What Can We Learn From Saint Boy? Considering Horse Welfare Beyond the Modern Pentathlon

Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY ALEXANDRA O’SULLIVAN

Since the Modern Pentathlon at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, a photograph of Annika Schlue riding Saint Boy has been circulating the internet. It shows her shoulders tensed, eyes scrunched closed as she sobs in distress at the loss of her Olympic dream. The horse’s head is up in the air, teeth barred, eyes white with fear. It’s a terrible image, a snapshot of a woman and a horse sharing a moment of torture. They’re both brought to the brink by separate pressures—the pressure of Olympic glory, and the pressure of the whip.

It’s clear that Schleu crumbled under the pressure. Her failure to either complete the pentathlon’s show jumping course and win the gold medal she had in her sights or to retire with dignity, caused a brief social media stir. Most of the resulting commentary I read was negative, disparaging Schleu for her rough treatment of Saint Boy. It scolded her coach for punching the horse on the rump and for encouraging Schleu to “Really hit it, hit!” 

That’s a brutal instruction, but not one I haven’t heard before. When I was a young rider competing in the country show jumping circuit, I had a tough instructor who told me to “Hit the horse,” when he refused to jump. I would take my hand off the rein to obey—I was too terrified of her not to obey—and tap the horse gently on the rump. “You’re swatting flies,” she would scream at me. “Hit him!” 

I was a skinny nine-year-old girl with dreams of riding in the Olympics. The adults around me told me I needed to hit the horse to achieve success. So, I hit him.

I don’t make this comparison to suggest that me using my whip as a child is the same thing as Schue’s public meltdown, but to show that the culture of prioritizing winning above respect for the horse often begins early. It is more widespread than the pentathlon. 

I look at that photograph of Schleu and Saint Boy and see myself as a young rider, crumbling under the pressure. That infamous image shows the stark reality of using an animal for competitive sport. It is a timely reminder of what horse lovers must strive to avoid. Now that the dust has settled, it’s a good moment to reflect on what Saint Boy can teach us about our own standards of horse training, and, in particular, what we are teaching those just entering the equestrian world. 

In the years since my show jumping days, I’ve met many thoughtful trainers who consider the horse’s comfort and happiness as paramount to everything they do. I’ve had wise horse people renegotiate my relationship with the whip, telling me it should be used “as much as necessary and as little as possible.” They’ve coached me to use it as an aid, rather than a punishment. I’ve also met riders studying equine biomechanics to become educated about how to ride in a way that benefits the horse. 

But I also still see coaches giving inexperienced riders instructions like, “I want to see the horse more flexed,” without explaining how to correctly, and sensitively, achieve collection–something that requires deep understanding and a high-level of skill. But flexion, even when achieved incorrectly, often wins ribbons. I’ve even seen parents of young riders tying their pony’s head way too far down on the lunge to “soften the mouth,” and get a better dressage score. The horrendous practice of Rollkur, hyperflexion of the neck, unfortunately, still exists, despite being condemned by the FEI. 

These are not considerate, educated decisions. They are ignorant and ego driven. They highlight the issue of focusing more on the competition than the horse. These examples stress the importance of giving new riders a comprehensive education about equine biomechanics and horse welfare, so that they can avoid ever falling into the trap that Schleu—and myself—fell into. The trap where the pressure to win momentarily overwhelms the ability to treat the horse with respect, to ride with understanding and empathy.

The pentathlon showed many riders who were drastically inexperienced and over-faced. Heroic horses carried many of them around the course. Others, like Saint Boy, were too distressed. It’s easy for the Equestrian Federation President to say these competitors were, “not real riders.” It’s easy for supposedly “real” riders to feel smugly superior, but what would we learn from that? Practices that harm horses exist within all types of equestrian sport, because competition mixed with ego often leads to self-centered choices. 

You only have to look at the Olympic dressage to see evidence of restrictive training practices in the performances of many horses; some held severely behind the vertical, some breaking rhythm awkwardly during movements. It was evidence of pandering to judges, of seeking flashiness and high scores over correct, smooth movements that are developed through proper rider education about things like correct engagement of the hindquarters, strengthening of the thoracic sling, and riding with light, sensitive hands.

The UIPM has promised a review into the pentathlon that it says will, “also reinforce the importance of horse welfare and athlete safety across the entire global competition structure.” I hope this is the case. Annika Scheu is only one rider. Her behavior is just a symptom of a larger problem. 

The competitive nature of the equestrian world unfortunately means that some riders are being taught how to win, and not how to ride with a sensitive understanding of the horse. I wish I had been taught early on the specific differences between collection and contortion, between beneficial and detrimental training. If that education was the standard that came before competitive rallies, then we would improve horse welfare everywhere. 

It’s right that the pentathlon caused outrage, but now we must decide how broadly we apply that outrage, and how willing we are to look into training standards and attitudes in our own riding communities. Our love for horses should always raise out ambition for better knowledge and horsemanship, while also helping us to accept defeat in the ring. 

 

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