The Modern Pentathlon Debacle

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.

Anyway.

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.

the first missed distance and mouth yank

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.

the point at which Saint Boy officially decided he’d had enough

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.

28 thoughts on “The Modern Pentathlon Debacle

  1. I completely agree with you. Couldn’t even watch the entire short clip you shared to be honest. That looked absolutely horrible. And I haven’t liked watching cross country as much because of how dangerously some people seem to be riding those courses. It isn’t fun to watch, and I think the modern pentathlon definitely needs revision on the horse side.

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  2. I have only seen clips, but what a disaster! A woman I know who participatd in NCAA Equestrian posted on social media defending the rider because riding random other horses is hard. Uhm, yes it is, but hitting the horse or blaming the horse is NEVER the answer! I agree that the MP should NEVER make the riders jump 1.2m EVER again. Hell, I have been riding my whole life and jumping for 10+ years and I’M not confident jumping 1.2m. I can’t imagine how scary that was for riders who don’t even really ride or jump!

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    1. I also rode in IHSA college equestrian, where you have a random horse drawn for you to ride. Yup, it’s hard. Yup, you have bad rides sometimes. Me personally: I had a horse pick up the incorrect lead in a flat class, and it cost me a trip to the Zone (and thus also National) qualifying show. Was I bummed (and angry)? You bet. Did I take it out on the horse? Absolutely not. At the end of the class, I gave him a pat, dismounted, loosened the girth, and gave him back to his handler. Who’s fault was the missed lead? Hard to know, perhaps I cued wrong, perhaps he was “sticky” on that lead, perhaps both. But it didn’t change MY treatment of the horse.

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  3. IHSA riders ride random horses, BUT never over those heights, and ONLY after we’ve proven ourselves good enough. I think it says something that Nbcolympics.com took those replays down by yesterday. Modern pentathlon is a relic that should be left in the past.

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  4. Agree 100% with all you have said. I had two other thoughts during the horrific display when the German was riding:

    1. Why the ever loving HELL didn’t the officials stop her and
    2. Where the ever loving HELL was the owner of that horse?

    For #1, I’ve since read up on the rules and what a disgrace to that organization for not thinking of the equine athletes welfare.

    For #2, I don’t suspect the owner(s) could have stopped it but they should have been raising holy hell all over the place during and after and I’ve not seen any comments from them or that riding school surface in the online discussions I’ve read.

    Those horses are all SAINTS and deserve so much more than how they were treated.

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  5. I had no idea the modern pentathlon was even a thing until a local-ish girl competed in it at a past olympics. This girl was at least an equestrian. My opinion is that they need to provide their own mount, just like any other equestrian sport. If you can’t, then maybe that just isn’t the sport for you.

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  6. You put this so clearly, thank you. As equestrians, we have to take every step possible to be the best stewards for our partners, so many folks waiting in the wings to jump down our throats and cry abuse, we need to be able to back up our actions with science and thoughtfulness and safeguards. I feel the same way about some rodeo events, such as the wild horse ride in Cheyanne.

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  7. I hate to be “that person” proposing changes for a sport she knows very little about. But from my perspective, something like a Prix Caprilli test could be objectively scored to accomplish the goal while being a more realistic ask for both horses and riders.

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  8. 100% the riding portion needs to be modified. The officials (and participants) need to view their horses as living creatures and not sports equipment. Was hard to watch even your clip. NBC has pulled it from their replays now, which is quite telling.

    It’s supposed to be based on someone who can hop on a horse and ride it out like they used to have to do in the military. Make it more like that–cross a bridge, open and close a gate, hop over some smaller jumps. Make any horse fall automatic elimination. Go for optimum time instead of pure speed. Require a little bit in all gaits. Seriously so many ways to make it better and safer for all involved.

    But from the way that the UIPM has responded….I have very little hope that much will change anytime soon.

    FWIW, I have no issue with the horses being part of it. Nor do I have an issue with them being randomly assigned. But it’s clearly too much of an ask for the athletes and becomes very unfair to the horses. I’ve been riding for 20 years and I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting on a strange horse and jumping that high.

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  9. I watched the modern pentathlon jumping live from here in Ireland. The commentator was a horse person and was coaching the riders through much of it. He was concerned about the riding and horses. The Irish athlete (who was in medal contention prior to the riding and dropped to 17th after it, all on the horse draw) was apparently a competent rider. Our commentator knew her (and her family because everyone in this country knows everyone else – and there was a throwaway comment later that led me to believe they may be married) and talked about her riding skills. She apparently rides here competitively and hunts.

    He was sympathetic to her, and pointed out she’s a better rider than she showed. But that’s part of the competition, you get a random horse and sometimes you get a really bad draw.

    To me, the biggest failure here is with the olympic organizers. Some of those horses should not have been on that course. Saint Boy didn’t finish the course his first time around and was “I WANT OUT” prior to the German rider even getting on him. He should have been pulled when he went gate sour the prior rider. I’m no expert but as I understand it, the competitors get the option to ask for a different horse under some circumstances. There was a horse replaced earlier because he’d had a bad experience on course. If the German rider had the option (and the commentator here seemed to think she should have) to get one of the replacement horses she should have. If she didn’t, then why not? That horse was traumatised by his first round.

    That course was a train wreck, though. I think one, maybe 2, riders went clear? And there were tons of crashes, refusals and even a broken jump where everything had to halt so they could replace it. It also wasn’t helped by the torrential rain in the middle of the event and the muddy ground. I understand they made some changes for the mens event.

    The Germans didn’t come off well. The athlete was distraught and my heart goes out to her. But, that’s part of the competition and her coach punching the horse wasn’t going to actually de-traumatize the poor thing.

    I’ve not seen much of the equestrian events – locally only the events Irish athletes were competitive in were shown. That means individual and team showjumping – and when the Irish team pulled out of team they just decided not to show any of it.

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  10. One comment that I’ve seen from some people familiar with pentathlon is that athletes have a mentality of “it’s all the luck of the draw with the horse, so there’s no point really practicing”, which just seems totally wrong. If they’re not going to lower the height of the fences, they need to mandate a minimum amount of training for the riders to ensure they’re competent. Otherwise they should do a dirt bike course, take the horses out completely.

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  11. The first Irish show jumper, Shane, who kept going a couple jumps longer than he should have before falling…Boyd’s cross country…Annika’s MP ride…all, among others, so painful to watch. Some exceptional bright spots, too, of course. But I had to admit to friends that I couldn’t even explain why some of these riders are allowed to keep doing what they’re doing.

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  12. Also I read a suggestion somewhere that MP should go sport by sport and have the lowest scoring people eliminated at each sport, with riding being the first sport. If you can’t continue to the other sports without riding successfully, they would actually have to train more than twice a month for a couple hours. Thought that was an interesting proposal.

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  13. Ugh, that was painful to watch. I had only seen stills and a couple of “just a few seconds” clips before this. I have jumped for fun (six inches high is about it for me) because I know I don’t have the experience to judge distances and am afraid I will pull on the horse’s mouth if I miss the takeoff. These riders didn’t even care.

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  14. Good God, that was even worse than I expected. I had not seen any footage at all yet since as others have pointed out, NBC took down the replays and that’s the only way I’ve been able to watch any Olympics. I’m utterly HORRIFIED. How is this is utter and complete BULLSHIT still going on??? A horse is living, breathing, sentient being, not a rifle or a fencing sabre and these pentathletes treat them like they’re just an accessory to be beaten into submission for a gold medal.

    I am embarrassed as an equestrian, and glad I’m not working back in my office yet lest I be confronted at the coffee maker by someone who knows I ride. This debacle has set back public opinion about horse sports about 30 years and is yet another black eye that we definitely did not need.

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  15. First, what i saw of the Men’s portion of the riding phase was not bad. Not super, but not awful. The perspective was odd, but I wonder about the course measurement. it did not look that big. That being said, most riders looked like they would have been more comfortable with lower fences. Someone suggested the riding phase should be changed to something like Working Equitation: Maneuverability, backing, quick changes of gait, gates, LOW (haybale) jumps, and timed like Working Equitation to provide the “competitive” standard for judging. As for the Show Jumper – burst blood vessel in nose (I didn’t hear that scoping produced evidence of anything more serious). No way the rider could have known, and he withdrew his horse thereafter, even though it seemed fine. The dressage horse tripped and bit its tongue. In 1968, the horses were Mexican Army horses, so the standard for training/similarity of type, etc. was fairer. A friend of mine donated a horse – a high level school horse IIRC – for use in LA in 84 and it went well for both riders, and American and a Swede, both of whom appeared to be decent riders. Most of the horses I saw in the Pentathalon in LA were of a similar type and level of difficulty. Only one was difficult – and he was difficult for a poor rider AND for a very good one that also drew him. I think a big part of the problem, aside from rider ability, was that most high level horses ridden by Japanese Olympic competitors are trained horses purchased in Europe or the US. Donated horses by private owners in Japan are likely to be ex-racehorses and probably a heckuva lot less suitable than were the Mexican army horses in 1968.

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    1. I know the causes for all the various issues at the Olympics, what I’m talking about is the optics to the public and what THEY see. Some instances were handled very quickly and very well. Others not. Unfortunately on such a massive world stage as the Olympics, optics are very important for all horse sports, and I fear that we did not come off well at all to the general public.

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  16. I didn’t watch all of the riding in MP this year, but I have watched previous years’ Olympic (or world-championship level) MP with friends, laughingly calling it “watching horses get untrained at the Olympics.” I agree that a huge part of what led to the riding clusterfuck is *both* riding a strange horse and the height of the jumping phase, but I don’t know that making it easier will help.

    The athletes we watched last week are supposedly the world’s best penthathletes. They are “trained”, however they define the word, to jump at the 1.2m level — because they know that they will have to do it (to some degree or another) in the Olympics. If the riding phase is easier (say a 0.8m course for arguments’ sake), the riders would only be trained to the 0.8m level — a significantly lower standard of riding. What I see is significantly even-crappier riders making their way through the qualifications to end up at the highest levels of the sport. Where they will be able to bash upon saintly 0.8m packers and untrain them on the world stage — albeit, over a far less horrifying course for the horses.

    I guess I can see the other hand of this too. Maybe because riding at the 0.8m level is so much more achievable, more people will actually focus on training for that event and thus become more capable at catch riding at that level.

    We had a group of pentathletes training at my barn in California for several years. They had a huge advantage over others when they held pentathlons that actually involved riding. The kicker? The vast, vast majority of pentathlons in the US are run “dry” — without horses (makes sense, right??!) — because the organizers can’t access enough kindly horses to ride around at even the 0.8m level (to be clear, they still swim in those pentathlons). From my conversations with the men and women taking lessons at my barn, I suspect that many pentathletes would be happy to see the riding portion of the sport go away for good.

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  17. I’ve watched MP in London and Sydney. It was bad, but not THIS bad. But previous Olympics have been held in countries where there is a MUCH deeper pool of decent but not Olympic standard “packer” horses that could cope with a less than expert rider. There just isn’t that depth of horses in Japan where riding is very much an elite sport. The fact that they came from a riding school says it all really. All that said, they absolutely need to change the format. MP is an anachronism really and comes from the military, where you had to show your ability to be an all round soldier (back in the 1800s!). That being so, they should replace the jumping with something that genuinely reflects the history. How about working equitation? High level of horse skills required, horses unlikely to hit the ground, and you can get a point score for each obstacle.

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  18. Yep, agree. I’m not against the horse portion in theory, but agree that it should NOT be 1.2M. Honestly it should be like .65. Or a low level dressage test. I can’t believe anyone would loan a horse for this as it is run now. I’d also like to know where all those horses came from, because I would like to own one. So incredibly genuine they were to just keep trying despite not being told anything at all by their riders. Hanging on their mouths for balance. SPURS hitting them constantly. It was horrifying honestly.

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  19. Who in the heck tacked the horse too? As it was pointed out, the poor horse had a running gag to raise the head and a running martingale to lower it. The horse was in pain and confused. In addition, Pentathletes can use their own saddles, Duh. A horse will revolt against a poor fitting saddle. Either the equestrian part fall under the FEI where everything is closely controlled or the riding part comes to an end. I have heard they are having a harder and harder time obtaining horses, no wonder.

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  20. As was pointed out, the horse had a running gag to raise the head and a running martingale to lower it. Who in the h tacked this horse. And as the “riders” are less than stellar they wouldn’t have any idea how to handle it. In addition apparently the riders can use their own saddles, so a poor fitting saddle will result in a horse that says F U. This phase of the sport needs to come under the FEI and be closely examined by tried and true horsemen. The days when the Pentathlon was a military sport under the guise of the Cavalry are over. In those days Cavalry mounts were used and the Sergeants and Officers insured each horse was properly tacked before it was competed. Not anymore. Time for this cruelty to end.

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  21. When this event was first started by cavalry officers, it was appropriate for a cavalry officer to be able to ride any horse in the stables in the field. This was the primary training and primary focus of any good cavalry officer. The other four events were designed to insure the cavalry officer was fit and capable in combat. I get that. BUT, the current focus of the pentathlon is no longer cavalry, no longer the ability to ride any horse in the stables in the field, no longer about the horse. And the pentathlon has simply become abusive to the horse. It is time to remove the horse from the equation. Perhaps substitute motocross, or cycling, or skateboards?

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  22. This was painful to watch…. are they allowed to get back on after they fall off or crash through a fence?? Is there a reason they can’t bring their own horse? I assume the rest of their equipment for the event isn’t drawn out of a hat (not saying that horses are merely equipment of course, but why is that the one thing they can’t bring of their own?). Totally agree that the jumping needs to be taken out, or maybe something like a dressage test with one .80m jump at the end.

    I also rode ISHA in college where you drew a random horse out of a hat, but while there might have been the occasional refusal and even more occasional fall, it was nothing like the horrific video above… we only jumped at the HIGHEST 2’6″ (that I can remember) and it was all equitation scored so none of that half falling out of the saddle/yanking on the mouth/kicking/ not finding a single distance would have gotten you a good score, not to mention there were strict rules about crop use and from what I remember spurs weren’t allowed.

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