Feeding the Olympics: What Gold Medal Athletes Have in Common

How many pounds of carrots have the Olympic horses eaten in Rio? Read on to find out! Photo courtesy of KER. How many pounds of carrots have the Olympic horses eaten in Rio? Read on to find out! Photo courtesy of KER.

Just what does it take to supply the entire Olympic equestrian operation with all their feed, hay and bedding? If you really want to know there’s no better person to talk to than Dr. Joe Pagan, who’s been doing exactly that for the last 24 years as founder and president of KER.

While several KER team members, including Dr. Pagan’s wife, event rider Anna, are still in Brazil for the remainder of the Rio Games and the Paralympics, he’s already back in his office in Woodford County, Kentucky and was happy to debrief me.

“It needs to be said: The Rio Olympics have done a really good job. There was so much doom and gloom but this is the sixth Olympics I’ve been to and it’s been the best venue ever, it was a great venue. It was big, there was plenty of room, there was lots of storage, the stalls were big, it had great exercise areas, great exercise rings, lots of grazing areas, it was just really comfortable. The stadium was good, the footing was good. They really almost couldn’t have done a better job, it surprised me,” Dr. Pagan said.

“I’d put it up there as the top venue. Greenwich was beautiful and iconic and really cool, but the stabling was small and compact and up a hill, and it was hard to manoeuvre; our stuff was in Blackheath which made things more complicated with a very small storage area. In Rio it was a whole lot easier, and the grooms’ accommodation were these high rises that were like a mini version of the Olympic Village that will then become housing for military officers.”

Dr. Pagan, his wife Anna and the KER team stayed in a condo within the Olympic Village region and used their own transportation to get back and forth to Deodoro every day. “There was a huge military presence. I never felt unsafe at all. I don’t know that I would go out in a taxi cab somewhere downtown at 3 a.m, but it’s a huge city of six or seven million people and I honestly didn’t feel unsafe at any point in time, particularly when we stayed on the routes that were provided for Olympic transportation,” Dr. Pagan said.

“Actually having been in Rio and then having seen some of the coverage, I think there’s been a tendency to probably focus a little too much on the things going wrong rather than the things going right.”

Perhaps everyone went into these 2016 Games remembering 2007 when the Pan Am Games were held in Deodoro and the grooms were housed in shipping containers and it was a completely different experience altogether.

Dr. Pagan himself admits he was amongst the many who, having visited the site multiple times during the year prior to the Games, was wondering if everything would be finished in time, and yet, “We got there and showed up for the actual competition and it was great! I’ve heard no negative feedback from any of the teams regarding the venue; they all think the same too. I think it was a real success, perhaps unexpectedly so!”

Protecting Brazil’s Native Plants

Logistically, planning to feed, hay and bed the horses in Rio has been a long and complicated process for KER, and particularly Dr. Pagan. They were at the test event last year sorting out the bedding (some very nice Brazilian pine shavings) but they won the bid for Rio a year before that and hit the ground running, essentially at least two years before the Olympics took place.

“Brazil is very conscious about preventing invasive plant species from coming into the country, and so they should be, to prevent plants that aren’t normally there from getting out into the environment and then competing with the native plants. Feeding horses is based on feeding plants, and so the Agriculture Ministry was very concerned about what the horses were actually going to eat, so a lot of the drama going in was making sure that the products that were brought to Rio conformed with their Ag Ministry’s regulations to be free of invasive plants,” Dr. Pagan said.

“That took a lot of time and effort and some anxious times, but in the end everyone was able to bring feeds that they wanted to feed. We were able to bring very high quality hay that the teams were very happy with. It was just a lot of bureaucracy in terms of making sure the appropriate permits were there, and that they could have a sense of security that the feeds that were brought in weren’t going to cause a problem. Once they all arrived, it was easy.”

The hay especially seemed to throw up one obstacle after another for Dr. Pagan and his team. “Most times in Europe the hay that’s fed comes from farmers’ fields and is not a single species of hay, and there could be weeds in it. In Europe that’s not a big deal because they’re endemic, but there was concern about bringing that hay to Brazil because there would be some species that would get into the environment,” Dr. Pagan said.

“The problem was most of the horses that were competing at the Olympics eat what are called cool season hays, cool season grasses, that have a different taste than warm season grasses which are grown in Brazil. Brazilian hay is great, they had some very high quality hay which we did have at the Olympics, but the European and American horses wouldn’t have been used to it and so there was a lot of angst amongst the teams about switching the horses to a different hay.”

Once again, Dr. Pagan and his team worked with the Ag Ministry to ensure the horses could eat the correct type of hay in Rio. “We went to the FEI, the Ag Ministry and the Olympic Organisers and told them we could source hay that wouldn’t be a problem because there’s a company, Standlee Hay in Idaho, that grows a particular type of hay, a Timothy hay which is a cool season hay that’s popular in Europe also that’s certified free of weeds. The reason they do that in Idaho is not for the Olympics but if people ride their horses on federal property, they have to feed their horses forages that are certified weed free so that they don’t spread the weed seeds into our national parks,” Dr. Pagan said.

“Since that already existed and the Ag Ministry in Brazil agreed that we ticked all the boxes, they gave us a special one-time permit that allowed us to bring that kind of hay. Timothy hay is actually available in Europe so many of the teams actually chose to switch their horses onto that before they arrived in Rio so that they’d be accustomed to the similar type of taste, so that actually worked out very well, but that took special types of permits because typically you can’t import hay into Brazil.”

450 Different Types of Feeds

Such was the concern for the environment that an effective quarantine was implemented for the horses and feed shipping in. “It was bubble to bubble; the airport and the venue were considered the same, secure area so when the horses and the freight landed at the airport they got into lorries that were shipped over from Germany, police escorted to the venue, and then police escorted back, so in a way the horses and the feeds were never really in Brazil.”

Considering the mass export of such valuable horseflesh over such a long distance, Pagan was pleasantly surprised at how well all the horses coped. “There were very few digestive issues; there were very few veterinary issues. There was a horse or two that maybe had a little bit of shipping fever and had to have some fluids after arriving, but it seemed like there were minimal problems for as many horses travelling as far as they did. It was pretty uncomplicated. I’ll be glad when it’s over so we can say it went very smoothly because I don’t want to jinx it right now but it all seemed very routine.”

Think about when you pack to go to an event for a weekend, and then imagine if you were told to pack for your entire barn for an event in six months time but you weren’t sure which horses might be going. That’s the type of challenge KER was up against but on a global scale.

“In the case of Brazil the teams actually flew their feeds with their horses, and that made it logistically easier because they could bring exactly what they needed to bring. But in advance of that, back in December, the teams were asked what feeds and supplements they’d like to bring, and at that point they didn’t know which horses would be coming so they made really long lists of feeds. One of our jobs was to go through those lists and, working with 37 different feed manufacturers around the world, figure out the ingredients and how the ingredients were processed, send that to the Brazilian Ag Ministry and have them approved.

“At the end of the day there were 450 different feeds that the teams could choose from. One of the problems is that the teams don’t really know what horses are going to come until very late in the game, sometimes days before they’re shipped, so trying to make all these advanced logistical decisions about taking stuff thousands of miles to have for the horses when you don’t know what horses are actually going to come is the big challenge. If you get it wrong and you don’t have enough, it’s not like you can run down to the convenience store for another bag.”

10,000 Pounds of Carrots

With the equestrian competition at the Games nearly complete, we’re pleased to report that KER got it right: All the horses had the right feed and plenty of it! So what do gold medal winners Valegro, Sam FBW and Usain Bolt all have in common? They’re all eating the same carrots. Someone is missing out on making a fortune there methinks!

“Carrots are massive at the Olympics! I did the calculations. The horses have consumed well over 10,000 pounds of carrots so far. It’s a massive amount of carrots; they love carrots at the Olympics. The horses have travelled a long way and when you feed a horse carrots it gives them something to do. They’re succulent so you’re getting a little water into them, it stimulates water intake so it’s a healthy thing to do,” Dr. Pagan said.

“To get things into a venue, however, is not simple. With hay we send whole shipping containers in advance of the security lockdown so it’s all there; carrots and apples (over 1,500 pounds of apples so far) are perishable so you have to bring them in every day, and to bring them in through all the layers of security is hard to do. So in this instance we used the same caterers who supply the food for the on-site athletes, and we would just place our orders with them every day. So yes, the horses are eating the same carrots as Usain Bolt, Simone Biles and Michael Phelps.”

Is KER committed to doing this all over again for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Dr. Pagan isn’t giving anything away yet.

“All of the Games have been great experiences once they start and everything’s in place. It’s the 3 a.m. waking up and thinking, ‘God, I hope that container doesn’t get stuck in the Panama Canal,’ because what happens if it does? London wasn’t a problem because you could get a hold of stuff pretty easily, but if you’re in Hong Kong or Rio it’s a big deal. There’s an amazing amount of pressure from that side because there’s a lot of teams counting on you. There were representatives from Tokyo in Brazil, and we’ll continue to speak with them.

“Every Olympics has a different type of challenge. Rio is obviously a long distance away and the first time the Games were held in South America. There was also the challenge of avoiding the importation of plants that could carry invasive weeds. Tokyo will be super organised in that there’s already a history of importation of feeds and hays into Japan because of the racing industry. Most of the racehorses are fed Timothy hay from the Pacific Northwest so it’s probably going to be a much easier type of competition from a feed standpoint.

“There’s still a problem though that the vast majority of the horses that compete in the Olympics are housed in Europe. They may be representing whatever country in the world they’re representing, but because Europe is the centre of high level equestrian competition, most of those horses are housed there, and they want to use feeds that most of those horses are used to being on so there’s going to be the same issues of how we get those feeds transported to Japan, which is a long way away.”

A long way and a long time away with many good nights of sleep to catch up on before then. Many thanks to Dr. Joe Pagan for his time, and wishing the rest of the KER crew a safe journey home from Rio!