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Olympics

The Horses Are Not Having It

CHOFU, JAPAN - AUGUST 06: Ieda Guimaraes of Team Brazil riding Caleansiena YH falls at a jump in the Riding Show Jumping of the Women's Modern Pentathlon on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on August 06, 2021 in Chofu, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Earlier in these Olympics, while watching dressage (the horses whom prance), I observed that, in my considered opinion, the horses were doing most or all of the work and their riders were merely coaches at best, and thus that the horses—and not the humans—should get the medals and the glory and the Wheaties boxes. The Horse People did not like this; my Twitter mentions were rendered unusable for a day. But the horses have come to my aid. The horses are on strike.

The modern pentathlon consists of five different disciplines: fencing, swimming, show jumping (the horse one), and a combined event of shooting and cross-country running. Pentathlon is the weirdest Olympic sport, I don’t think there’s any debate about it. According to pentathlon lore, the mix represents the skills needed by soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. Sure, whatever. But what that also means is that in show jumping—unlike in the other Olympic equestrian sports—riders don’t get to bring their own horses. They are randomly assigned a horse from the horse pool. And if the horse doesn’t feel like jumping? Then that horse isn’t going to freakin’ jump.

That’s Ireland’s Natalya Coyle, who was in fourth place in the standings before a disastrous score of 234 (out of 300) in the show jumping bumped her down to 19th. But more importantly, that’s Constantin the horse, whose refusal to jump a number of hurdles and general orneriness put the lie to the idea that the horses aren’t doing the real work out there.

Constantin was on one today: Earlier in the event, he had been assigned to Uzbek rider Alise Fakhrutdinova and similarly refused to play along, slapping her with a brutal 226 score.

But Constantin has nothing on Saint Boy, the horse assigned to Germany’s Annika Schleu, who entered the event with a commanding lead for the gold. Saint Boy had something to say about that.

Schleu dropped from first place to 31st after Saint Boy decided he knew better than she did. After the event, the pentathlon world (such that it exists) is up in arms over the practice of randomly assigning horses, arguing that it introduces an element of randomness that is unfair to (human) competitors. It is obviously frustrating for an Olympian to have their performances in the non-horse events wiped away by the whims of a cantankerous horse, but there’s a reason why Katie Ledecky didn’t need to get out of the pool after her 800-meter freestyle and ride a horse in order to keep her gold medal. The reason is that it’s dumb to mix horse sports and people sports in one big event. Whoever designed the modern pentathlon should spend some time today thinking about that.

But also: If you can’t make the horse do the jumps—if the horse only does the jumps if it wants to—what are you even doing up there? What skill is involved? Are you not just the world’s biggest frauds, exposed for everyone to see by the horses who do the actual work?

Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

In conclusion, the riders are merely passengers, the horses are the athletes and they should receive the medals instead of the people sitting helplessly on their backs, who are actually competing in the for-now-unrecognized sport of Making A Horse Slightly Heavier. There’s a reason you don’t need a driver’s license to take the bus.