Medals before animal welfare.
This year’s Olympic games has caused huge controversy over horse welfare during the showjumping phases of the Modern Pentathlon. Both the men’s and the women’s competitions were horrendous to watch as horse after horse suffered abuse. Inept riding mistakes causing falls and crashes into fences, tempers directed at the animal and flagrant misuse of the aids. (whip, spurs and hands) Saint Boy will become a name no one will forget.
All participants of the Olympic Games are there by choice- it is voluntary. However, the horses being used have no choice, they are there because they are tools to gain medals. Horses are not volunteers.
For the last decade, there has been deepening concerns about the use of horses in the Olympic Games. In a nutshell, it is based on man’s desire to gain a medal by using sentient animals as a tool to achieve the result. Therein lies the problem- the line between our responsibility for the emotional and physical welfare of the animal and the reinforcement of achieving that highly prized medal.
In the Modern Pentathlon, there is a pool of horses provided for the competitors, chosen by the committee. The riders are given 20 minutes to warm up with that horse before they go into the arena to compete. The horses are literally tools. No relationship between rider and horse. No trust is built up through ownership longevity and no responsibility for the emotional fallout to the animal after the event. The riders are given the horse, a whip to cause pain with, a pair of metal spurs on their boots to dig into the horse’s ribs at will. The overuse of which caused significant bruising, accompanying pain (and occasionally blood on the ripped skin surface) and off they go. What does this say about humans? Dear God!!!
This whole issue was proved in Japan last month where a huge line in animal welfare boundaries was crossed on an International platform. The world watched complete brutality, inept riding skills and misjudgements causing suffering to the horses caught between a rock and a hard place. The Modern Pentathlon was appalling to watch.
During the women’s round, we witnessed poor judgements at the distances needed to jump the obstacles. The horses scrapped themselves over the fences in a bid to get out of trouble, knocking poles off left, right and center. The riders were not balanced and their standard of horsemanship and skill set was diabolical. They used the reins to hang on to causing real suffering to those horses because the bits sawed their tongues and bruised their mouths. It was all so erratic and disgraceful.
Then came Saint Boy! He was abused so badly at the hands of his 2 riders- the first round Russian rider Gulnaz Gudaydullina rode him so badly that he lost all confidence and refused to jump. She dragged him about by the mouth, kicking his ribs violently and spurring him to force him to go. She failed to force him around the course, got eliminated and left him traumatised and highly stressed. Unbelievably, Saint Boy was not retired from the competition and was then brought back in by German Rider Annika Schleu. What the organisers were thinking is beyond me! The Modern Pentathlon Governing body is ultimately responsible for these decisions which turned out to be grossly unfair on both the horse and his second rider. This poor girl was in Gold position at the start of the show jumping round, which is the very last section of the Pentathlon- the medals are won or lost in this final section.
Saint Boy rode into the arena covered in sweat, wide-eyed, nostrils flared and erratic from the very start. Clearly, he had been given a very hard time behind the scenes “to make him concentrate” after that first round.
Right from the off Saint Boy was in a really bad place emotionally and refused to even enter the arena. It was a train wreck from the beginning to its pitiful end. Try as she may, Saint Boy was beyond himself, displaying every type of conflict behaviour in the textbook. At one point we saw her hit him 9 times with her whip as he backed up trying to escape. To make matters worse, the Pentathlon team coach was heard to scream at Annika to hit him harder! #horseabuse
When he reversed close to the coach she actually threw a connecting punch at the horse over the rails which the whole world witnessed (she was immediately sacked and did not participate in her role for the upcoming men’s section) Eventually Annika forced Saint Boy away from the arena rails but he simply could not jump, falling into fences, refusing, spinning away and threatening to rear- such a pity he did not deck her!
The girl was crying of cause. To her, it was the end of the world. This horse was destroying all she had dreamed of and worked so hard to achieve. I get that. I really understand how awful it was for her to find herself in that position- but like it or not, she was riding a sentient being who suffered terrible abuse in her hands. She had no choice but to retire. He was literally dragged away, disappeared from the view of the camera and no vet was seen to examine him. Who knows what happened to him after that.
The whole competition was disgusting and highlighted all the worse behaviours that man can aim at horses in competition. Sadly there was more to come!!!!
In the Men’s showjumping section, we saw rider after rider ploughing their horses into fence after fence, burying them in too deep so the horses had no chance of clearing the fences. Overtly aggressive riding was to the fore, overuse of whip and spurs and tempers flared against the horses. The lack of skill at that level was a disgrace as we witnessed horses falling and struggling and getting hurt yet being made to carry on- all because the end game result was put before the welfare of the horses.
As a competition, the Modern Pentathlon does not fall under the FEI umbrella so the horses were not, and are not, protected by any of the strict welfare guidelines nor veterinary protocols in place which protect the Eventing, Dressage and Showjumping horses. Under FEI rules if a horse falls it is retired. If the rider comes off, the rider is eliminated. There are strict rules governing the use (and overuse) of the whip and spurs and the misuse of the metal bit and reins attached to the bridle which sits inside the horse’s mouth. Not so with the Modern Pentathlon. Falling horses were not even checked over for injury! Even despite being winded by the fall, they were just mounted again and ridden on irrespectively as was witnessed in the World Games.
So now there is a huge hue and cry to stop using horses at all under the Olympic banner altogether. PETA has a huge petition on the go as we speak demanding this change in the rules. I don’t agree with this but I certainly do agree that The Modern Pentathlon has to make big changes. The horse section MUST be protected under the FEI rule book and veterinary care must be the same for these pooled horses as is present for the other equestrian sections.
Conflict behaviour (CB) is a response exhibited by animals that experience difficulty coping with mental or physical discomfort and is most often demonstrated as some form of resistance to handling or training cues and/or equipment.
These include wide eyed expression, open mouth behaviours, crossing the jaw, pulling down on the reins to gain release from pressure. Tail swishing at the feel of a disliked aid given by the rider. Avoidance behaviours will include reversing, bucking, rearing or threatening to rear, spinning and running backwards. Abject stress signs include wide eyes, flared nostrils, profuse sweating. Open mouth, very high head carriage, stiffness in the poll, neck or spine. The physiology shows increased heart and respiratory rates and heightened cortisol/adrenaline levels.
“In equestrian sport, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) code of conduct for the welfare of the horse stipulates that “… horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and level of maturity for their respective disciplines.” What about the standard of the riders?