Current Issues

Should Showjumping Be Part Of Modern Pentathlon?

Where do I start?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been deemed as a great success for most sports. Modern Pentathlon has been shown in it’s worst possible light with respects to the equestrian phase of the event, showjumping, after a shocking display of riding ability and horsemanship, particularly in the women’s competition on Friday 6th August 2021. This said the men’s competition definitely was a step forward from the women’s, but still some way to go to satisfy the equestrian community as a whole, due to the issues raised after the women’s event.

Firstly, something you guys need to know about me… I am an ex Great Britain Modern Pentathlete, with a strong equestrian background. Starting out in Pony Club, I grew to love all sports and found my place with Modern Pentathlon. I retired from the sport in 2016 and started to do showjumping, as an expensive hobby. My views on the events that took place at the Tokyo Olympics in Pentathlon are one as an ex pentathlete myself, but also a horse lover and a strong part of a thriving equestrian community.

Written by Harry Sykes

Falls were a regular feature of the Olympic women’s modern pentathlon

Let’s start with the obvious… the rules.

As I am sure you are all aware now, Modern Pentathlon is five sports; Fencing, Swimming, Showjumping, Running and Shooting. The athletes complete all 5 of these events in just one day (soon to be changed to 90 minutes, but that is for another post). The sport has evolved a lot over the past 20 years and it is “committed” to making the sport more “spectator friendly”. With regards to the rules, modern pentathlon is always looking to change the rules, for the better. The rules for the showjumping phase haven’t been amended for quite sometime and the UIPM (international governing body for modern pentathlon), has commented on this to say that it will be investigated and changes will be put in place to increase the safeguarding of horses and athletes.

The rules used in MP, closely follow those used in FEI or British Showjumping with a few changes, such as if you stop 2 times at a fence, you move onto the next fence, or that if you fall off your horse you are not eliminated and the time doesn’t stop (unless a fence has fallen), so you must get back on and complete your round. Among other things like you only 20 minutes to warm up a horse you have never ridden before, jump a maximum of five fences and then jump round a course of 120cm. The rules in place with regards to safeguarding the horse and the welfare of the horse, is no different to BS or FEI.

Continue reading below…

Annika Schleu was in tears as her horse refused to go round the course after crashing through multiple fences.

Annika’s Melt Down

The German Pentathlete, Annika Schleu has been in the sport for a number of years and is starting to come to the end of her career. With this probably being her last Olympics and being one of the top ranked athletes in the sport there was a lot of expectation for her to do well. After a strong fence and swim she was in 1st place by quite a big margin going into the ride. The standard of the women’s riding shocked a lot of people in and out of the equestrian community and was widely seen as a welfare issue with horses being subject to some horror rides.

Annika has plenty of experience riding at this level and has always been strong in the riding phase. “Saint Boy” was the horse Annika had drawn for the ride and she then had to wait and watch the athlete from the Russian Olympic Committee, Gulnaz Gubaydullina. Unfortunately, Gulnaz is not the strongest of riders and as the round went on Saint Boy lost more and more confidence. In the end she was eliminated and then it was the turn of Annika.

Before I continue, let’s just get something clear. A lot of the backlash for the issues raised at this Olympic event are aimed at Annika for the way she treated the horse. Although many comments are valid, as she did handle the situation in the worst possible way and there was a welfare issue with regards to the horse and how it was treated, she doesn’t deserve the level of abuse thrown at her on social media. With the current rules, she was handed an impossible deck of cards. There would be very few of us “Equestrians” that would have been able to get Saint Boy round the course after the Russian, despite what many comments say on social media telling Annika what she should be doing, “to let its head go” and to “relax, Saint Boy is too tense”, which yes, all are correct, but we are not in Annika’s position and in that situation we sometimes don’t see things clearly. The horse was in distress before Annika got on and the real solution should have been to remove the horse from the competition all together (which they later did before the men’s event).

With that out of the way, we can move on. I have been told by athletes out in Tokyo that Annika was struggling in the warm up for the show jumping and didn’t get on well with Saint Boy. Although there is a reserve horse that can be called upon in such instances, the horse had already been used with a previous athlete. As Annika entered the ring it was all red lights with Saint Boy refusing to walk forward let alone jump round the course. It was at this moment, after trying for around a minute to get Saint Boy to walk forward by using her leg aids and vocal encouragement, that she decided to use her whip to get him to go round the course (with some outside assistance from Annika’s German coach). This was streamed all over the TV channels globally and online. The coach was later banned from the 2020 Olympics and Annika was forced to be eliminated after multiple refusals and crashing through fence number 6. Annika was very emotional and was left in floods of tears as she left the arena in nearly last place.

German coach, Kim Raisner, striking the horse on the backend, before being banned.

“Riding to COMPLETE, not to COMPETE”

When I asked a professional showjumper what they thought of Modern Pentathlon, they told me this one quote and it changed how I view the riding phase of MP. “Modern Pentathletes ride to complete and not to compete”.

Having been there, I know that when you in the ring, you just want to complete the course and having a couple of poles down or a stop doesn’t matter. It is just simply a stepping stone that Pentathletes must do to get to the end goal of winning. This mentality it what feeds the culture of horses being used as tools within MP. When the horse doesn’t play ball, it is like a computer that just won’t do what you want it to do, you get angry, maybe bang the table in frustration… this is completely wrong. But it is how the showjumping is seen in Modern Pentathlon currently (by certain individuals).

Key Issues Raised

There were various issues raised and put forward to the UIPM to address after the women’s event. Here a few examples:

  • Pentathletes should not be jumping these heights of fences with their current standards. Each country has it’s own standards of riding to meet and these needs to be raised, until then the height of fences should be lowered or maybe even a different discipline considered.
  • There is a welfare issue with how the horses are treated with such riders and the horsemanship involved has been shocking (particularly in the women’s).
  • The officials need to be upholding the rules that are in place, they are there to protect the horses and the riders. Of course these rules need looking into and changed accordingly.

These three points were mentioned a lot over the past few days and they are now in the hands on the UIPM after thousands of complaints after the events of Friday 6th August.

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Should They Be Showjumping At All?

There have been calls for the showjumping to be axed from modern pentathlon, or at the very least lower fences or even dressage/style is involved.

In my opinion, whether that is what should happen or not, you are talking about changing a sport’s core values that have been around for over 100 years. It will take time for the evolutionary changes to take place.

Here is what I feel needs to happen to move forward:

  • EDUCATION – In modern pentathlon there were very few of us that came from a horse background many just started riding because it was the last of the 5 sports to learn. They haven’t gone through the process of learning horsemanship in the depth that is required, they don’t show the horses the respect, they are seen a piece of SPORTING EQUIPMENT. This needs to change, the athletes need to be educated on horsemanship not just how to get around a set of fences and staying alive!
  • The officials and coaches need the same education. The whole sport has a culture of horses being used for the sake of it being in the sport. The officials don’t see it any different and that needs to change in order to uphold the rules in place.
  • Standards need to be raised, globally. Pentathlon GB showed their one of the best in the showjumping phase of modern pentathlon, with all 4 athletes (men and women) having good rounds and showing the sport in a better light. As a nation we do not allow athletes to compete in the riding phase, until they have passed an assessment set by the one and only Jabeena Maslin, and I can tell you, she doesn’t make it easy to pass. This standard needs to be rolled out to all pentathlon nations in order to bring the standard up.
  • Until there is a much better universal standard, maybe an alternate can be in place, such as a short dressage test or a smaller course of show jumps.
  • Riders need to learn to praise the horse for their job no matter what the result is. I learnt this from a young age around horses and pentathletes need to do the same.

This was a particularly bad Olympics for Modern Pentathlon riding and maybe more needs to be looked into before people call for the sport to be axed. That said animal welfare is paramount and until it can be guaranteed, things need to be changed, immediately.

Let’s Finish On A Good Note

Although this was a dark time for Modern Pentathlon, the two shining stars for Great Britain were Joe Choong and Kate French! Both taking home the GOLD in MP at the Tokyo Olympics 2020. They had great rounds in the showjumping and ultimately is what secured them these gold medals. I am so happy for both of them knowing how hard they worked for this and glad that there were no British pentathletes at the end of some harshly worded comments on social media. WELL DONE Pentathlon GB!

Closing words

A final shoutout to the Austrian Modern Pentathlete Gustav Gustenau. Having a riding background really shone threw at these Olympics where he rode one of the best rounds I have ever seen from a Modern Pentathlete, jumping a flawless 300 points score inside the time allowed. This round has not had the recognition it deserves… remember guys, he only sat on the horse for the first time 20 minutes ago and jumped round a 120cm course, like it was a Saturday afternoon at Keysoe! Massive kudos to Gustav! (Pictured below). If you haven’t seen his round I would urge you to see it as he shows what pentathletes can be like.

Gustav Gustenau jumping round for a perfect score of 300 inside the time allowed.

24 thoughts on “Should Showjumping Be Part Of Modern Pentathlon?

  1. Mary Gwennap says:

    The most sensible roundup of facts and how to address the problems.
    Facebook is lethal at drumming up lynchings, it’s dangerous .
    Your article puts things into perspective thankyou

    1. Thank you very much for your feedback! Glad you enjoy it. Social media is definitely a powerful and dangerous place at times. It is very sad to see some of the comments online, and hopefully this article helps people to just open up a bit more about their issues, to the right place and in the right way. Thank you very much, once again.

      1. Gemma says:

        Wouldn’t military horses be in a situation more like a cross country or steeplechase course? Wouldn’t they be jumping hedges, crossing water and through gullies more so than show jumping? Personally I think it would be easier to ask an unfamiliar horse to gallop across a field and cross a river more so than showjumping, which takes a lot more skill and relationship between horse and rider.

  2. SueB says:

    Since this pentathlon has roots in the military, I think a WTC dressage test would be more appropriate. Horses were schooled in dressage before going out into battle. The jumps were too high, some of the riders were not up to the level of horse they were riding.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Maybe a dressage test would be a solution, but Modern Pentathlon is also trying to become a spectator’s sport so dressage may not be something they will consider. Very true, some of these riders are not up to standards and that is a major concern that they need to address. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Celia Broad says:

    The competitors did not appear to be accustomed to jumping a course of 120. In all other sports in the Olympics, the competitors are the top of their sport, practising daily. A dressage rider has qualified at competitions, a gymnast too. They all have. You did not see swimmers competing who could hardly swim, tennis players who couldn’t play tennis. How come we see people competing in pentathlon, which includes show jumping, if they are not competent in all the sports which are a part of it?You do not do a triathlon of running, cycling, swimming if you can hardly sit on a bicycle. The Olympics are supposed to be the pinnacle of the sport.
    On top of all this we have the poor horse, who is a sentient being, who through no fault of his own, is the one who really suffers. He puts his trust into the rider. He is let down, they don’t know what they are doing and it causes him fear and pain as he crashes through the jump. The horse should never have been asked to go back into the arena after the upset with the Russian rider. A far lower jumping course, a different sport or requiring the competitors to have better riding skills would all be solutions in my opinion.

    1. You’re right! Many of these athletes are not used to jumping 1.20 tracks. Most other senior international events are at around 1 meter – 1.05. The Olympics is a massive step up for these athletes and they are not used to it, as you can see. Unfortunately, as you have mentioned, there needs to be a change in the sport and hopefully this will force the UIPM to make the changes ASAP. Thank you very much for your comment.

    2. Shari says:

      Agree 100%!

  4. Angela Fallowfield says:

    Such a sensible article. It would be a pity to see changes in the format of the modern pentathlon as, proved by the British, it is possible to achieve with proper training. Having said that, I’m sure nobody wants to see a similar exhibition at other events and unless they can tighten up the rules internationally, I really think some changes should be made………the problem is, however much easier you make the riding bit, the less some competitors will think it worth training for! However, the welfare of the horses must be paramount and if the officials on the day aren’t prepared to take a more stringent attitude, i.e. removing Saint Boy and bringing in a substitute after his first disastrous round, then I think the only alternative is to put them on bicycles instead – or maybe let them do a session of breakdancing!
    p.S. we all rode each other’s ponies and jumped them over about 4 feet at Pony Club but we always had the likes of Jabeena Maslin keeping a stern eye on us!

    1. Thank you very much for your kind comment. It definitely would be a shame to see the format of Modern Pentathlon change, but unfortunately it clearly needs to happen. You’re spot on about the athletes putting less emphasis on the riding. Lowering the height will just result in less training for the riding phase. I would love to see some of these athletes try some breakdancing!
      It is a unique sport and I believe it requires a unique approach to solve this blatant issue. I am sue the UIPM will be investigating and ensuring the same issue doesn’t happen again. Thank you very much for your comment.

  5. Kathryn Duguid says:

    Thank you for a clear and well thought out comment on the Modern Pentathlon, it was much appreciated. There are other instances where you ride a horse you don’t know eg exams and sometimes , under pressure, things don’t quite go to plan. This should not result in a total rider meltdown and certainly not at Olympic level.

    The horses were fit and capable competitive showjumpers used to jumping at a high level; unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, the riders were not up to an acceptable standerd and the poor horses must have been mystified as to what was happening on top.

    I think it would be a pity to drop the Riding element in Modern Pentathlon but the happenings in Tokyo need to be looked at and changes need to be made.

    “Complete not compete” exactly! What a way to view an imporatant element of your sport –
    – the standerd of riding and horsemanship must be raised – if this means passing an internationally recognised assessment or exam – so be it.
    – if it means a rider being eliminated during the warm up – so be it.

    My personal whinge is riders who do not praise and thank the horse – I’d give them a penalty for that!

    The horses could be less high powered: more like good quality, well schooled riding school types who would perhaps be more stoic and forgiving, this and an appropriate lowering of the height of the jumps should also help.

    This problem will not go away and must be dealt with and seen to be dealt with by the general public.

    1. I really appreciate your comment, thank you very much. Absolutely, the riders need educating on horsemanship and learning to respect the horses. Love the idea of not praising the horse results in penalty! The concept of different heights is also a great idea! Maybe the UIPM will take these on board? Who knows, but one thing that is for sure is that they will definitely be changing how the riding portion of the sport works. Once again, thank you very much for your comment and great ideas!

      1. Lize Boshoff says:

        Very well written article. It seems clear to me the rules are at fault. I am an equestrian show jumping athlete competing since the age of 6.
        I believe that the rules should be aligned with the FEI and national rules for show jumping. These rules are in place to safeguard the horses and athletes during competition to avoid serious conflict between riders and horses and potential injury for both.
        The rules have evolved with the sport and the horses over time and the quality of the horses changed with modern breeding to provide the equestrian athlete we need to negotiate technical modern courses .
        Modern fence design and the course design has changed significantly over 100 years.
        Today’s Showjumping is a sport much more nuanced than galloping across a field and through rivers and negotiating natural obstacles in the path.

        A rider horse combination is eliminated on a second refusal to jump or go forward in FEI (Fédération Equestrian International) rules and most national federations rules are aligned with this.

        A rider is eliminated after a fall from a horse.

        When I was younger elimination after a fall was not yet a rule and I can say from personal experience that once you have fallen during a competitive round remounting and continuing that round has not resulted in good sport aside from the clear danger of continuing to perform with a potential head injury.

        The quality and beauty of the sport is undermined when you have rules which force combination to continue when there are refusals and falls.

        Align your sport with the excepted and internationally enforced equestrian rules, is that not the most logical?

        One can’t keep the same rules from 100 years ago, equestrian sport has move on, we are no longer asking horses to galloping across fields, through rivers and jumping natural obstacles they encounter along their straight path.
        It must be understood that modern show jumping has changed from something a horse might find natural when galloping in a straight path jumping natural obstacles. Modern jumping is asking complex questions, the obstacles (fences) are often optically challenging for the horses and they need a riders assistance to understand that they need to jump the fence and when to take off. Also the biomechanics of a horse requires him to approach a fence straight and with enough speed to be able to physically jump.
        If the rider does not steer the horse along a course to approach the fences with enough speed and in a straight line for the last few strides it would make it physically impossible for him or her to jump that fence.

        But horse refusing seems to be seen as an emotional refusal from the horse or a unwillingness to co-operate …this is very far from the truth in most cases if the horse refuses it can indicate the rider does not have the ability to place the horse in front of the fence straight and with enough impulsion to clear the obstacle.
        So thé horse either has to crash through the jump or refuse.
        This is why 2 refusal is an elimination because it indicates that this horse rider combination cannot reach the correct biomechanics for the horse to negotiate the obstacle successfully.

        So if there is no elimination after refusals I’m sorry but you will not have good sport.
        Lowering the height won’t encourage the athletes to learn to ride. But eliminating them after 2 or 3 refusals will encourage them to start taking ownership of their responsibility to place the horses in a position where they can jump clear instead of trying to force horses through obstacles.

        The rules around refusals and falls need to be aligned with modern Showjumping rules or there will be no change in the outcome at following competitions.
        I think it will be a shame if they remove the horses from your sport but you need to update your rules to reflect the consideration for the horses. Poor riding is encouraged when you don’t eliminate combination who refuse jumps and fall.

        There is no good reason to have different rules for the jumping phase of this sport if they are competing on modern sport horses over a course of 1.20m using Showjumping obstacles.

  6. Joanie Watson says:

    This was a very fair and objective autopsy of what went on. Kudos to you for pulling it together! One question, how is the poor horse Saint Boy doing and who does he belong to?

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. Saint Boy is owned by a yard in Japan. He is back home now and the UIPM have released a statement about the horses well being (although this too has caused many issues). You can see Saint Boy and the UIPM statement here:
      Thank you for your comment.

      1. Atf says:

        Except that photo is an entirely different horse, taken with bare winter trees in the background. It’s summer in Japan!

    2. ATF says:

      Well UIPM posted a picture that is mean to be “saint boy”
      On Facebook. Except that that horse has a slight club foot and a white ring around it’s hoof – and the photo shows bare winter trees. It’s summer in Japan! So that tells me all I need to know about their governing body.

  7. Jo says:

    Great article. If it were to continue, with hopefully lowered height and better standards, I would still hope that there would be no spurs or whips allowed, as they should only be there for refinement of aids used by sensitive, trained riders.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jo! You’re not wrong, whips and spurs maybe do need to taken out of the equation. The one thing I do know, is that the owner of the horse actually tells the athlete/rider whether to use spurs and/or a whip. But still, you’re right they need to learn to ride properly before going anything further.

  8. Grace O'Malley says:

    Brilliant article…good old fashioned horse sense if you’ll pardon the pun!!!! I find it sad and appalling that these athletes are so poorly trained and as a horse lover am shocked that only 20 minutes is spent in the company of the horse before the competition. Horses are sentient beings and need to be given time to know and trust a rider before asking them to compete at this level. I also question the wisdom of sharing horses. Surely one rider per horse would have been fairer on both riders and horses? Hopefully this debacle will send the authorities back to the drawing board and result in a higher standard of competition in future.

  9. Ann says:

    I’ve been following this for a few days now. I would wonder why the male riders had an easier time of it. Also, for alternative s to show jumping, some habe suggested a Prix Caprilli basically a dressage test with a couple of not too high jumps, or something like an American trail class with obstacles that all horses should be familiar with.

  10. Cricket Stone says:

    You make great points and I agree with the need for change. Since MP has its roots in the military, why not a cross country ride like to old roads and tracks phase of eventing? No big jumps – but a timed ride in which the horse/rider has to negotiate natural obstacles such as a stream crossing, small logs to jump, bridges, etc. I know there is a push to make it more spectator friendly so an actual cross country ride might be out, but a trail class with obstacles is certainly doable within the confines of the area.

    Congratulations to Great Britain for the victories!

  11. Having seen both of the rounds by Saint Boy, it was obvious the horse’s brain was fried by the Russian rider. He should have been retired from the competition after that. He did give Annika a few good fences, but when she got him to a bad spot, the horse –rightly– decided he was done. I watched a number of other rounds and was appalled by the riding from the women. They were overfaced and underskilled. Those horses were saintly for getting around that course more or less safely. There is no need for the riders to jump 1.2 meters in the competition as a way of showing their “horsemanship” as it did anything but. If Modern Pentathlon believes it is necessary to have an equestrian component, the test should be scaled way back. I agree that a Prix Caprilli type test would be much more suitable and safer for all involved.

  12. Lisa says:

    It’s very interesting that the athletes jump a lower height in normal competition. If I’m not mistaken, Olympic Eventers are not jumping cross country fences built at the maximum height for the sport. Five star***** competition fences are bigger. If they aren’t jumping maximum fences why in the world would you ask athletes who aren’t specialists in jumping to jump fences that are bigger than what they’re used to? 3’ to 3’3” seems to be the point where you need to have enough skill to aid the horse by seeing a distance and adjusting the stride. As you clearly know, the difference between jumping a 3’ and a 3’9” course is huge. Why would they do this to the athletes ( and especially to the poor horses who have to haul them over the fences!)?

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