stables and event in show rings.

Reserves of chilled water and stores of ice provide the main cool down: New at this year's events are mobile cooling units that steer directly to horses if emergency treatment is required.

Hong Kong Olympic Equestrian dressage and jumping venues in Sha Tin and the cross-country location at Beas River Country Club in Sheung Shui are promoted as six-star hotels for horses. Rolling sand boxes and specially designed "equine showers" have been installed in stables with adjustable temperature controls.

Although not as extravagant as their pampered horse partners, Olympian riders have designated spaces to escape the elements: refreshment areas equipped with air-conditioning.

Weather, pollution fears

Weather and pollution concerns are taking a backseat to heat and humidity concerns. Hong Kong's typhoon season typically begins in May and runs through September. However, the Hong Kong Observatory in the past few decades have recorded fewer than two days of August typhoon warnings of power significant enough to shut an equestrian competition.

Likewise, riders seemed unconcerned about the growing pollution fears in Hong Kong. On Monday Hong Kong recorded its worst air quality on record. But equestrian observers say air pollution is only an issue with long-term exposure and not for the short duration of the Olympic events.

"I was more concerned about the humidity and just being able to get enough air into your lungs, more so than the pollution," says Olympian rider, Rose. Video Watch some of the worst-ever pollution to hit Hong Kong »

Olympic equestrian competitions are not held during the hottest midday hours; rather they unfold during cooler morning and evening temperatures with a scheduling leeway for worst-case climate scenarios.


"There's going to be a legacy from the Olympic Games to the horse sports in Hong Kong," Rose said. "Going into Beijing might have been a bit of a white elephant where there was going to be a massive infrastructure that might never be used again.

"For the sake of keeping the horse sports for the Olympic Games, I think keeping them in Hong Kong is suitable for everyone concerned."

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