Tokyo Olympics Modern Pentathlon and Equine Welfare

Equine behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell: “Imagine if that rider had loosened the reins, patted the horse on the neck, and left the arena.”
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Tokyo Olympics Modern Pentathlon and Equine Welfare
Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS/Alamy Live News

“Imagine if that rider had loosened the reins, patted the horse on the neck, and left the arena,” said Sue McDonnell, PhD, CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist), when we chatted on the phone Monday morning.

“That rider” is the now infamous German Olympic Modern Pentathlon competitor, Annika Schleu, who came into the equestrian portion of the five-event sport in Tokyo on Aug. 6 with a commanding lead. But, after taking the allotted 20 minutes to familiarize herself with her mount, Saint Boy, before tackling a 1.2-meter (meaning the jumps were nearly 4 feet high) course, the horse balked at the arena gate, shifted weight to his hind legs, and started backing up.

To McDonnell, a world-renowned equine behaviorist based at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the horse’s message was clear. He was overfaced, scared, and in pain. “He showed classic mouth pain face (physical pain or entrapment panic): gaping mouth, backing away from pain, head high, visual focus downward toward the mouth,” she said. Basically, he tried to tell the people around him he wasn’t okay, but they didn’t hear him.

Instead, Schleu’s coach, Kim Raisner, encouraged her to hit the horse with her crop, which an emotional Schleu did. When the horse backed toward the arena fence, Raisner put her fist into his haunches.

That created the headline grabbing moment: “German Modern Pentathlon Coach Disqualified for Punching a Horse.”

Schleu kept at it with her whip and spurs, making it to the course and crashing through jumps until being eliminated not for the horse’s welfare but because the pair exceeded the maximum jump refusals permitted.

The live commentators, and later some mainstream reporters, blamed the horse for being uncooperative and unruly and ruining Schleu’s chance at a medal. One headline read “Misbehaving horse wreaks havoc and kills dreams at Olympic pentathlon.” Some equestrian sport social media influencers even framed the horse as spoiled and blamed his behavior on an earlier round when he refused to jump and was dismissed from the arena, claiming he had learned he didn’t have to do his job.

pain in ridden horses; Horse feels
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While I found these responses disappointing, they didn’t surprise me. It’s common in the horse world. The “sour” or “spooky” horse gets blamed for the bad round or inconsistent test. The child is given a crop and encouraged to show the pony “who’s boss.” The gelding is called a jerk, the mare is a “rhymes with witch.” The horse tries to tell us she doesn’t understand, she’s overwhelmed, or she’s in pain, but often we don’t listen.

The Olympic Modern Pentathlon incident also left me with a lot of questions: Why are horses in an Olympic event not overseen by the FEI, the international sanctioning body of equestrian sport? Who sources the horses, and do the animals undergo veterinary inspection on par with other Olympic equine athletes? Does the tack belong to the rider or the horse, and who ensures it fits and the horse is comfortable? Are the horses properly warmed up prior to their 20-minute speed-dating sessions with the pentathletes? Why was this horse used again after showing distress and being eliminated earlier in the competition? And, finally, is the poor equitation and horsemanship shown in still photographs and video clips the norm for Olympic-level modern pentathletes? The journalist in me wants to know but, honestly, I’ve looked, and answers are hard to find.

Modern Pentathlon’s governing body, the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), released a statement on Aug. 8 that included the following:

“Changes in Riding were already in the pipeline due to the new Modern Pentathlon 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.”

Part of me doesn’t want to judge a sport that isn’t my own. Maybe I’m missing something because I don’t understand the game or how it’s played. However, this incident opens the curtain on a systemic problem we have in the horse industry. Despite research that clearly shows horses don’t learn while fearful or in states of learned helplessness, some still get pushed past their thresholds inside round pens, over obstacles, and around dressage courts. We also know that an estimated 90% of performance horses experience painful gastric ulcers, yet every day horses are punished for acting “cinchy” while being saddled or kicked harder when they’re reactive or, inversely, dull to the leg.

The whole thing had me a bit down about the widespread misunderstanding of horse behavior, welfare, and what our horses are telling us.

Horse in Cross-ties
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But then McDonnell’s comment about loosening the rein and patting the horse reminded me of a recent incident when I saw a rider do just that. A friend’s 17-year-old daughter is a dressage competitor who had the goal of qualifying for the North American Young Riders’ Championship on her talented but sensitive mare.

At a show this summer, the pair entered the arena and started around the outside track as the bell rang for them to begin their test. Something about the loudspeakers and show atmosphere had the mare on edge. The pressure proved too much, and she reared. This wasn’t a little hop like that of Saint Boy in the Olympic Modern Pentathlon—this was a 17-hand mare standing all the way up. The teen rode the rear tactfully, keeping her seat and composure. As her mare came back to earth, she softened the rein pressure and patted and talked to her reassuringly.

The time it took to settle her mare meant they’d be eliminated, but she didn’t rush her horse. Instead, she entered at A, saluted, and approached the judge to thank her for her time before excusing herself and exiting the arena on a loose rein.

This teen exhibited maturity, good horsemanship, and an understanding about what her horse needed from her. That is the kind of Olympic moment I wish we’d seen in the Modern Pentathlon. But knowing the next generation includes riders like this particular young person gives me hope for the future of horse welfare in equestrian sport.

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Michelle Anderson is the former digital managing editor at The Horse. A lifelong horse owner, Anderson competes in dressage and enjoys trail riding. She’s a Washington State University graduate and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in business administration and extensive coursework in animal sciences. She has worked in equine publishing since 1998. She currently lives with her husband on a small horse property in Central Oregon.

8 Responses

  1. It was ironic that the animal rights activists were calling the coach’s fist on the horse’s haunches animal abuse when the even greater misdeed was the fact that the “rider” continued after missing the message from her horse (so clear described by Michelle) and galloped that horse around a course when she clearly had no eye for the distances and crashed him into multiple fences. A true rider and Olympian would not have attempted to continue that fiasco for so long. It seems like all she cared about was her lost medal, not the horse. I’m so glad that they are eliminating equestrian from the pentathlon. Thank you Michelle for writing such a great article.

  2. I fully agree with Michelle Anderson when she asked that “ Why was this horse used again after showing distress and being eliminated earlier in the competition? “. I believe that blame for the distress suffered by the horse lies primarily with those who prepared and selected him for this competition which, by all indications, was beyond the level that this horse was willing to accept. The worst animal abuse/mishandling must have occurred during the inappropriate training this horse received that left him not wanting jump at all. However, that occurred all out of public view and thus people blame the athlete who was in a no-win situation and was stressed out at least as much as the horse. However, there were people who knew this horse was not properly trained and still put him in the competition and even worse kept him there after his refusal with another rider. These people are now hiding in anonymity.

  3. Its a shame the FEI did not reply to Jurandyr’s email, but its not fair to blame the FEI for poor riding standards in modern pentathlon. The normal horse person would reasonably infer the FEI has some sort of global supervisory role for horse welfare – but its not the FEI’s sport – period.
    I doubt the specialist governing bodies of swmming, running, shooting and fencing have any jurisdiction over those components in modern pentathlon either. I dont think UIPM would make the distinction between the phases that involve another sentient being and those that don’t. None of the current UIPM executive board appear to have come come in from the equestrian side, another huge weakness.
    Also, all the focus is on the Olympic format and what will happen in Paris 2024. We need to know what is planned for normal MP tournaments and championships that are not on TV. There are two other major international championship events before the end of August.
    Looking at UIPM’s calendar, athletes must be so busy also doing separate prep events in tethrathlon and the the laser run goodness knows when they have time to even think about a horse, never mind ride one.
    Then there is the politics: both equestrianism and modern pentathlon have been under threat of ejection from the Olympic Games and it woulld appear hostile or at worst cynical for either of their governing bodies to criticise the other in public. According to UIPM’s August 12 statement, they are now having “a” meeting with the FEI but it seems to me they need rather more than one….

  4. Do you believe that the equestrian part of the Modern Pentathlon should follow the FEI CODE OF CONDUCT FOR THE WELFARE OF THE HORSE ? Yes or no ?

    FEI CODE OF CONDUCT FOR THE WELFARE OF THE HORSE
    The FEI requires all those involved in international equestrian sport to adhere to the FEI
    Code of Conduct and to acknowledge and accept that at all times the welfare of the
    Horse must be paramount. Welfare of the horse must never be subordinated to
    competitive or commercial influences. The following points must be particularly adhered
    to:
    1. General Welfare:
    a) Good Horse management
    Stabling and feeding must be compatible with the best Horse management
    practices. Clean and good quality hay, feed and water must always be available.
    b) Training methods
    Horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and
    level of maturity for their respective disciplines. They must not be subjected to
    methods which are abusive or cause fear.
    c) Farriery and tack
    Foot care and shoeing must be of a high standard. Tack must be designed and
    fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury.
    d) Transport
    During transportation, Horses must be fully protected against injuries and other
    health risks. Vehicles must be safe, well ventilated, maintained to a high standard,
    disinfected regularly and driven by competent personnel. Competent handlers
    must always be available to manage the Horses.
    e) Transit
    All journeys must be planned carefully, and Horses allowed regular rest periods
    with access to food and water in line with current FEI guidelines.
    2. Fitness to compete:
    a) Fitness and competence
    Participation in Competition must be restricted to fit Horses and Athletes of proven
    competence. Horses must be allowed suitable rest period between training and
    competitions; additional rest periods should be allowed following travelling.
    b) Health status
    No Horse deemed unfit to compete may compete or continue to compete,
    veterinary advice must be sought whenever there is any doubt.
    c) Doping and Medication
    Any action or intent of doping and illicit use of medication constitute a serious
    welfare issue and will not be tolerated. After any veterinary treatment, sufficient
    time must be allowed for full recovery before Competition.
    d) Surgical procedures
    Any surgical procedures that threaten a competing Horse’s welfare or the safety of
    other Horses and/or Athletes must not be allowed.
    e) Pregnant/recently foaled mares
    Mares must not compete after their fourth month of pregnancy or with foal at
    foot.
    f) Misuse of aids
    Abuse of a Horse using natural riding aids or artificial aids (e.g. whips, spurs, etc.)
    will not be tolerated.
    3. Events must not prejudice Horse welfare:
    a) Competition areas
    Horses must be trained and compete on suitable and safe surfaces. All obstacles
    and competition conditions must be designed with the safety of the Horse in mind.
    b) Ground surfaces
    All ground surfaces on which Horses walk, train or compete must be designed and
    maintained to reduce factors that could lead to injury.
    c) Extreme weather
    Competitions must not take place in extreme weather conditions that may
    compromise welfare or safety of the Horse. Provision must be made for cooling
    conditions and equipment for Horses after competing.
    d) Stabling at Events
    Stables must be safe, hygienic, comfortable, well ventilated and of sufficient size
    for the type and disposition of the Horse. Washing-down areas and water must
    always be available.
    4. Humane treatment of horses:
    a) Veterinary treatment
    Veterinary expertise must always be available at an Event. If a Horse is injured or
    exhausted during a Competition, the Athlete must stop competing and a
    veterinary evaluation must be performed.
    b) Referral centres
    Wherever necessary, Horses should be collected by ambulance and transported to
    the nearest relevant treatment centre for further assessment and therapy. Injured
    Horses must be given full supportive treatment before being transported.
    c) Competition injuries
    The incidence of injuries sustained in Competition should be monitored. Ground
    surface conditions, frequency of Competitions and any other risk factors should be
    examined carefully to indicate ways to minimise injuries.
    d) Euthanasia
    If injuries are sufficiently severe a Horse may need to be euthanised on humane
    grounds by a veterinarian as soon as possible, with the sole aim of minimising
    suffering.
    e) Retirement
    Horses must be treated sympathetically and humanely when they retire from
    Competition.
    5. Education:
    The FEI urges all those involved in equestrian sport to attain the highest possible
    levels of education in areas of expertise relevant to the care and management of
    the Competition Horse.
    This Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse may be modified from time to time and
    the views of all are welcomed. Particular attention will be paid to new research findings
    and the FEI encourages further funding and support for welfare studies.

  5. My understanding is that the FEI is not an overseeing body for this event.

  6. My name is Jurandyr Arone Maues and my wife´s horses (Arnold and Verona) were at Modern Pentathlon at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

    We are amateur riders and we were at the Olympics Games as grooms of our horses.

    I sent an email to FEI telling them how bad the riders were during the competition.

    We were very lucky because our 8 riders (men and women) were not top riders but they had an acceptable level.

    I did not see one single FEI official during the competitions.

    FEI is 100% responsible for all that problem.

    FEI did not answer my email.

    FEI says that they care about the horses during equestrian competitions but that is not true.

  7. 100 % agree with DR. SUE MCDONNELL and Michelle. Why on earth was this sorry spectacle allowed to happen and why hasn’t there been an enormous out cry over it? This welfare aspect is so clearly , and painfully, obvious to every true animal lover whether expert or not – doesn’t take a genius to see what that horse was being put though and suffering – so sad, – and so depressing.

  8. Kudos and thank you. I have been in the horse industry for 60+ years championing riders “asking” their horse and working WITH their horse; helping their horse do the job it is they are asking the horse to do. Treat your horse like you treat your parents and treat your parents like you treat your horse; you get out of your horse (and parents!) the same as the way you ask. Riding horses is like raising children: make it easy for them to do the right thing and difficult to do the wrong thing, and whatever your horse does wrong is the rider’s fault, ALWAYS!

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