Equestrian Tradition and the Ultimate Athlete

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY ALEX O’SULLIVAN

The founder of the modern pentathlon, Baron Pierre de Courbetin, chose the five disciplines – fencing, freestyle swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting and cross country running -because he wanted the competition to reflect the skills of the cavalryman. He believed his choices ‘tested a man’s moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete.’ The pentathlon was designed to celebrate both athleticism and military honour, and show-jumping was an important part of it, showcasing the riding skills needed for the mounted infantry.  

It’s difficult to see a more thorough test of moral qualities and athletic skill than horse riding. Sitting astride a 700-kilo animal and asking it to perform, to leap fences, requires both physical and mental toughness, a balance of bravery and empathy, light hands and strong legs, lightning reflexes. There is no equivalent. 

This is why the UIPM’s recent decision to scrap horse riding from the pentathlon, after accusations of horse welfare issues during the Tokyo Games, is such a shock, especially for those in the sport. Many are furious at the abrupt decision that ends over a century of history. The challenges of horse-riding offer reasons to keep it in the pentathlon and reasons to scrap it. While its inclusion is relevant to the tradition of the ‘ultimate athlete,’ it also means that pentathletes must take it seriously, must train to the high standard required if they want to avoid embarrassment, injury or controversy. Horse riding can’t be seen as merely ‘one of five’ disciplines. It’s a sport on its own. It requires years of dedicated training. Its loss is significant, not because of tradition, but because horse riding is a wonderful thing, when it’s done well.

Unfortunately, the pentathlon has not been doing it well. This failure is not just embarrassing for the sport, it is also a serious horse welfare issue. Pentathletes are given unfamiliar horses with only twenty minutes to get to know them, a strategy meant to reflect the military history of the mounted infantry. The Tokyo Games revealed that many of them were not up to this task. Riders were unbalanced, tense, struggling to complete the course. Horses were jerked in the mouth, hit, spurred, and generally ridden without sensitivity. This culminated in the infamous moment when Anika Schleu’s coach Kim Raisner punched her allocated horse Saint Boy, and the internet exploded with outrage. Horse punching is a big no-no these days, whatever the context. The debate that followed says something interesting about how our views of horse welfare are shifting, and the UIPM’s decision is a reflection of the times, an indication that ‘tradition’ no longer holds up as an excuse not to change. 

The increased scrutiny is a good thing. Any discipline that uses animals should be scrutinized for the way it treats them. What’s surprising is that the UIPM reacted so swiftly and thoroughly to the outrage. Deciding that rather than try to improve horse welfare, they would simply scrap horse riding altogether. It’s depressing to assume that introducing changes wouldn’t go far enough to ensure better treatment of horses and that pentathletes can’t be brought up to standard. They are supposed to be ‘ultimate athletes,’ after all. 

The challenge of jumping an unfamiliar horse over a show-jumping course of 1.20-metre-high fences is a tough one, and for someone whose natural talent lies in swimming, for example, rather than riding, it might be especially tough. But I’d love to see it done well. I’d love to see pentathletes that are also exceptional riders who have dedicated sufficient time to their sports – all five of them. But am I expecting too much? 

I was lucky enough to be able to dedicate my whole self to riding horses. I was able to give it the time it needed. When I was steeplechase jockey, I I often rode in races on horses that I didn’t know beforehand. Years of training meant I knew how to assess a horse quickly on the canter to the barriers. I knew how to feel their mouth through the reins and their stride beneath me to predict how they might approach a fence, how they might jump. 

Competing on a strange horse is not an impossible task. Pentathletes are given twenty minutes to warm up on their horse and jump a few fences. The horses themselves seem very professional, and many that I watched completed the course despite, not because of, their rider. I don’t believe the issue is the unfamiliar horse so much as it is poor horsemanship, perhaps due to training time constraints. Of course, if pentathletes did have their own horses, it might help this problem by ensuring they rode more frequently, improving their riding and horsemanship skills in the process. It would alter the tradition, but not as much as switching from show jumping to cycling changes the tradition. 

The tradition of the ‘ultimate athlete’ was desperately flailing anyway,, with the final discipline, the pinnacle of the test of ‘moral qualities’ that I think show jumping could be, having become nothing more than a fiasco of horse mistreatment. It couldn’t continue the way it was going, but it could have been made better. It could have offered a challenge to pentathletes to improve their riding skills or not qualify for competition. Then it would have been the true test that Barron Pierre de Courbetin envisioned. 

It would have been a celebration of horsemanship, and a way to honour the horse by show casing only the most skilled and sensitive riders. Because that is what makes horse riding so glorious, the fact that only the truly resilient, adaptable, and empathetic riders make the grade. That tradition would be something worth fighting for. If you are looking for something else to do, you can check out https://www.onlinecasinosnoop.com

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