The sport, in which competitors have to take on a showjumping course of up to 1.20m on borrowed horses, as well as fencing, swimming, running and shooting, has sparked debate over the standard of riding at every recent Olympics.
But although governing body UIPM admitted that “the number of refusals and falls [in the women’s event] on August 6 was slightly above average”, it was German competitor Annika Schleu’s actions that put the sport in the spotlight.
The athlete, who was in gold-medal position before the showjumping, was seen in tears and using her whip repeatedly as her ride Saint Boy, who had done similar with his previous rider, napped. The combination started their round but having crashed through one oxer, the horse napped again and then refused to jump.
German coach Kim Raisner, who was seen punching Saint Boy’s quarters over the fence, was banned from the men’s riding the following day.
German Olympic eventer Ingrid Klimke was among those calling for change to the rules, stating: “For me, trust and harmony are a fundamental part of every way of dealing with the horse.
“The regulations of the modern pentathlon expect horse and rider to get to know each other so well in 20 minutes that they can complete a jumping course together. In my opinion, that is not possible, at least not in a competitive situation like the Olympic Games.”
She added: “The rules of the modern pentathlon should urgently be reconsidered!”
The German Olympic federation DOSB agreed, adding: “It needs to be redesigned to protect horse and rider. The welfare of the animals and fair competition conditions for the athletes must be the focus.”
The sport had already agreed on a new format for the 2024 Games; it will run as a single 90-minute event with equestrian first, and an elimination system that might encourage better horsemanship.
The UIPM said: “The events of August 6 in the Tokyo stadium have caused distress both inside and outside the global UIPM sports community.”
It added that riding is “integral” to the sport, which is “the ultimate test of moral and physical qualities”, and 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”.
The statement added that the experience of Annika and Russian competitor Gulnaz Gubaydullina on Saint Boy was “unusual in high-level modern pentathlon”.
“That said, UIPM has a duty of care to all participants in the competitions it oversees; this includes the Olympic Games and it includes horses,” the statement said.
“Not only will UIPM conduct a full review of the riding discipline of the women’s modern pentathlon at the Tokyo Games, it will also reinforce the importance of horse welfare and athlete safety across the entire global competition structure. UIPM regrets the trauma suffered by Saint Boy in this high-profile incident and has penalised the coach who violated UIPM competition rules by striking the horse from outside the ring.
“Although no athlete or horse was physically injured on August 6, the best possible safeguards must be in place to minimise risk in future.
“Changes in riding were already in the pipeline due to the new format coming into force in 2022 for the Paris 2024 Olympic cycle. Horse welfare and athlete safety will be at the centre of this process and the UIPM 2021 congress in November will provide an opportunity for UIPM’s national member federations to participate in a collective effort to secure the future of riding in modern pentathlon.”
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