Major change needed to prevent future pentathlon issues

  • THE scenes witnessed during the modern pentathlon at the Tokyo Olympics must never be allowed to happen again, it has been widely stated, as the world governing body has pledged to make changes.

    H&H reported on 6 August, when German Annika Schleu was seen in tears as her ride Saint Boy napped, and later refused to jump. Her reaction and use of the whip, and her coach’s punching of the horse, sparked worldwide outrage.

    More than 132,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for the riding phase to be removed from the sport.

    Other suggestions to improve horse welfare, athlete safety and the reputation of the sport, which comes into the spotlight owing to concerns about the standard of riding at every Olympics, include better education and smaller fences.

    John Ledingham, who represented Ireland in showjumping at one Olympics and was a team coach at another, was also Ireland’s modern pentathlon coach at three Games.

    “Tears were brought to my eyes on 6 August as I witnessed the Olympian principles of fairness and animal welfare trampled underfoot,” he said. “What I witnessed should never have happened; it has brought the sport into disrepute, it has created enormous hurt to the victim, both human and equine; it can never be let to happen again.”

    John told H&H he feels “very strongly that the structure is not correct”, and that it is open to what happened.

    “A few changes could really improve it, and make it fair,” he said.

    John said in some pentathlon events, not all competitors qualify for the riding phase. This, particularly for those without an equestrian background, means their riding may not be as good as their performance in other phases as they do not prioritise this training.

    “In the UK and Ireland we have the Pony Club, and a lot of pentathletes come through it so they’re used to riding and tetrathlon,” he said. “But a lot of other countries don’t have the Pony Club.”

    John raised concerns about the suitability of the horses selected for the Tokyo event; horses are lent for the competition and must, he said, “have experience and a proven record in competition, be mentally strong, and be used to being ridden by different riders”.

    John pointed out that Saint Boy had already misbehaved for a previous competitor on 6 August, refusing three times. Had he stopped again, he would have been eliminated and not available for Annika to ride, but as he then napped until the time limit was exceeded, this was a technical elimination, so could not be substituted out for the next rider.

    “The sport is incredible and the athletes are incredible; to hear the international governing body just blaming the athletes really upset me as that was just wrong,” he said.

    “In Tokyo we saw athletes reduced to tears in total frustration at the unfairness of horse selection, horses who were clearly stressed by competition, and a coach behave in a despicable manner – flying in the face of the Olympic spirit and a lamentable advertisement in front of a global TV audience for what is a truly great sport.”

    Annika Schleu

    Annika Schleu on Saint Boy in Tokyo

    John suggests a course of 10 fences, with no double or treble combinations, at a maximum height of 1.10m rather than 1.20m – he added that world cup and Olympic qualifier courses are 1m to 1.05m – and believes each horse should only be ridden by one athlete.

    “As a coach, I have a responsibility to protect the mental and physical health of both equine and human athletes; so do the Olympic organisers,” he said.

    Former pentathlete Harry Sykes, who competed for Britain but is now an amateur showjumper, told H&H he was shocked by the standard of riding in Tokyo.

    “You could see when Annika came into the ring that the horse wasn’t happy and that things weren’t going to work,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking as she’s the best in the world and had got off to a good start in the competition, but it was hard to watch; she and her coach didn’t handle it in the right way.”

    Harry said he once asked a professional showjumper his opinion of the modern pentathlon and was told athletes ride to “complete, not compete”.

    “For me, the showjumping was the most enjoyable part but for maybe 90 to 95% of competitors, it’s just something they have to do,” he said, adding that there is a view among some that a good horse will get you round and a tricky one will not, and that some pentathletes view the horse as another tool they have to use.

    He suggested that an international standard riding proficiency test, which all athletes must pass in their own countries, would help improve standards, and that if the riding phase were judged on style and performance, this could also help.

    He agreed with John that the height difference between most competitions and the Olympics is a significant one, so believes that until global riding standards are raised, a smaller course, with changes such as ascending rather than square oxers, might be a better idea.

    But he thinks education is key.

    “The officials need educating as they don’t fully understand the rules, and the riders need to learn to respect the horses, and horsemanship,” he said. “Those who come from a swimming or running background don’t understand how to respect horses. If I crash through a fence, I feel terrible and apologise to my horse, but many pentathletes won’t see that, they think the horse should have got them out of it.

    “The men’s competition was a bit better; many were showing a bit more respect to their horses so maybe they’d learned from the women, but fundamentally, there needs to be better education all round.

    “There was a terrible incident in a world cup this year when a girl missed a stride and the horse crashed through the fence and fell. The horse took a bit of time to get to its feet and the rider was confused but instead of taking it away to trot it up, the officials told her to get back on and keep going.

    “In the rules, like FEI rules, the horse should have been eliminated but the officials weren’t educated enough to know that.”

    Harry said he is a fan of the sport and would like to see showjumping remain part of it.

    “But at the same time, as a horse lover I don’t want to see anything like that again,” he said.

    Apart from horse and athlete safety and welfare, another implication is the effect on horse sport as a whole; some viewers may not differentiate between the modern pentathlon and other equestrian disciplines.

    World Horse Welfare deputy chief executive Tony Tyler told H&H that if horse sports are to maintain public support, and so their social licence to operate, “the welfare of horses involved must be given absolute priority above all commercial and competitive considerations, and all involved must be seen to be doing this”.

    “Sadly, this was not demonstrated in many of the modern pentathlon rides at the Olympics, where some of the horses were in obvious distress and the ​riders’ and other team members’ treatment of the horses at times was simply unacceptable,” he said.

    “A review of the [international governing body] UIPM rules is essential, and we are encouraged that the FEI have offered their support. We believe that review must include the use of spurs and the whip and as well as approved bits and tack. It should also look at the format of the riding section.

    “The challenge for riders in modern pentathlon is that they have not been able to build up a partnership with their horse and the UIPM should consider giving marks for riding ability and style, not just for completing the course, as this would encourage competitors to concentrate on their horsemanship skills.”

    An FEI spokesman told H&H that although horse welfare is its “absolute top priority”, with strict rules preserving it, modern pentathlon is not in the FEI’s remit.

    “Although it is not an FEI discipline, FEI president Ingmar De Vos has already reached out to his UIPM counterpart Klaus Schormann, reiterating his offer of support and guidance from the FEI so that important improvements can be made by the UIPM for the welfare of modern pentathlon horses,” the spokesman said.

    On 12 August, the UPIM announced measures to “urgently protect horse welfare”.

    These include a riding working group to review the Tokyo Games and make recommendations, and “assess the need” for changes to the UPIM code of ethics for horse welfare.

    Dr Schormann will meet Mr de Vos, to gain “expertise and insights on horse welfare”, and UIPM will draft modifications to its riding rules to suit the new format, which means, from next year “fewer jumps and lower, simpler obstacles”.

    New guidelines and education tools on horse welfare will be provided for athletes and coaches, as well as technical delegates.

    Dr Schormann said: “UIPM remains fully committed to riding as an integral part of the modern pentathlon based on the vision of [sport creator] Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

    “Our union has already adapted modern pentathlon in many innovative ways based on expert advice and feedback from inside and outside our global sporting community. The UIPM 2021 congress provides an opportunity for national federations to have their say.

    “On behalf of the UIPM executive board I look forward to working with all parties concerned to ensure we make the adjustments needed to provide a safe and secure future for the riding discipline within modern pentathlon.”

    The board is to appoint a disciplinary panel to rule on the 6 August events, but “strongly condemns any abuse, online or offline, directed at any of the individuals involved in the events”.

    The UIPM has also had “strong assurances” from Saint Boy’s owners that he is “safe and well” at home.

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