The postponing of the Tokyo Olympic Games to Ssummer, 2021 didn’t mean a break for U.S. Show Jumping Team Veterinarian Tim Ober — quite the opposite, in fact.
Tim’s preventative approach to care for top equine athletes will make sure that the Team is in peak form come 2021.
Originally from Norfolk, Mass., near Boston, Mass., Tim grew up in a family passionate about Standardbred racehorses — after vet school, he started treating Standardbreds, a breed that is particularly hardy when it comes to injuries. But, Tim recalls, “I realized there might be more out there.”
After finding a job in Virginia at a sport horse veterinary practice, Tim spent seven years treating high-performance show jumpers before he became a member of Steele and Associates in 2001, a team renowned for their care of elite equine athletes.
Armed with this deep knowledge of how to keep the world’s best show jumpers healthy and sound, Tim has served as the official Team Vet for the past two decades.
All Eyes on 2021
With the postponement of the Tokyo Games and many most other big major competitions due to the pandemic, “the edge has been taken off” for many horse and rider combinations, Tim explains.
“Many athletes are giving their horses time to relax and recuperate from the intense training preparations,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for those horses to go back to the baseline level of training. You can’t keep their fitness up at all times so many horses have a less intense workload now.”
But despite the shifting competition plans, Tim’s approach to veterinary care won’t change.
“The main focus is taking care of the horses and keeping them sound and happy,” he says. “That still goes on every day.”
A Strategy for Success
For many of the top High Performance horses, a long-term vision for their well-being is key. “We’re always working in a preventative approach to soundness,” says Tim.
Keeping horses “sound” — meaning that they have an equal, balanced gait without imbalances stemming from pain in the limb — is one of Tim’s highest priorities for the Team. And this foundation of well-being always starts at home in advance of international competition, he says.
“For a horse and rider combination, the opportunity to compete internationally is really just an extension of what you start doing at home and what your regular routine and program can evolve into,” says Tim. “I see international competition as an extension of building a solid program at home — in terms of the fitness of the horse, the training, and the care. It all matters.”
And to keep the horses performing at their best, it takes a village: grooms, physiotherapists, barn managers, farriers, and of course, the athletes themselves. This team is particularly helpful when it comes to cross-continental travel for any competitions, Tim explains.
“Grooms, riders and barn managers know whether their horse is in a good place or not. When there’s a question about it, we have lots of ways to make sure the horse is healthy,” he says.
While Tim serves as the regular veterinarian for some members of the U.S. Show Jumping Team, others have “home vets”a different veterinarian whom they work with while they’re not on the road — so Tim serves as a liaison, staying in contact with all treating vets to make sure every team member is aligned on strategy and aware of any challenges.
“It’s very important for the team vet to have a good rapport with our colleagues when taking care of horses contributing to the team,” says Tim. “We want to be able to provide a seamless level of support to the horse and give the rider confidence, that’s all happening from the perspective of one team.”
Although overseas competitions may be on hold for a bit, Tim is ready to help the U.S. Team tackle the challenges of transportation whenever they get back on the road — or in the air.
For a seamless journey overseas, “good health and hydration are the main elements of making sure the horse is not going to be adversely affected,” says Tim. “A lot of horses these days go back and forth from the U.S. to Europe several times during the year. They get to be quite comfortable with it.”
Once on the ground, Tim’s job is to make sure that every horse has what they need — and general safety, Tim notes, is a big part of this.
“We make sure the barn area is in good order, the stall is safe and nothing could present contamination to foreign substances,” he says. “Then we make sure the horses are settledvetted and drinking and acting normal.”
Once the horses have settled in, the next step is to get them out and moving. A physiotherapist evaluates their movement and makes sure that no physical injuries have occurred during the journey. “Sometimes a horse with a neck or a back issue, we see those things flare up after travel, so we want to be on top of it,” Tim says.
Because Tim and the entire support team know the horses so well, they can often anticipate any common challenges that might arise with each individual horse.
“I try to be present and around the barn to make sure if something does come up, I’m available,” says Tim. “A lot of the time, small conversations with caretakers that happen over the course of the day have a huge impact down the line.”
Ready to Win
Though the horses are keeping him busy even now, when Tim does get a moment to catch his breath you can find him fly-fishing at his cabin in Virginia, staying fit and enjoying nature. It’s a well-earned reward for a man who works so hard to keep our Show Jumping Team in top form day after day.
While in competition mode, Tim notes feeling “a tense excitement” as the riders go into the ring for their teststo compete. “We enjoy it after things go well,” he says with a laugh.
With the Olympics on everyone’s minds this year, Tim has found himself reflecting on the U.S.’s gold medal victory at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games — one of the highlights of his career so far.
“We felt fully prepared,” he recalls. “We felt like we had checked all the boxes but then the nerves set in that something’s going to happen you can’t predict. It was a nervous last three days for me and a lot of us leading up to the start of competition.”
With the 2021 Olympics on the horizon, Tim looks forward to achieving the same level of preparedness — and, fingers crossed, the same outcome. “That’s what you want,” he says. “That feeling of being ready.”