An Olympic dressage rider who was filmed “riding a small pony, jabbing his mouth and excessively pulling on the reins” has been suspended for three years.
The FEI Tribunal has ruled that the actions of Brazilian Leandro Aparecido Da Silva, who represented his country at the 2008 Olympics and the 2018 World Equestrian Games, constituted horse abuse.
The footage, shared widely on social media last summer, shows the then 44-year-old riding a small coloured pony, his feet inches from the ground, and pulling hard on the reins.
The FEI was made aware of the video on 15 July. In response to an FEI request, the Brazilian national federation said the case would go before the national equestrian sport tribunal.
On 17 September, the tribunal announced its decision, that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, as the incident happened at the rider’s private farm rather than a competition. The FEI then opened disciplinary proceedings.
In his evidence, the rider submitted a vet’s report, from 28 July, stating that the pony, Pirulito, was in “excellent condition”, and “perfect health”, with no lesions or injuries.
He said the six-year-old, who was born on the farm, is ridden mainly by his daughters, and employees’ children. As he is “surrounded” by children, who “pamper and feed him”, he is “spoiled and therefore started to show signs of disobedience”. On the day of the incident, the rider had seen Pirulito disobey, so decided to apply “technical correction”, especially after the pony bit the rider’s youngest daughter.
“According to the respondent, this latter event showed that Pirulito had lost respect for the children and would no longer obey,” the Tribunal report states.
“Thus, the respondent mounted the animal, and ‘applied the desired correction’, without using spurs or a whip. The technique used was called ‘half-halt’, i.e. that ‘the commands were obeyed when the animal was ridden by the children’. This correction was recorded on the respondent’s son’s mobile phone.
“After[the rider] applied the correction, Pirulito started to obey again, without hesitation.”
Leandro said he has been caring for horses for 25 years, so has wide experience, and that “a pony is, despite its small size, a very robust animal and has the proportional strength of a common-sized horse, meaning that it can, usually, bear the weight of an adult”.
He said he had not intended to punish the pony for biting, but to ensure he would “not disobey again, so that the children would not get hurt”, and that the incident lasted “a few minutes”. He said he did not consider his actions abuse, as they “did not cause any psychological trauma or injury to the animal”.
“Throughout his career, the respondent has never been subject to any disciplinary sanction or suspension,” the report states.
“Since the publication of the video – which was misinterpreted by people who are unaware of the technique used – the respondent has been receiving several types of threats and suffered substantial damage to his image as a professional athlete.”
A further veterinary examination including X-rays of the pony’s mouth, carried out in September, found no issues.
The FEI submitted that the rider is “clearly oversized and overweight to be riding such [a] pony, as his legs are practically reaching to the ground”.
“The respondent is seen strongly pulling on the reins to the extent that the pony’s head is restrained in an upright position. In addition, the respondent jabs the pony’s mouth with both hands using the reins.
“The pony is trying to avoid the discomfort and pain by thrusting the head up and opening the mouth.[He] is afterwards pulled on a small circle where the respondent
continues to violently jerk the rein with his right hand causing the pony to spin in a circle trying to escape the afflicted pain.”
The FEI added that the rider can be seen leaning backwards, to use “his full body weight” on the pony, and that the dog following Pirulito is “adding to the mental discomfort of the pony”.
The FEI said the “highly aggressive” riding was “in the FEI’s view, clearly to punish and/or cause fear to the allegedly misbehaving animal, which clearly amounts to an abusive training method”.
The FEI also references a second video shared online, in which Pirulito is being ridden by Leandro’s 20-year-old son.
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“At some point in this video, the son crashes into an obstacle because the pony can barely jump the oversized obstacles with the weight of the rider on its back,” the FEI submission states.
“As a consequence, the pony suffered a dangerous, rotational fall and landed on its back. According to the FEI, an ‘unidentified bystander’ is laughing and during the ride, the pony is, once again, followed and rounded up by the dog. It is the FEI’s view that this video raises questions on whether the video, which is the object of the present proceedings, is truly a sole incident, or whether it was actually a common practice within the respondent’s family.
“The FEI considers therefore that the video which gave rise to these proceedings is likely not to be a sole incident, which should also be taken into consideration for the sanctions to be imposed.”
The Tribunal report states: “With respect to the second video, the respondent indicated that it is his son who rides the animal and leads it to jump the obstacle.”
Leandro was suspended until 20 November 2023, fined 5,000 Swiss francs (£3,909) and ordered to pay 2,000 francs (£1,563) in costs. He has 21 days to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Under FEI rules, during a period of suspension, “the person, horse or body suspended may take no part in competitions or events as an athlete, horse or official or in the organisation of, any event under the jurisdiction of the FEI or any event under the jurisdiction of an national federation in accordance with the statutes or in any FEI-related activity (e.g. FEI courses, meetings, general assembly etc.)”
This also includes, in this case, any event run under the jurisdiction of the Brazilian national federation, which will comply with the suspension at national level.
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