Improved Welfare Promised for pentathlon horses

Modern Pentathlone

A week after some of the most amazing Olympic performances imaginable, the only thing people are still talking about is the equestrian portion of the women’s Pentathlon. For sure, it was a sh*t show. Horses crashed. Horse refused. Riders fell off. Whips flew. And what caught the attention of the masses was that the German coach punched a horse and was thrown out of the Olympics.

At first the headlines pointed at the horses. “Uncooperative horses wreaked havoc and killed dreams,” read one. “Stubborn horse costs Germany’s Schleu a shot at modern pentathlon gold,” stated another. “Substandard horses have tainted this sport for me,” wrote someone on Instagram.

But, for those of us who actually ride horses, it was painfully and clearly obvious that the catastrophic rounds were caused by rider error and, let’s face it, incompetent riding. Okay, the course was a hefty 1.2 meters (4′) and the horses were loaners, donated for the event. Riders got a 20 minute warm up and could jump five fences before their competitive round. No way would I jump a course that big under those circumstances! To make matters worse, the horses were used more than once. Several of them gave a gallant try with the first rider, but after getting buried to the fences, snatched in the mouth and jarred on each landing, many of them lost their sense of humor. As one commentator said, even with bad riding and bad luck, couldn’t they get one good spot?

Saint Boy, the horse ridden by Annika Schleu, had the meltdown shared around the world. His first rider, from Russia, raced up three refusals and basically fried his brain. Unfortunately for Saint Boy, the archaic rules of the “sport” did not excuse him from competing again. By the time Annika Schleu got on him he didn’t even want to go into the ring and he repeatedly backed up and reared. Crying and whipping him repeatedly, didn’t do much for his confidence. Her coach advised her to “really hit” the horse and then hit him from the other side of ther rail. Eventually, Schleu got Saint Boy to jump and it looked like they might get around, but when she crashed him into a fence, he said enough.

I actually think that most of the horses were saintly. The chipped in. They jumped from bad spots. They put up with some terrible riding. And from what people have reported, this level of riding is not unusual for the sport. Take a look at this compilation video below. Note: all of the replays from the Pentathlon equestrian events have been pulled down by NBC so only a few compilation videos exist. I didn’t watch the men’s event, but they are said to have ridden better than the women.

Annika Schleu’s round was not the only one that was ugly. It quickly became apparent that the course was well beyond the ability of many of the riders. And it was the horses who suffered.

The backlash among equestrians was swift. Many Olympic riders spoke out against the format of the pentathlon competition and called for better skills, less demanding tests, and a better appreciation for animal welfare. More than 132,000 people have signed a petition calling for the riding phase to be removed from the sport.

If you’re not familiar with the Pentathlon, it’s comprised of five elements: fencing (one-touch épée), 200m freestyle swim, a combined event of pistol shooting and xc running over 3200m and, of course showjumping, which takes place over 15 fences. The pentathlon has been part of the Olympics since 1912. Modern Pentathlon was designed specifically to simulate a soldier’s experience of escaping from behind enemy lines, and cavalry troops were considered to be the only individuals that possessed the diverse skillset required to complete each event. Modern Pentathlon was eventually opened to all men in 1952 and all women in 1981.

While other equestrian disciplines at the Olympics are regulated by the FEI, Modern Pentathlon is governed by The Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM). For those of us who regularly ride and compete in FEI style events, some of the rules seem bizarre.

  • If the rider falls off, it’s a 10 point penalty but they can get back on.
  • A refusal earns a 10 point penalty. A second refusal at the same fences is an elimination but the rider can, alternatively, skip the fence altogether for a 10 point deduction.
  • A dropped rail is worth 7 points.
  • The clock keeps going no matter what. When a rider falls off they have to catch their horse, remount and finish the course within the 150 second time limit.

It’s not clear to me whether a horse needs to actually jump a minimum number of fences for the round to qualify. The rules also specify that in case of ill treatment towards the horse, the player gets disqualified. No one bothered to enforce that.

Based on the concerns voiced around the world, the UIPM has “started urgently working” on a range of measures aimed at improving horse welfare within the sport.

The measures include modifying current UIPM Competition Rules so that courses have fewer jumps and lower, simpler obstacles, as well as adding animal welfare modules to its Coaches Certification Programme (CCP) and Judges Certification Programme. 

The organization will also form of a “Riding Working Group” which it says will exist to “review the Tokyo 2020 competition and consider ways to prevent issues arising in future.”

Certainly, the eyes of the world will be watching.

What do you think should be done to improve the equestrian portion of the pentathlon?

4 thoughts on “Improved Welfare Promised for pentathlon horses

  1. First we must ascertain if IOC truly wants to improve equestrian portions. Since Beijing the discussion has been raised time and again if any equestrian sport is necessary as it is among the most costly and energy-intensive to present. Improvements have to include ensuring that discussions are nixed behind the scenes that seek to leverage this to support the argument to remove horses from any/all Olympic competition. Secondly, either Pentathlon needs to withdraw the riding portion or put it into the hands of the FEI, and demonstrate international cooperation for the overall betterment of both human and equine athletes. #imho

    1. Since the equestrian part of the Pentathlon has been a disaster at previous Olympic games and other high level events, it does call into question the sincerity of the discussions currently underway. Perhaps BMX bikes would be more suitable.

  2. I watched your compiled video on your earlier post. It figures people would blame the horse. I think they were game as hell but after being ridden like that, multiple times, I can’t blame them. They shouldn’t have to be ridden more than once. I’m getting madder by the minute.
    Rather than, as one poster mentions above, dispense with ALL equestrian events (something I am vehemently against), I think the standards for Pentathetes on their riding abilities should be more deeply scrutinized. I think the other poster has a good, good point. If these Pentathletes can meet FEI standards (although I don’t know if they did or ever have), then it should continue. WITH horses that haven’t been ridden more than once.
    And those horses should be scrutinized, too. I swear, one of them acted as if his back hurt. We’ve all had horses that bond with us and really don’t want to be ridden by anyone else.
    I am not sure what level of expertise a Pentathlete must meet to be a Pentathlete, but all the rest of the events of the Pentathlon depend on the human doing all the work..running, swimming, etc. II may be wrong, but the PEntathlon is based on skills a cavalryman needed in war. He spent most of his career on horseback. These days…I am picking on them, but some of those riders appeared to have little aptitude for jumping. The Pentathlete must devote more energy to training for the equestrian event than the others.
    AND…the jumps are too high. In a wartime situation, cavalry horses were trained to jump, but the smart rider knew it was smarter to just go around a fallen tree rather than risk coming off jumping over one.

    Not only do I feel sorry for the horse, I feel even sorrier for the owner who ‘donated’ the horse. I know if I saw my horse being ridden that way by a stranger, I’d be tempted to punch the rider rather than the horse.

  3. After thinking this through with less vehemence, I have the solution. If the athlete truly wants to compete in the traditional Pentathlon, they should BRING THEIR OWN HORSE. Cavalry men rode the same horse. There was no switching around or just getting aboard the first horse at hand. They rode and trained on their horse for years. This nonsense of getting 20 minutes on the horse before competing is nuts.

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