UIPM, governing body of international modern pentathlon, still seems wedded to a gladiatorial riding component despite global condemnation of ugly scenes in the women’s event at Tokyo last Friday. There was a lot of mediocre riding, but despair has centered around gold medal contender Annika Schleu of Germany whose randomly allocated horse Saint Boy napped from every fence, causing her to beat him and sob uncontrollably.
UIPM has announced a “review” but remains unapologetic about the “catch-ride” nature of its show jumping phase, making it woefully out of step with the more enlightened approach of 21st century mainstream equestrianism towards partnership.
The FEI phased out the riding of “strange” horses in upper-level sport precisely because it is horse unfriendly ‒ even when involving the most talented specialist riders on the planet. That is why we will never again see the likes of Mark Todd winning Badminton horse trials on a last-minute ride (Bertie Blunt, 1995) and why the absorbing horse-swap between the final four at the world show jumping championships was abandoned after 2014.
In its latest statement UIPM insists that “the unpredictability of athletes riding on unfamiliar drawn horses, with only 20 minutes to establish an understanding, is part of the dramatic spectacle that makes Modern Pentathlon unique and compelling.”
This is a worrying mindset, also at odds with the stance of Britain which fielded Kate French and Joe Choong, winners of the two golds available in Tokyo, not to mention countless other medallists at previous Games and world championships. Pentathlon GB says, “We pride ourselves on producing a high calibre of athlete who can demonstrate the necessary skills and ability to safely ride an unfamiliar horse, both within training and under the pressure of competition…regardless of experience, in addition to learning the technical elements of riding, all of our athletes are supported to fully understand horsemanship and their responsibility to all of the horses they ride, and we continue to work with the owners of horses ridden in training and competition to ensure this remains the case.”
The national pentathlon body least in need of reform also wishes to liaise with its opposite number, the British Equestrian Federation, to see what more it can do to improve, notwithstanding its athletes’ historic links to the UK’s famous Pony Club. UIPM has, regrettably, said nothing yet about seeking equivalent advice from the FEI. This apparent difference of opinion within modern pentathlon about obligations to the horse does not bode well.
Meanwhile, the FEI must be tearing its hair out. Privately, the biggest concern for the FEI going into Tokyo was the introduction of no drop score (more of which another time). The FEI must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the euthanization of Jet Set after the cross-country largely failed to register with the worldwide media.
No one saw the modern pentathlon coming. (The pentathlon photos that Tokyo itself has indiscriminately amalgamated on its official website with action from Saturday’s Grand Prix show jumping are wince-inducing, too.) Saint Boy, an ordinary horse stabled at a riding club two hours from Tokyo, has provided horse sport’s greatest ethical and public relations crisis in decades, and one totally out of the FEI’s control.
I deplore what happened last Friday ‒ under FEI rules, Schleu would most definitely have committed horse abuse under Article 142.1 of FEI General Regulations, involving actions “likely “to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to the horse. Note the word “likely;” it has been found many times by FEI Tribunal (including four alleged abuse cases formally protested by myself, by the way) that actual injury or distress does not need to be proved, just the likelihood of it. She would also have breached other provisions related to code of conduct and bringing the sport into disrepute.
But it’s also possible to feel a droplet of compassion for Schleu, while believing she was wholly in the wrong. She trained years for this (albeit not very effectively) and was put in a terrible position by the archaic rules of her blinkered governing body. Unfortunately, if you offer such a view on social media you’ll be shot down by a horse community that tends to view everything in black and white.
It would certainly behove most of us to be less sanctimonious when letting rip about modern pentathlon. At the FEI top level there is growing understanding of our social licence to exist, and that the use of animals for sport is only justified by rigorous welfare-orientated rules and dope testing. Yet you can see horse abuse in lower-level equestrian competitions every day somewhere round the world, and probably plenty more behind closed doors. It is no less heinous and repugnant just because it isn’t on TV.
Famous names like Isabell Werth and Ingrid Klimke and professional equestrian bodies have stressed that modern pentathlon has nothing to do with us. But to the general public, horse sport is one amorphous mass ‒ the Saint Boy crisis has everything to do with us.
At least six petitions to drop the riding phase from modern pentathlon, or to drop the sport completely from the Olympic Games, are now flying on change.org. One of them, started by a German horse trainer, has as of today (August 11) exceeded 100,000 signatures. Be careful what you wish for: there’s also another one demanding all horse sport is dropped.
What are the alternatives to riding as a fifth phase? The horse community has come up with many suggestions, but most are unworkable amid the existing Olympic framework.
Both equestrianism and modern pentathlon have had to reinvent themselves to remain in the Olympic movement, not least because the IOC wants to involve more “cool” urban sports that appeal to the very young. We’ve all seen how popular skateboarding was this time. Break-dancing is in, from Paris 2024.
At the same time the IOC wants to cut costs and have fewer participants overall. It’s not difficult to predict the optimum sports to omit ‒ those inordinately expensive to stage and/or perceived as elitist. The fact a sport has been in the Olympic Games since 1912 cuts very little ice with the latter-day IOC.
The IOC already caps show jumping at 75 starters, eventing at 65 and dressage at 60. The last thing it wants is even more overseas horses on site to service modern pentathlon.
To appease the IOC, long before Tokyo the once five-day sport of modern pentathlon has voluntarily distilled itself to a continuous 90-minute effort, effective from Paris 2024. HorseSport.com discussed this development last year.
Within all these constraints, swapping the show jumping for something that takes longer and is boring to watch, i.e. a simple dressage test or a prix caprilli, will not work. Neither would asking pentathletes to bring their own horse ‒ assuming most of them even have one.
In Paris 2024 the 90 minutes will include horse familiarisation. For logistical reasons the riding will be staged first, with only the better competitors progressing to each next phase. By the final laser run, only 12 will be left.
Though by accident rather than by design then, there is hope for a better standard of preparation for the show jumping. But a lot can happen between now and 2024. And, because of Saint Boy, probably between now and next week.