Technically, the U.S. equestrian team has 12 members competing in Rio. More accurately, though, it has 24 — the riders may be the ones up for the medals, but a rider is only as good as his or her horse.
Which means, of course, that when it comes to getting in the right mind-set for competition, an athlete on horseback has twice as much to worry about. Unlike the swimmers and the runners, who can turn their focus inward, each athlete in the Olympics’ equestrian events — the first of which, team dressage, happens this Saturday — will have to consider two sets of emotions, two nerve-addled psyches, two potential cases of performance anxiety.
And horses are like human athletes in that regard: At the Olympic level especially, their success hinges as much on psychology as it does on physical prowess, explains Sue McDonnell, a veterinary professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies horse behavior. McDonnell, who also works with elite riders to diagnose and treat behavioral problems in their horses, recently chatted with Science of Us about how these four-legged Olympians prepare for the most important competition of their lives.
If the rider is nervous, the horse will be, too.
The importance of the horse-rider bond is hard to overstate. Riders need to know what makes their animals tick — what gets them energized, what keeps them calm. “Some do better if they have a nice long warmup ahead of time and get the endorphins flowing, others do better if they have a very light warmup,” McDonnell says.
But the connection goes both ways — a person can learn to read a horse’s signals and know what it needs, but horses are also picking up everything you’re putting down. (Horses, some recent research has shown, are pretty great at reading human emotions.) Even the subtlest human behavior can have a major impact on a horse’s mind-set and performance. “The common behavior complaint for horses at shows is, “Oh, he did everything perfect at home, then I took him to the show and he didn’t do it,’” McDonnell says. “Well, it’s just as likely the human element as the animal.” Changes in any one of the many, many cues that people use to guide their horses — posture, leg motion, the way the reins are pulled — can be enough to throw them off. Even something as subtle as your heart rate can make a difference: In one 2009 study, researchers found that when a rider’s heart rate went up from anxiety, the horse’s did, too.
A psychologist is just one part of a horse’s entourage.
Behavior isn’t just the realm of the behavior specialist. Each elite horse typically has a team of five to ten people dedicated to keeping it happy and healthy. Besides groomers and trainers, horses “might have a masseuse that travels with them, they may have acupuncture,” McDonnell says.
Above all, the team’s primary concern will be making sure the horse stays calm in a new, highly emotional setting — at the Olympics especially, there’s plenty to stress the animals out. “You can imagine all the different factors: the travel itself, the jet lag, the excitement of everyone in the venue,” she says. “These horses are used to traveling around” — which, by the way, can mean a $22,000 plane ticket and in-flight hay — but an Olympic event is still “going to be quite a bit more exciting than most of the other competitions that those horses would have been in to get that far.”
To keep it all from becoming too much, “they usually try to keep things as steady as possible” — which, beyond the massages and the acupuncture, often means re-creating as much of the home environment as they can. “There will be some horses that will know each other, so they’ll travel them together or they’ll stable them near one another,” she says. “Some of them may actually ship in water and food, so there’s not that change for the horse.”
Working with a horse is a little like working with a small child.
It’s the same challenge: Figuring out what’s wrong with someone who can’t explain how they’re feeling. When a horse has a behavior problem, “we start working just like a psychologist would work to figure out a child, or any other nonverbal human that’s having difficulty,” McDonnell explains. Most of the time, that means observation — “watching the horse as it’s being prepared for work, watching it work, watching the rider for subtle things that would be off-putting to the horse,” she says. “It’s a long interview process with everyone who’s working with the horse.”
Before all that, though, they have to rule out the possibility that something physical is causing the behavioral problem. “With performance horses of this caliber, problems are often a very subtle physical discomfort that’s causing the horse to not jump as high or work as well,” she says. “When you’re performing at this high level, any kind of irritation or discomfort can make the difference.” If the standard veterinary exams don’t reveal anything, the next step may be an MRI or even exploratory surgery. Often, they’ll put the horse under 24-hour video surveillance in the stable to figure out what to do next: “If we view that in fast-forward, often we can see repetition of certain movements they make, or hesitations that they have, that point them in the direction” of the problem, McDonnell explains.
“We have sophisticated diagnostics that can usually get to the bottom of very subtle discomfort,” but in some cases, the process can be a long, slow, frustrating slog: “The horse can’t tell you where it hurts.”
Some horses have the personality for competition, and some don’t.
The wrong temperament, McDonnell explains, can outweigh any amount of raw athletic ability. “Some horses are excellent athletes and can do the work, but don’t get that far” because they can’t handle the crowds and high-running emotions that competitions bring. “And there are others that are cool as cucumbers.”
“[Some of] the jumping horses, when they’re going around, you can see some that are showing signs of stress when they’re jumping — they’ll be wringing their tail, their ears will be moving in all directions,” she says. “And some sail over those jumps, tail is relaxed, ears are forward. They’re just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do this thing.’”
Much of the difference comes down to how they’re born. “You know how different dogs just get really excited, and others just take it all in stride?” she says. “Personalities, temperaments, in horses — they’re just as variable as they are in dogs.” Humans do have some measure of control, though: At the elite show level, horses tend to be bred from lines known for their chill. And experience also helps; the animals that have been making the rounds for a while tend to be more laid-back.
But genes alone aren’t enough to guarantee that a horse will keep its cool during competition. Once again, it all comes back to the bond between animal and human: “How relaxed the rider is, the people handling the horse,” McDonnell says — either can be the factor that makes or breaks a winner.