Grapevine Stories

A day in the life of ... Badminton week by New Zealand Team vet, Christiana Ober

When Panda kindly asked me to write an article for the series “A Day In The Life…” for Grapevine I gave great consideration to what day could possibly give accurate insight and embody all the emotions and experiences that I feel as a sport horse team veterinarian….Then it came to me, of course, Badminton cross country day!

“A Day In The Life…Badminton Week”-  Inside Perspective from New Zealand Team Veterinarian Christiana L. Ober

I thought about the swirly stomach I wake up with, hoping all goes well and the elation and pride I feel when those amazing equine athletes successfully navigate the final jump and gallop through the finish flags. The feelings are only enhanced from the years preceding that day building relationships with both the horse and their human counterpart. 

This year will mark my 16th trip to Badminton after accompanying horses over from the USA for the first 8 trips and now being based here in the UK for the last 8 years. Each year has its own memories because of the unique horses that took me there. From the highs of being on the victorious team with Classic Moet in 2018 to the lows of having to deal with a badly injured horse with Mandiba in 2011, I can vividly remember each cross country day. 

Most of the horses I look after there, I have been caring for, for years leading up the competition, some for 7 or 8 years and the span of their upper level careers. Behind each horse is a fiercely dedicated team of rider, owner, groom, farrier, physiotherapist, and veterinarian all doing their absolute best to ensure that the horse can perform up to maximum potential on that day. Often at times it also takes a bit of special luck for the whole day to come together with a successful outcome for a particular combination. Those magical days have to make up for other years when potentially a poorly timed hoof abscess, a minor swelling in a tendon, or a miscommunication on cross country might tarnish the outcome or even getting to the starting line in the first place.

Switching back to Badminton, after the completion of dressage Friday late afternoon and early evening is usually a flurry of activity back in the barns. My main focus is to make sure the horses are ready and healthy for the task at hand the following day. The riders and grooms will of course come to me if anything is weighing on their minds relating to their horse being at full fitness. Often times that may involve any examinations to check out last minute concerns or changes from the normal for that particular horse. It could be a quick physical exam to listen to heart and lungs, some bloodwork to make sure no abnormalities are there, or a final ultrasound exam if a leg has been carrying any slight heat or swelling. This is where a lengthy ongoing relationship between horse, rider, groom, and vet comes into play and being able to address anything that may arise, especially subtle changes. 

It is an incredible achievement to get to Friday night with a horse that is fit, well and firing on all cylinders for tomorrow’s cross country demands. That being said, no team behind their equine athlete would knowingly send a horse out for cross county that isn’t up to the challenge. After all questions or concerns are addressed then it is often time to leave the horses to rest and let the grooms get organized for the big day ahead. Friday evening,  I am often very keen to walk the cross country course and have a look at the ground and the layout for the following day.  As a treating or team veterinarian at Badminton we are lucky to have such an established and smooth running veterinary operation for emergency cover on course and at the start and finish should anything be needed. Given the crowds and logistics of Saturday, it is physically impossible to be everywhere or get to the far ends of the course quickly.  We depend on the exceptional organisation and communication of the veterinary team that is there including the FEI vets, the on course vets and the veterinary services manager back in the barns running like a finely tuned machine. After any questions or concerns are addressed and the horses are tucked into bed to rest, it is time to get some sleep for the big day on the horizon.

I never need an alarm clock to wake up on Badminton XC  Saturday morning.  I am always keen to get to the showground early, check in at the barns, beat the traffic and start getting organized for the day ahead. After checking in on the horses and the grooms I will often pack my emergency kit to have at the finish and have a look at the cool down set up.  Many of the riders will elect to give their horses a light ride and a leg stretch first thing. The horses can sense what day it is too and they have a different gleam in their eyes compared to the rest of the week. As the riders and grooms are selecting their studs, finalising tack and discussing the course, it is often nice to just sit at the end of the barns and observe. It gives one a good appreciation for the sport that I love- the comraderie, the excitement and all the players that make up the team behind that horse and rider that's getting set to tackle one of the most demanding challenges in the sport. Even though the dressage and showjumping certainly have their time to shine, the unknown, the unpredictability, and the shear magnitude of the cross country test at Badminton or any 5* make the sport so exciting and unique.

When the horses leave their stalls to head to XC warm-up, it is really down to business. In relation to our team horses, often the farrier will remain in the warmup in case that horse pulls a shoe. Myself and our team physiotherapists will be at the finish and awaiting their arrival into the cool down area. 

I will often have a second veterinarian assisting me who will roam between the barn, the warm up and the finish depending on where they are most needed. I know the riders gain great confidence from knowing there is support personnel surrounding them from start to finish, who know the horses so well. I am able to observe the final warm up and see the horse set off out of the start box, and then the waiting begins. We are able to watch the round on the screens set up in the rider tent in the start/ finish area and track the horse until they come back into sight and close to the finish area to gallop into the arena and jump the final fence. 

I always feel relief and elation to see the horse and rider gallop safely and successfully through the finish flags. Similar to a Formula 1 pit crew, it is then a finely tuned tactical operation to quickly untack the horse and start the cooling down process. These horses have been galloping for over 12 minutes over massive cross country efforts so their body temperatures are usually well over 40 degrees Celsius due to the effort and the muscle mass of the equine athlete. 

We try to allow the horses to continue moving and walking while cooling them with large volumes of cooled ice water to bring their body temperatures down. Ongoing research is always being done in the veterinary world to continue to assess our cooling and recovery strategies. Having competitions in hot and humid  climates such as Rio and Tokyo is usually far more challenging than the conditions we expect at Badminton, however the length and maximum size and number of jumping efforts still make for a taxing athletic exertion and ground conditions certainly can come into play as well relating to fatigue and body temperature. 

As they begin to cool and recover the grooms then start to remove boots and studs. I am able to monitor their recovery by taking their temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate. Every person at the finish is dedicated to helping the horse recover as quickly as possible after the effort. We are all aware that a quick and good recovery bodes well for a good performance in the show jumping the next day. This cooling off process would usually last approximately 20 minutes after the finish and then the veterinary staff would clear the horse to be taken back to the stables. Any small cuts or abrasions from a stud or brush rub can be cleaned and bandaged or tended to before the horse walks back. 

Typically with 10-12 horses to look after in the competition any given year, this is usually quite an intense several hour stretch at the finish with multiple horses in the cooling off area at any one time. After the final horse completes and is cooled off then it is time to pack up and head back to the stables to check in on everyone. In the mean time, the grooms will have been keeping me very much informed about how all the horses are recovering back in the stables and if they have any concerns.  

After cross country is completed all efforts then focus on helping the equine athlete rest and recover as well as possible for the horse inspection and showjumping the following day. Expecting these equine athletes to trot up sound on a hard surface the following morning after a maximum effort across the country just speaks to the intense preparation that goes into it. All it takes is a small puncture wound from a brush jump, a painful boot rub or heel grab, or pulled shoe to derail the whole team’s efforts from the previous year in getting the horse to Badminton. 

Passing the horse inspection is a critical thing but a good performance in the showjumping is by far the main goal for the competitors. Saturday late afternoon and evening is all about making those equine stars feel good after their efforts -  ice and cold hydrotherapy, rehydration fluids if appropriate, soft tissue massage and physiotherapy, acupuncture, vitamins and amino acids to help with recovery, whatever is the key for that particular horse to help them recover and rest well and feel their best the next morning. Similar to a human athlete, the better they are able to rest and sleep the more fit and more recovered they will come out the next morning. 

Badminton and all 5* three day events are run under FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) rules and we have stringent medication control and veterinary regulations but all of the above things are allowed under veterinary supervision to allow for the best care for the horse. Horse welfare is always paramount no matter how important the competition may be. As we monitor the horses and their recovery we will trot them up several times over the course of the afternoon and evening so we are aware of any developing soundness issues. This is also how we are able to gauge the response to our therapies. One of my main goals is to intervene with recovery, make a plan, try to make the biggest difference, to have them comfortable but also give them time to rest and put them to bed as early as possible. 

Once the team is happy that the horse is in good shape they will go to bed to rest well for the final day of challenges- the final horse inspection and the showjumping.

I always wake up every several hours on Saturday night to check my watch to make sure I am not going to oversleep for the Sunday horse inspection, but I am always well awake before my alarm goes off.  The entire team behind each horse always feels the importance of Badminton and getting the best result possible to reflect all the efforts that have gone into it. Whether the end goal is a first completion or going for the win, a successful outcome goes a long way for the team behind the horse and the rider. 

I usually head into the stables when they open around 5:30 - 6 am to check on all the horses. If all goes according to plan then most of the horses look very bright and fresh on Sunday morning and look almost ready to go cross country again! We will usually trot them up again to make sure there aren’t any surprises before the horse inspection and then the efforts go into immaculate turn out and beautiful presentation for the horse inspection. Occasionally I will leave a horse sound and happy on Saturday night and then Sunday morning first thing they are more stiff or develop muscle or joint inflammation that wasn’t previously apparent. We just make sure to give ourselves time to address those minor surprises again with laser, physio, acupuncture, ice and light exercise, whatever seems most beneficial for that particular horse. 

Each plan has to be guided by that individual and what they need at that moment.  Before you know it, the massive crowd has started to assemble out in front of Badminton house to watch the horse inspection on Sunday morning and both horses and humans start to feel the magnitude of the situation. Usually at this time, we do the final practice trot ups and then the horses start to filter into the queue for the horse inspection. It's always a relief to watch the horses strut down the trot up strip looking fresh, well and ready for the afternoon task of show jumping.   

After the horse inspection I can usually take a breath, relax, have some fantastic breakfast in the Team New Zealand tent and look forward to watching the show jumping. Most of the hard work for me as a veterinarian is over and I can just enjoy the exceptional atmosphere of Badminton. 

For showjumping I usually stay in the warm up to make sure all goes smoothly and then follow any selected horses into medication control (drug testing) after the jumping phase. In a good year, I can hope that several are going to be back up in the awards ceremony.  Although it is usually an exhausting weekend, it is always exceptionally rewarding.

I feel like I am able to give the best care possible to the equine athletes that I devote my life and career to looking after and hopefully allow them to perform at their best. Success at Badminton is not only a reward for the horse, rider, and owner but also for the entire support team standing behind them.

Christiana Ober has served as the New Zealand Team Veterinarian for the past 8 years.  She and her husband Andre Buthe, Team GB Dressage Team Veterinarian, have their own equine sports medicine practice Andre Buthe Equine Clinic in Marlborough, Wiltshire.


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