Ok, let’s talk about this whole modern pentathlon thing shall we?
This Olympics was not my first introduction to it. I remember watching parts of it during the London coverage and cringing then, but admittedly I’ve never sat down and really watched any of it from start to finish. After all the headlines starting popping up about how a “stubborn” and “uncooperative” horse cost a German rider a gold medal, curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to be fair though before I rushed to judgment so I sat down, loaded up the replay, and watched the entire riding portion of the and women’s and men’s pentathlon before I came to any particular conclusions. And oh man, I cannot stress this enough… what the actual f.
There’s a lot wrong here. First and foremost, the format is insane. None of these riders bring their own horse, they’re all volunteered for use by private owners or riding schools. They have selectors that test ride and choose which horses they will use and then they all go into a pool. The riders draw a horse, have 20 minutes to ride it, are only allowed 5 warmup jumps, and then have to go in the ring and jump a 1.20m course. Which… I wouldn’t have much problem with the whole unknown horse random draw bits if the jumps weren’t so big – .90m to 1m… ok fine. But 1.20m is a big ask for even a lot of decently skilled riders (not to mention horses), and these people, well, they are NOT decently skilled. Most could barely stay in the tack, much less find a distance or actually RIDE the horse. They’ve got to be proficient at 5 sports and I think it’s safe to say that riding isn’t a strength for most of them. Fair enough, riding is my only sport and I’m barely very good at it either. Granted, I’m also not at the Olympics.
The German woman in question was the last rider to go. Most of these horses went around at least twice, which could either be a benefit or a detriment to the later riders, depending on how it went. On one hand, they’ve seen the course once already. On the other hand, some of these riders were so bad that they didn’t make it around the course the first time. And by the end, some of these horses were just plain over the bullshit – the German woman’s mount, Saint Boy, being one of them. The German came into the ring already bawling (my guess is warmup didn’t go well) and the horse was extremely nappy about leaving the gate. I’m not sure how much more clearly a horse could have screamed “I AM NOT OKAY WITH THIS”. His first rider didn’t ride him very well and had crashed him, enough to where he’d flipped her the bird by the end and just stopped jumping entirely. Now he was coming in again with another rider he clearly had no confidence in and was flipping this girl the bird in advance. Honestly, I can’t blame him. Who knows what happened in warmup but I’m guessing nothing good.
But she kicked and smacked him (and the coach whacked him on the butt over the fence in between her oh so helpful screaming advice to the rider to “hit him harder!”) and eventually the rider did convince the poor horse to get moving. She proceeded to miss a couple distances, but he kindly went anyway, before she completely crashed him through a vertical. At that point the horse said “You know what, I think I was right in the beginning” and from that point on he refused to move any direction but backwards as the girl had a screaming crying meltdown while the clock ran out.
I feel for everyone in that situation, to tell you the truth. First and foremost the horse, for sure. He was put in an extremely unfair situation and when he said very clearly THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR ME the humans just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. I thought he was pretty kind about it, all things considered – there are many worse things he could have done besides back up or stand still. And while I don’t think the girl rode well or handled the situation well at all, I do have empathy for the fact that one of the worst moments of her life played out on a worldwide live stream at the Olympics. I can only imagine how I’d feel about that if it were me. But honestly I think the biggest loser in all of this is horse sports in general. All of us.
The general public doesn’t really have this divide between disciplines. To them riding horses is riding horses, and now there are a hell of a lot of comments on social media about how using horses for sport is cruel. Looking back on the Olympics, I actually sat there for a few minutes and thought about whether or not they’re right. I mean, to be fair, there was a dressage horse excused for blood in the mouth, an eventer with a catastrophic ligament injury, a showjumper with blood gushing from it’s nose, and now a German girl and her coach hitting a clearly distressed horse. It’s not a good look from a horse welfare perspective, I have to say. I think I saw more showjumping horses hit the ground this Olympics than I ever have in my life and some of the riding on cross country was just plain dangerous. Even as an insider in equestrian sport, I had to sit there and think carefully about all of this.
Nothing pushed me over the edge quite the way that the modern pentathlon did though. It’s how it was handled (or, really, not handled at all) that set my blood boiling. Watching horse after horse be crashed through fences with ZERO regard for their welfare (they don’t even check them to make sure they’re ok before continuing. Even if the horse hits the ground.) was really freakin hard to watch. They don’t run under FEI rules so I honestly have no idea what kind of care these horses get. I would never in a million damn years allow one of my horses to be used for this. A lot of what I saw classifies as straight up abuse of horse, IMO.
UIPM posted a very lame “look, the horse is just fine” update on their social media featuring pictures that look like they were taken in the winter. Is it even Saint Boy? Who knows. It’s not helping their case, either way.
Neither is the Irish pentathlete that sent one of the Olympic vets (who criticized the treatment of the horses in MP) a message calling him a clown.
What a clusterfuck.
In reality I’d love to see some changes to the riding portion of modern pentathlon. Clearly they are asking too much – it’s not fair to ask a horse to pack an unskilled rider around a 1.20m course, and it’s not fair to ask an athlete who also has 4 other sports to focus on to pilot an unknown horse around a course of that height either. It’s a miracle no one was seriously hurt in Tokyo, really. Whether they lower the jump height considerably or turn it into more of a dressage/equitation type of event, I don’t really care, but it definitely can’t stay as-is.
They also need to take a good hard look at whatever rules they may or may not have regarding horse welfare. I’m sorry but if a horse hits the ground that should be an automatic elimination, and the horse should be examined immediately. People shouldn’t be allowed to fall off and get right back on without examination. Horses exhibiting mental or physical stress should not be allowed or asked to continue. Stewards and vets and medics should be all over this, because as it was it looked completely barbaric. Over and over again we saw horses used as objects, riders taking out their emotions on their mounts, and absolutely no one advocating for the welfare of the horses.
I think what’s bothered me most though are the actual horse people who saw this go down and think that the horse is to blame. Luckily they are in the small minority, but still. How can ANYONE who knows horses think that what happened here was remotely the horse’s fault. Horses aren’t machines, and it’s not their job to make up for a rider’s complete and utter incompetence. If you think differently, you shouldn’t be on or near a horse. Period.
I think this also should be a bit of a wake-up call to all horse sports in general though, outside of the modern pentathlon event. We have to be our own worst critics about anything remotely looking like a welfare issue, because it’s guaranteed that the rest of the world will be too, and they don’t have even a basic understanding of what’s going on the way we do. We have to take a hard look at every incident in Tokyo that happened and why, and figure out how to continue to improve things. There was a lot of really good stuff happening horse welfare wise in Tokyo, but plenty of not-so-good stuff either.