Top Brazilian dressage rider Leandro Aparecido da Silva has been suspended for three years by the FEI Tribunal for abusing his daughter’s small pony Pirulito amid background laughter ‒ video of which went viral on social media last summer. The video was also circulated in mainstream media in Brazil and can still be seen here.

In his defense the rider claimed that the prolonged spinning round and jabbing of the pony’s mouth was a “half-halt” to correct a pattern of disobedience by Pirulito around small children. It was not intended as a punishment.

However, the Tribunal found his behaviour “reprehensible.” It said: “The Respondent is an experienced professional rider who has been participating in the most high-profile competitions. He should be a role-model, however, his actions show quite the opposite.”

In a second video, the rider’s adult son Kaio was seen jumping the pony, who then suffers a rotational fall, also amid background laughter. The FEI argued this suggests this could be more regular behaviour at the barn, and asked for this likelihood to be reflected in the sanctions handed down.

The FEI originally offered a 18 month suspension plus a 2,500 Swiss franc fine but Da Silva declined, feeling the fine was too high for his financial circumstances. He asked instead for a hearing by the FEI Tribunal ‒ who imposed a tougher penalty. This comprises a 30-month suspension for violating Article 142 GRs (horse abuse), partially credited against a provisional suspension imposed in December, and six months for the violation of the FEI Conduct on the Welfare of the Horse, plus a 5,000 Swiss franc fine and 2,500 Swiss franc costs order.

On 15 July 2020, the FEI was made aware of a video posted on social media the previous day “wherein the respondent is seen riding a small pony, jabbing his mouth with the bit and excessively pulling on the reins.”

The Brazilian National Federation initially indicated that the case would go before the Tribunal of Brazilian Equestrian Sport, but in September declared it lacked jurisdiction. The FEI then opened its own disciplinary proceedings.

Da Silva competed at the 2008 Olympic Games and 2018 World Equestrian Games. He said he has been caring for horses professionally for 25 years. A pony is, despite its small size, very robust with the proportional strength of a common-sized horse and can, usually, bear the weight of an adult.

Pirulito is “used” for his children’s “recreation” and mainly ridden by the respondent’s daughters and children of farm employees. Pirulito was “surrounded” by children, who pamper and feed him so he was spoiled and began to show disobedience.

Having seen Pirulito disobey, he decided to apply “the technical correction” without spurs or a whip, especially after he bit his youngest daughter in the back.

The technique used was a “half-halt. ”He used an eggbutt bit, “the lightest and mildest mouthpiece for horses without any kind of bit.” He did not consider this animal abuse, under Brazilian Confederation of Equestrian regulations, as it did not cause any psychological trauma or injury. He produced veterinary reports to that effect.

Kaio, who filmed his father on Pirulito, shared it on WhatsApp, suggesting “in a totally playful way” that his father would ride Pirulito at the next Olympics. Kaio is heard saying: “Go Dad, go over there so we can see your next Olympics horse, go.”

Since publication of the video – “misinterpreted by people unaware of the technique” – the Respondent has been receiving threats, suffered substantial damage to his image and is subject to a separate lawsuit. An online petition asking for justice for Pirulito had been signed by 15,565 people at the time the FEI filed their claim brief.

The FEI’s submission went into great detail about actions captured in the video, saying the rider was clearly oversized and overweight for the pony, and had strongly pulled on the reins to the extent Pirulito’s head was restrained in an upright position. He tried to avoid the jabs by thrusting the head up and opening the mouth while spinning round. The Respondent was seen leaning back, using his full body weight on the reins. Interference by a dog added to the pony’s ordeal.

The FEI said offences were carried out deliberately, as Da Silva admitted himself on social media and in an interview with the Brazilian website,

According to the FEI, an “unidentified bystander” is heard laughing in the jumping video and the pony was again “rounded up” by the dog.

Dr Göran Akerström, FEI Veterinary Director, said that a pony such as Pirulito, which weighs on average 205 kg, should not be asked to carry more than 15% of its weight for long periods. Da Silva is likely to weigh at least 70 kg, meaning that Pirulito carries ~34% of its weight, an extreme overload that would cause unnecessary discomfort, even for a short period, exacerbated by the very aggressive riding.

In handing down its decision, the Tribunal noted some contradictions in Da Silva’s various statements. He told the Brazilian police it was only after he approached Pirulito to give the “correction” that he then saw Pirulito bite the child, adding that “even if there was no bite, the declarant would have the same attitude so that the animal did not disobey the children and eventually hurt them.”

Tribunal said this sheds doubts on what really happened before he decided to ride the pony and be filmed. There was no evidence of the alleged wound suffered by his daughter.

Tribunal did “not understand why this correction would cause so much laughter given the severity of his daughter’s injury” and the second video “needs to be considered as an indicator of the treatment and conditions allowed under the Respondent’s administration of his farm.”

The Tribunal felt this offence falls within the “top-end” category of abuse in the table provided at Article 164.14 of the GRs, indicating a suspension of between two to five years. It also rejected Da Silva’s claims that he could not afford the fine originally proposed by the FEI; he submitted no documents establishing his financial situation.