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Olympics

Horse Innocent!

CHOFU, JAPAN - AUGUST 06: Annika Schleu of Team Germany looks dejected following her run in the Riding Show Jumping of the Women's Modern Pentathlon on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Well well well. One of the willful horses whose supposedly bad behavior threw the show jumping portion of the women’s modern pentathlon into chaos last week has, it turns out, been vindicated.

Saint Boy—the horse who, to hear many in the pentathlon community tell it, unfairly screwed everything up for a couple blameless riders including Germany’s Annika Schleu—was cast as a cantankerous party pooper, his sullen misbehavior tragically costing Schleu an Olympic medal. And while it was hard not to feel bad for Schleu, bobbing tearfully around the arena in a manner that provided instant meme fodder, the narrative around Saint Boy ignores a couple pretty important facts—for example, it was the rider’s fault!

On BBC, Olympic medalist Samantha Murray gently broke down how Schleu’s “rider error” and lack of composure led to the poor performance.

“You need to be very decisive with what you’re going to do when you’re riding,” Murray said. “So in the moments when she was crying and panicking, I understand why she was like that, but you just wish she would have let her reins loose a bit and rode more with her leg, really give the horse as much positivity as possible. Ride forward, encouragement.”

Another important fact to consider when evaluating why Saint Boy was perhaps reluctant to carry a hysterical stranger over some large obstacles was that he was being harassed not only by his rider, but also that rider’s coach, Kim Raisner, who actually hit the horse during competition! Raisner was subsequently kicked out of the Olympics.

The executive board of the sport’s governing body, Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, said in a statement: “The EB reviewed video footage that showed Ms. Raisner appearing to strike the horse Saint Boy, ridden by Annika Schleu, with her fist during the riding discipline of the women’s modern pentathlon competition. Her actions were deemed to be in violation of the UIPM competition rules, which are applied to all recognized modern pentathlon competitions including the Olympic Games.”

Not that Saint Boy needs any further vindication, but he had also had a bad experience with another rider in the previous round. Russian rider Gulnaz Gubaydullina struggled to get Saint Boy to jump and he “refused” three fences. The modern pentathlon rules state that “if a horse makes 4 refusals or run-outs (total of 4 either refusals and/or runouts) during the entire course in the first round, the pentathlete that has drawn that horse in the following rounds has the option of riding a reserve horse.” Saint Boy’s mistake in the end, was that he was perhaps too obliging, coming up one refusal short of being spared a nightmare ride with Schleu.

The lesson here is that modern pentathlon is indeed deeply unfair—to the horses. Though the horses “audition” for the privilege of having strangers ride them (Reuters reports that the 18 horses used in the competition all vied for a place in the Olympic stable at a test event in 2019), there’s no telling whether they’ll be literally saddled with a subpar rider. The prevailing wisdom is that the rules must change to protect the horse and rider—more warm-up time with the horses, riders bringing their own horses, etc.—but luckily I have an even better rule change: The modern pentathlon show jumping event will be replaced with pferdemädchen, the sport of humans running and jumping on all fours like horses.

You can’t tell me this isn’t more physically impressive than sitting on a stranger’s unhappy horse!