Treating Olympic equestrian stars like royalty in London makes good horse sense

LONDON – The Queen of England's very own granddaughter is going for gold in the Olympic equestrian events this summer, but it is the Games' horses that will truly be treated like royalty.

While Zara Phillips, cousin of Prince William and a former equestrian world champion, will spend three weeks in the comparatively humble surroundings of London's athletes' village, her mount, High Kingdom, and its equine colleagues will have their every whim catered to in luxurious and specially constructed stables at Greenwich Park.

"The horses will live in complete luxury," said Joanie Morris, director of High Performance communications for United States Equestrian. "Whatever they need is taken care of."

Pampering the horses begins with their flights to London and no expense is spared. The American rides for the Games were transported to the United Kingdom on Tuesday on a private FedEx jet, where they were constantly attended to by experts and caretakers.

A final round of pre-Olympic training and a chance to recover from jetlag (yes, horses suffer from it, too) will be provided in leafy Gloucestershire, a two-hour drive from London.

"The horses are just like the most finely tuned athlete and have to be treated with just as much, if not more care," Morris said. "An older horse will be experienced and used to the travel but there are still some things you can't legislate for, like if a horse suddenly decides it doesn't want to eat what it usually likes at home."

[ Photos: All the pretty Olympic horses ]

Every Olympic equestrian team knows that perfect preparation is vital to stand a chance at winning a medal, and each horse competing will have a dedicated team of human attendants to look after its needs.

A groom will be charged with handling the horse's nutrition, brushing its coat, monitoring its general comfort and welfare and organizing its exercise program.

A farrier will be on hand to handle the animal's all-important feet, ensuring that its bespoke horseshoes are properly maintained and safeguarded against potential damage that could prove disastrous to chances of glory. Indeed, the 30-year-old Phillips will be competing at the Games for the first time only because her former horse, Toytown, was injured in 2004 and in 2008.

Veterinarians are another vital member of the team, and are concerned with ensuring that the horses' ligaments and tendon are correctly stretched and strengthened to cope with the rigors of Olympic competition.

[ Photos: British royal Zara Phillips is an Olympian ]

Several horses will also have access to their own massage therapists and acupuncturists to guarantee that they are in the best possible condition when the events get underway.

The riders themselves naturally play a vital part in the process, putting the horses through their paces in a rigorous schedule of training, just like any other Olympian. The level of understanding between horse and rider may be the most critical factor of all and this is one sport where age matters little; 54-year-old Karen O'Connor and 18-year-old Reed Kessler are both part of the U.S. squad.

The Greenwich Park arena where the equestrian events will be staged has been constructed purely for the Games and will be taken down afterward. However, the facilities have been met with universal approval, with each horse given a large stable with plenty of natural light and temperature-controlled surroundings.

Four years ago, China's strict quarantine laws meant the equestrian events had to be held in Hong Kong – more than 1,000 miles from Beijing, causing some riders to feel they had missed out on the Olympic experience.

That should not be an issue this time around; Britain's love of horse competitions is ingrained in the culture and Greenwich Park is just a few minutes from the main Olympic Stadium.

It is where one Royal, and a few dozen equine VIPs, will battle it out for Olympic success over 12 days of competition.

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