By Shadia Nasralla
LONDON (Reuters) - While the world ground to a halt over the past year battling one deadly virus, the world of equestrian sports approaches the Tokyo Olympics having had to battle two diseases in recent months -- the novel coronavirus and equine herpes virus.
In February, one year into the coronavirus pandemic and just as the world began to emerge from some restrictions, an outbreak of the equine herpes virus at a competition in Valencia, Spain, rattled the sport.
"The Games were just five months away and everyone had a deep concern over that," said Goran Akerstrom, veterinary director of the international equestrian federation (FEI). "It was an extreme outbreak."
FEI cancelled 78 competitive events in continental Europe - where many equestrian athletes are based - in March and April and altered its rules to allow some athletes to fulfil their eligibility requirements for the Olympics despite the cancelled events.
Tokyo could see the sport's most decorated Olympian, Germany's Isabell Werth, top her own medals record in dressage, also known as horse ballet and one of the three equestrian disciplines alongside jumping and eventing.
But she is set to have stiff competition from Britain's Charlotte Dujardin, who won individual dressage gold at both previous Games.
Eventing, including a high-octane cross-country course with solid obstacles, will see the British team try for gold, although France's riders will attempt to repeat their gold-winning performances in eventing and jumping from the Rio Games.
Host nation Japan placed third at the eventing Nations Cup final in 2019, raising hopes for a medal at home. The United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia are also medals contenders across the equestrian disciplines.
Typically, horses and riders have a full competition schedule ahead of the Games.
"You need to have them in a routine of competing every few weeks in big atmospheres, with crowds, with clapping, with music, with flags, to get the horses to settle into the routine," said Alex Hua Tian, who will compete for China in Tokyo.
"To have a very quiet year last year, followed by a very disrupted year this year, will certainly affect rider, horse and their partnership and it'll be very interesting to see how that plays out once we get to Tokyo."
While the COVID-19 virus does not jump from humans to horses or vice versa, the herpes outbreak meant horses had to be separated from each other and undergo nasal swab tests, similar to human coronavirus tests, but with the probe going around 13 centimetres deep into a horse's nostril.
"It was hard and it would have been difficult to continue with it (for longer) but the measures stopped the outbreak," Akerstrom said.
The herpes virus, which causes horses respiratory or neurological problems and abortion in pregnant mares, has killed 20 horses in the recent outbreak.
"There was such an outpouring of support from the whole community. There was a fund put together by some of the top riders that we all put some money in to help support the riders who perhaps couldn't afford the (intensive care unit) care for the horses that were affected," Hua Tian said.
"Speaking to my fellow athletes from different nations, everyone is clearly desperate for it to happen and we're all very willing to do what it takes to try and make sure that the Games go ahead as safely as possible."
(Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Ken Ferris)