Coming to America: 2018 World Equestrian Games Preview

A fast-growing equestrian epicenter in a North Carolina hamlet prepares to host the 2018 World Equestrian Games.

Just two years ago, the future of the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG)  was uncertain. The original host city, Bromont, Canada, had backed out, citing financial reasons, and the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) had to scramble to find a new venue on short notice. Within four months, the bid went to a burgeoning equestrian center in the quiet horse community of Tryon, North Carolina. Since then, organizers have literally moved mountains to create a world-class facility and experience. Now, they’re prepared to accommodate the world’s best equine ­athletes this summer.

More than 1,200 horses participated in the 2014 WEG in Normandy, France, with similar numbers expected to descend on Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) Sept. 11-23 for the 2018 edition of the quadrennial championships. Of those, fewer than 100 will be competing for Team USA, ­meaning most will be flying in from abroad.

If you think air travel is a hassle, what with doffing your shoes and cramming liquids into quart-sized bags, then you’ve never seen what’s involved in transporting horses to a WEG. It makes catching the 8:15 flight to Dallas look like calling an Uber. Here’s what’s in store for the Tryon-bound horses, all in the name of horse health, equine welfare, and a safe and equitable field of play.

A Meticulously Choreographed Production

A WEG is tightly scheduled with opening and closing ceremonies, ­competitions for each of the FEI’s eight disciplines, and myriad other activities. But the horses won’t all be in Tryon at the same time—endurance, dressage, reining, and eventing take place Week 1; jumping, vaulting, para-equestrian dressage, and driving Week 2. And so the FEI has set a timetable for each discipline that includes flight arrivals, transport from post-arrival quarantine (PAQ, required for all nondomestic horses) to the TIEC stables, arrival of the domestic horses, horse inspections (“the jog,” during which veterinary officials determine whether each horse is fit to compete), and departures.

Arranging horses’ flights to a WEG is considerably more complex than browsing Expedia and cherry-picking your desired itinerary. Two equine-transport agencies—Peden Bloodstock, in Germany, and The Dutta Corporation, in the U.S.—are the designated “travel agents” handling the logistics for Tryon. Flights must arrive at one of four designated points of entry: Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, in South Carolina; Miami International Airport; Chicago O’Hare International Airport; or New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport.

The European Union (EU) horses will travel aboard charter flights from Liege, Belgium, to Greenville-Spartanburg. They’ll then be vanned the 40 or so miles to TIEC, where they will complete a mandatory PAQ before being permitted to enter the competition stables.

Central and South American horses will fly to Miami. After completing PAQ, those testing negative for the tick-borne disease equine piroplasmosis (see sidebar on the next page) will then ship to Wellington, Florida, where they’ll rest and train before moving to TIEC. ­Piroplasmosis-positive horses will ship directly to their designated stabling in Tryon after completing quarantine at Miami.

Horses from Australasia and the Far East not shipping with the European horses will fly to Chicago O’Hare, which is about 20 minutes from the designated quarantine facility in Arlington, Illinois. It’s then a 12- to 14-hour drive to TIEC.

The longest over-the-road journey will be taken by European horses whose national federations choose not to ship directly to Greenville-Spartanburg. These outliers must fly into JFK, make the approximately two-hour drive north to the quarantine facility at Newburgh, New York, then van the 14-15 hours to Tryon.

Disease Control

All horses coming to the 2018 WEG must be vaccinated against equine influenza and equine herpesviruses-1 and -4. Recommended by the state of North Carolina but not compulsory are vaccinations against West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalomyelitis. All horses must be dewormed with a designated anthelmintic prior to arriving at TIEC.

Domestic horses must have negative Coggins (for equine infectious anemia, or EIA) and piroplasmosis tests. The European horses must test negative for EIA, dourine, and glanders. Veterinarians must document all of this, of course, on the appropriate forms and health certificates.

The PAQ occurs at designated quarantine facilities, with the duration depending on where the horse came from, why it’s being imported, and how long it’s staying. This enables officials from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which controls imports and exports over U.S. borders, to monitor for foreign animal diseases that might put our domestic herds at risk.

For the 2018 WEG, horses from Australia, the EU, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, and a few other countries need only complete a three-day PAQ. Horses from Asia, much of the Middle East, and South America require a seven-day PAQ. The unluckiest ­competitors—from countries affected by African horse sickness—must be quarantined for 60 days before they can be released to the competition venue.

“The length of quarantine is established by the USDA based on knowledge of the equestrian population and common conditions seen in each country,” says Anne Baskett, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, practitioner at Tryon Equine Hospital and 2018 WEG Veterinary Services manager along with Bill Hay, DVM, Dipl. ACVS.

She says the EU horses will complete PAQ at a USDA-supervised facility at TIEC. USDA and FEI veterinarians will examine each horse and perform blood tests before their departure and again on arrival. “Health exams, tick checks, and temperature monitoring are performed throughout the quarantine period,” she says. They’ll remove any horse diagnosed with an infectious disease from the venue and isolate it at one of the nearby clinics.

BYOF (Bring Your Own Feed)

Some national federations might choose to do just that, but regulations and permit requirements by the FDA, ­USDA, FEI, and North Carolina Department of Agriculture are stringent. Therefore, it might be a lot less hassle for WEG-bound nations to use the supply service offered by Kentucky Equine Research (KER), the official feed consultant for the Olympic Games since 1996 and official equine nutritionist of the 2018 WEG. Hay, for instance, cannot be imported into the U.S.

National federations can preorder foreign and domestic brands of feed (and even carrots and apples) and bedding and choose from four kinds of hay, haylage, or chaff, according to a “menu” KER sent the national equestrian federations in the spring. And just as at a fancy restaurant, there’s a prix fixe option and an a la carte menu. A bonus to choosing the “all-­inclusive” option is that KER will handle the necessary import documentation.

If you think we’ve jumped a lot of hurdles already just getting the horses to Tryon, that’s not the half of it. Nations have varying rules about which feedstuffs can and cannot be imported; for the 2016 Rio Olympics, KER COO Eileen Phethean distributed a list of “1,200-plus supplements that met the requirements to be allowed into Brazil and weren’t obviously prohibited, plus 450 feeds,” she told an audience at the 2017 U.S. Dressage Federation convention.

Looming even larger than the import regulations is the issue of contamination. FEI rules regarding banned and controlled substances are so strict—and modern blood and urine tests so ­sensitive—that the contamination of substances ingested, inhaled, or used topically is “a huge risk that can lead to a positive drug test,” Phethean says. “Most positive (equine) drug tests are from contamination from some other source.”

That source can be almost anything—a feed bucket shared by a horse receiving medication or a supplement containing unlisted (and banned) ingredients; a playful lick of a caffeinated-soft-drink can; a topical liniment containing a banned substance. And there are many, many banned substances.

Horses at FEI competitions such as WEG undergo drug testing, and the penalties for testing positive are severe. Olympic medals have been forfeited for it. It’s no wonder the competitors, grooms, and national federations sweat the details in documenting every supplement and morsel they pack, and they presumably utter a fervent prayer when they see the blood samples being whisked to the lab.

Creature Comforts

With 1,200 permanent 10-by-12-foot stalls on its 1,600-acre property, TIEC has ample room to accommodate the WEG’s equine competitors—no doubt part of the reason its owner and developer, the Mark Bellissimo-led Tryon Equestrian Partners (TEP), got the nod from the FEI when Bromont backed out.

Originally, the WEG had been scheduled for August, but organizers shifted the dates to September when the Games moved to Tryon—an effort to avoid the worst of the North Carolina heat, humidity, and precipitation, all of which tend to peak in July and August, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Tryon’s average high temperature in September is 78.5 degrees, and the Tryon Tourism Board claims the village’s location in a “thermal belt” on the first rise of the Blue Ridge Mountains has a moderating effect on summer and winter temperatures. But September is still summertime, after all, and so ice will be available in the stables and at competition finish areas to help cool horses, notes the WEG’s 2018 Veterinary and Farriery Services Guide. Mobile cooling teams will be stationed on the endurance, eventing cross-country, and driving marathon courses, and misting fans will be set up at the cross-country and marathon finish lines.

Veterinarians and staff have made preparations for the possibility of heat and humidity during WEG, but “fortunately, the Tryon area in September … is generally cooler than the Atlanta area in August,” says Baskett, referring to the site and timing of the 1996 Olympics. The anticipated climatic conditions at that event sparked the first large-scale studies on how to mitigate heat stress in horses.

In addition to providing ice, cooling teams, and misting stations, “the venue has multiple shade and fan areas on the horse paths throughout the show grounds,” Baskett says. “And the WEG veterinary treatment facility and the quarantine barns will have air-conditioning systems in place for cooling, if needed.”

Health Care From Head to Hoof

While TIEC does not have a permanent on-site veterinary facility, a temporary clinic will be erected for use during the WEG. With 24-hour emergency service available, the clinic will feature a fully stocked veterinary pharmacy and will offer clinical pathology, endoscopy, radiography, and ultrasonography, along with stocks and a weight scale.

“The WEG veterinary treatment center will be staffed by specialists in imaging, surgery and lameness, and internal medicine, as well as a physiotherapy team,” says Baskett.

The WEG clinic, however, will not be equipped for surgery. An equine ambulance will be on hand to transport potential surgical cases to one of three external referral clinics. The closest is Tryon Equine Hospital PLLC, in Columbus, North Carolina, about 15 minutes from TIEC. Here veterinarians can also perform additional diagnostic modalities, such as standing MRI.

The two other referral clinics are the University of Georgia Veterinary Hospital, in Athens (about 2.5 hours from TIEC), and North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine Equine Hospital, in Raleigh (about 3.75 hours).

At a WEG there’s no such thing as wondering when the farrier will show up. Farrier stations will be adjacent to the stables, supervised by farrier coordinators David Farley, CF, APF-I, and James Gilchrist, APF. Team farriers will have use of forges and supplies, all free of charge, and mobile forges will be set up near warmup areas in the event of eleventh-hour lost shoes. A farrier will be on call 24/7.

What’s Underfoot

To provide footing for the facility, Bellissimo turned to Equestrian Services International (ESI), which partners with the world-renowned Belgian company Bart Poels, footing supplier for the 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games and the 2012 London Olympics, among others. TIEC’s arena surfaces are ESI’s International All-Weather Footing, which the company describes as a mix of sand, geotextile felt, and “special fibers” designed to offer superior drainage and an optimal blend of traction and shock absorption.

A lot of groundwork—literally—had to happen in Tryon before the footing could be laid, however. The site was originally earmarked as an 800-lot housing development with an 18-hole golf course. Tryon Equestrian Partners bought the land in 2012, when the developer of White Oak, as it was called, filed for bankruptcy. When TIEC opened two years later, TEP had moved 1.6 million cubic feet of Polk County soil to create a level site for the arenas, stables, restaurants, shops, and lodging options. The equestrian center is the centerpiece of TEP’s even more expansive Tryon Resort, which includes an offsite sports complex, a gun club, and the Lodge at Lake Lure, immortalized as the setting of the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing.”

White Oak’s failed golf course came in handy: Repurposed, it’s now an eventing cross-country course that for the WEG will do triple duty, also serving as the driving marathon course and part of the endurance course.

Dreaming Big

“When we built Tryon International Equestrian Center,” Bellissimo told reporters at the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha, “it was built for the WEG.” The TEP investor group was planning to bid for the 2026 Games, but when the FEI found itself without a site for 2018, TEP went all in, he said.

Although the U.S. has some splendid equestrian facilities—the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington, host of the 2010 WEG, comes to mind—it has lacked a “destination” equestrian location encompassing lodging, dining, and attractions for the whole family, with a world-class equestrian center as its capstone. With TIEC and the Tryon Resort Bellissimo aims to change that.

Regardless of who goes home with medals, if the 2018 WEG organizers make good on their promises, all competitors will have had a first-class experience with some of the best facilities and horse care available in the world today.

“Over 100 veterinarians and support staff from throughout the United States and the world are volunteering their time and expertise to help ensure the health and welfare of horses coming to compete in the 2018 World Equestrian Games,” says Baskett.

“Many industry partners are supporting this effort with state-of-the-art equipment and supplies,” as well as imaging and on-site laboratory services, she adds. “We are very grateful for all of the assistance we have received so far and look forward to providing the best possible care for our equine athletes.”