Olympic Q&A with Dr. Furlong

This will be Dr. Brendan Furlong’s fifth and last Olympic Games. He evaluated the U.S. Eventing Team Horses on Monday, July 2nd following the Mandatory Outing at Barbury Castle. Below he talks about the process of being a veterinarian for some of the world’s nicest horses at the Olympic Games.
1. What is the evaluation process for the Eventing Team before a Championship team is named?
The evaluation is not unlike a pre-purchase exam. It is fairly standardized prior to a championship, it includes (at least) two members of the vet panel who perform:
  • A physical exam (heart, lungs, skeletal, basic parameters).
  • A soundness evaluation (includes walking and jogging horse on a hard surface, lunging, soft tissue palpation, flexion tests). Then we do ultrasound of front limbs, and may take x rays or do more in depth diagnostics if our soundness evaluation gives us reason to look at certain areas more closes. 
  • A full drug screen on these horses at the time of evaluation.
  • Any additional diagnostics if and when appropriate.
Our job is to give the USEF selectors as much information as we can about the usefulness of a horse on a team in terms of soundness and the likeliness of it to finish the competition. You can have the five best horses in the world and if three are relatively unsound it decreases the chances to finish a team. If you don’t have three that can trot up, as the vet, you haven’t done your job to the best of your ability. The primary goals for the veterinary panel are to have a team that can finish and win medals. 

2. What is the hardest part of your job as the Team Veterinarian?

The hardest part of the process this year was knowing we had 10 or 12 really nice horses and, because of that, we knew we were going to have some very happy people and some really devastated people. They have all worked really hard and done what they are meant to do. Last week after I evaluated those horses, I drove back to Heathrow on Monday and I was gutted for those who weren’t named to the team. But we all had to regroup, and now we have to put our entire sport behind our team and make sure they have every chance possible and every resource possible to ensure that they can perform to their personal best. 

3. What happens next for you?

Wendy (Leich) and I are on our way to watch our son, Jonny row in the Under – 23 World Championships in Lithuania. Its an amazing thing for me, my kid is off to be an elite athlete.
But, I’m on the phone with  Dr. PJ McMahon (who is based in the UK), constantly – probably 15 times today. PJ is my eyes and ears when I’m not there – that’s the way it is set up. We keep an incredibly close eye on these horses and they may have minor treatments, its a great comfort to the riders. And that is  part of our job now, keeping the riders happy. They have to feel they have nothing to worry about except competing the horse, the best thing I can tell a rider is, “You don’t worry about your horse – your horse is absolutely fine.” 
I go to the UK on July 21st, then we observe all the horses after the last gallop – make sure they are all good to go. We then move into the Olympic site. We keep a close eye on the horses before they trot up. Once we finish the trot up we breathe a huge collective sigh of relief.  But then it becomes tense again fairly quickly before the dressage. Wendy will be busy, as she is very good at doing acupuncture – which helps these horses relax. 
4. What is the best part of your job?
This is the Olympic Games – at Rolex for example, it is all about individuals. The prize at Rolex is huge, but this is an opportunity for a team – the whole thing about the Oympics is TEAM first, then if we have someone in the hunt for the individual we put it all our efforts behind them.  
5. Any outstanding Olympic memories?
I remember my first Olympics (in 1996), I was so terrified about the process and I spent a lot of the time wondering if I was capable. We won a Team SIlver and when David (O’Connor) won individual Gold in Sydney – that was incredible and something I will never forget. They’re all special. I’m going to be part of the support team for an Olympic team –  I have to pinch myself – I’m a farmer’s son from Ireland. Its still a big deal and fortunately I have a great crew at the practice behind me and Wendy and the kids. It feels like it is coming full circle with Jonny off to do something for his country now too. 

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