Joris Vanspringel has been suspended for nine months after being accused of abusing a pony while giving a clinic in South Africa last November. He was also fined 3,000 Swiss francs and ordered to pay 3,000 Swiss francs in costs.

The decision was handed down on August 15th, though only published this week. Vanspringel, 56, said his behaviour had been completely out of character and had hoped his good prior record would warrant just a fine. He unsuccessfully requested any suspension be delayed until after last weekend’s European eventing championships and other Olympic qualifiers; otherwise it would be career-ending. Vanspringel has represented Belgium at four Olympic Games, two World Equestrian Games and seven European championships.

The case is notable for occurring out of competition. The FEI has jurisdiction over FEI-registered athletes in alleged horse abuse cases on private property, and in 2016 brought another such case.

Vanspringel has been visiting South Africa as a coach since 2010. The protest was lodged by the South African equestrian federation (SAEF) on behalf of Hannah Boulle, 14, and her mother, Sara, who were both riding at Fourways Riding Centre that day.

Hannah’s pony Sherwill Valerian – acknowledged as being “cheeky” – repeatedly refused. Eventually Vanspringel mounted the pony himself and took Hannah’s whip and spurs.

Sara Boulle testified: “I saw Joris had got on to Valerian. He sent him forward a few times then tried some other fences but Valerian was still stopping. I was watching from the above field but my horse had had enough, as by this point I had been on him for quite a long time so I decided to take him back to the trailer.

“I had been waiting for about 20-30 minutes, then Hannah arrived in tears, leading Valerian. She told me Joris had beaten Valerian and was being so rough with his hands the bit had been pulled through Valerian’s mouth. She showed me her whip that had been broken in two.

“Valerian had huge, tender lumps on his right side behind the saddle and sores both sides of his mouth. He also looked absolutely exhausted. I noticed he had lost his front right shoe.”

SAEF submitted video and photographic evidence plus witness affidavits. One clip showed Vanspringel hitting the pony eight times on the shoulder. Pictures showed marks on the head and a “broken” mouth. SAEF wrote it “does not believe that because you are not in competition that this behaviour is acceptable. This behaviour is even more disturbing when it is displayed in front of a minor, who is looking up to such a person to be a role model.”

Vanspringel said: “I felt very sad after reading the complaint…. I have been a professional rider, trainer and teacher for more than 30 years, and this has never happened to me before.

“She [Hannah] had a lot of difficulties during the training – the pony was entered in the 80/90cm but needed 60cm fences – so I lowered the fence (trakehner), built a ground line an extra cross bar and filled it up with hay. I made it as easy as possible. But still the pony refused to jump.

“I really wanted to help this young girl but what I did on the pony is not who I am, and I feel terribly bad and sorry about it – still today.

“I’ve never received any warning, yellow card or allegations of horse abuse. If I could turn back the time I would, but that is impossible. I sincerely want to apologize to everyone that is involved in this case. This will never happen to me again, of that you can be sure; I am too much of a horseman for that.”

While the 12-page decision notice records contradictory statements about the duration of the incident and whether some marks had been caused by Hannah Boulle, the FEI Tribunal felt the video evidence of Vanspringel constituted abuse within the meaning of Article 142.1 of FEI General Regulations. This defines abuse as “an action or omission which causes or is likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a horse”.

Tribunal found aggravating circumstances in the behaviour of an experienced rider in front of a young rider, though took into account that Vanspringel accepted that his actions were wrong and had promptly apologised after learnings of the complaint.