Olympic eventer banned for nine months for abusing pony at cross-country clinic

A four-time Olympic event rider was forced to withdraw from the European championships after the FEI suspended him for abusing a pony at a cross-country clinic.

Belgian rider Joris Vanspringel, 56, was accused of beating Sherwill Valerian hard enough to break a whip during a training session in South Africa in November 2018. 

The pony had repeatedly refused a fence with his 14-year-old rider, prompting the veteran eventer to offer to get on.

The junior rider told the tribunal that Joris borrowed her stick and spurs and “tried to get Valerian moving forwards” before attempting the jump, but the pony continued to stop.

“Valerian kept stopping and he kept smacking him very hard and pulling the bit right through his mouth,” the rider said in a statement. “Valerian started to get welts on the side Joris was smacking him on. I told Joris to stop, but he ignored me or didn’t hear me.”

She added that Joris had continued to try and make the pony jump even when she told him he was too tired, before eventually handing him back to her along with “a broken whip”.

Her mother Sara Boulle described how her daughter had returned to their trailer “in tears” following the session at Fourways Equestrian Centre.

“Valerian had huge, tender lumps on his right side behind the saddle [*warning* click here to view picture of the pony’s side] and sores both sides of his mouth. He also looked absolutely exhausted. I noticed he had lost a front right shoe,” Sara said.

The mother and daughter initially made a complaint to RSA-NF [the South African national federation] but as Joris was not registered with them, the matter was referred to the FEI.

In its protest, RSA-NF said the behaviour shown in video and photographic evidence would be enough for an athlete to be “instantly yellow carded” in a competition or warm-up arena.

“This behaviour is even more disturbing when it is displayed in front of a minor, who is looking up to such a person as a role model,” it said.

Joris is well-known for working full time as a station master while also pursuing an international event career, during which he has appeared at four Olympics, two World Equestrian Games and seven European championships.

He did not deny the allegations, but said he felt “very sad” after reading the complaint and had apologised in writing to the Boulles.

“I have been a professional rider, trainer and teacher for more than 30 years and this has never happened to me before,” he stated. “I 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.

“I have never received any warning, yellow card or allegations of horse abuse. If I could turn back the time I would, but that is impossible.”

He said he rode the pony for five to 10 minutes, on a loose rein with its head in front of it and there was no evidence of him jabbing it with spurs.

He alleged that the junior could have caused the whip marks herself as no “before” pictures existed. It was also noted that there was no veterinary report.

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In a decision published on 30 August, a one-member FEI panel concluded that the witness statements and 12sec of video footage were enough to warrant sanctions, and that there was no evidence that the junior rider was responsible for causing the pony harm.

“The tribunal finds aggravating circumstances in that the facts that the horse abuse was committed by an experienced rider in front of a young rider of 14 training with him.

“On the other hand, the tribunal has taken into account the facts and that Mr Vanspringel recognised his actions were wrong and promptly recognised and apologised for them,” it said.

Joris was given a nine-month suspension and the tribunal denied his request to start the suspension at a later date so he could still participate in the European championships and Olympic qualifiers.

He was also fined CHF 3,000 and ordered to contribute an additional CHF 3,000 towards costs.

After the decision Mrs Boulle told H&H that “for a child to see their pony abused is horrific and unforgivable.

“It made me feel sick to the core to see Valerian and my daughter in such distress after the incident.”

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