The Fall Out from Saint Boy: Where Next for Equestrian Competition?

Written by Hazel Heaton BHSAI UKCC 2


Summary: The equestrian sports part of the the Tokyo Olympics 2020 Modern Pentathlon generated a great deal of public discourse over perceived cruelty, centered around the treatment of a horse called Saint Boy. This article looks at the way that the videos of Saint Boy’s treatment were used to raise a larger question of welfare for equines in sport and makes some suggestions about how equine sports could be changed to be more sensitive to the physical and psychological needs of horses.

In August this year, welfare in equestrian sports got pushed in to the limelight by the events of the modern pentathlon, a discipline on the fringes of our world, in a way no one could have predicted.

Within hours of German pentathlete Annika Schleu’s round at the Tokyo Olympics, images of her attempts at persuading Saint Boy to tackle the showjumping course, as well as the now infamous shot of her coach Kim Reisner “punching” the horse’s hind quarters over the arena barrier, were circulating on social media and even taking up column space in newspapers.

At the time I wrote a piece on social media, referencing Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” as testimony to the mistreatment horses have suffered for centuries, and questioning how, more than 100 years on from first publication, we are still fighting the same battle on their behalf.

Predictably the outcry died down within a few weeks, and although it does appear changes to modern pentathlon are being looked at and public awareness of the treatment of horses in all disciplines has certainly been heightened, there was no further action taken against Annika Schleu. Kim Reisner was banned from the event.

Uncomfortable as it was to watch the ineffective, unpleasant, and indefensible actions of coach and rider, I felt it was important to give a balanced view of the events that led to so much negative publicity for the athlete who was in gold medal position when entering the arena. Judgement was rife not only from the general public and those who are already requesting change within equine competition, but also from members of the industry who are sometimes quick to deflect concerns within their own sport. Alongside the criticism there were a number of voices assuring those concerned that there was no abuse here – that horses have thicker skins than us, that they are larger and stronger, and that Saint Boy was indeed being “naughty” and needed taking in hand. The confident stating of such inaccurate information is a good indication of the education required if we are to see an improvement to welfare standards in equestrian competition.

Although these voices were in the minority on social media, the reality is that the treatment of Saint Boy at Tokyo in August 2021 is mirrored by numerous riders, owners and trainers at events every week, from small children at local activities to high-profile competitions. The reason it drew criticism from so many was primarily the very public stage on which it was performed. In addition, the appearance of a comparatively “novice” rider competing at a professional level made the discomfort and anxiety seen on Saint Boy’s face much less palatable than the same expression on a small pony at a local children’s show. I have certainly seen horses struck far harder than the “punch” delivered by Kim Reisner and seen far harsher riding than Annika Schleu’s – often allowed or instructed by professionals as well as those less experienced, with no apparent intervention by officials.

So, if we want to see the welfare of competition horses improve, where do we begin?

My own opinion is that to create sustainable, tangible change we have to understand why actions that appear to clearly be abusive and harsh happen at all, and why it goes unchallenged or even unnoticed by fellow competitors and stewards.

Equine sport is unique because it involves us partnering a sentient being – abuse toward a tennis racket is likely of no consequence to anyone except the owner, but the emotion that drives abusive behaviour toward an “underperforming” horse by a frustrated rider is still the same. Competition venues are a breeding ground for riders to feel under pressure to succeed – both for personal (emotional) and professional (financial) reasons – as well as a novel and potentially worrying environment for the horse. Therefore achieving genuine change in the competition arena is more complex than asking stewards and judges to eliminate those guilty of abusive riding or handling and requires a multipronged approach working from grass roots upward. It requires a shift of mindset for riders toward a more compassionate view of the behaviour of the horse. It requires the upholding of rules that are in place to prevent mistreatment of equines. And it requires a change to the structure of competition to avoid the frequent scenario of horses being unable to cope with the demands placed on them at events.

As always, education is surely key. For there to be a shift toward a more horse -entred competition environment, there has to be an increase in the awareness of trainers and riders of the behavioural signs of a horse who is struggling to cope physically or emotionally. But people also need a toolkit to support and train in a horse-focused manner. What appears as abusive or harsh training methods to those familiar with systematic training and a LIMA approach may be the only tools available to someone who has not had access to horse-centred training methods. Striking a horse with a whip and pulling the bit through their mouth seems a violent and ineffective choice to anyone with a different option, but when those methods are the only ones that have been taught it is unsurprising that we see them so frequently.

A shift in the understanding of behaviour, and a more ethical approach to training, can only reach the majority of riders via the organisations responsible for training and competition. This of course needs to be coupled with stronger implementation of horse welfare rules throughout competition, but I believe organisations need to be supported by behavioural associations – firstly to encourage them to acknowledge and publicise the communicational meaning of unwanted behaviour to their members but also to design and promote training and environments where the horse’s emotional and behavioural needs are observed and met, from leisure riding to formal training and competition. The Paralympics permit a “friendly horse” to accompany competition horses to the dressage arena. Whilst this might seem a very small step, it would certainly be one in the right direction if it could start to be introduced at other events – perhaps for young horses – acknowledging that horses are herd animals and that functioning in the environment of an arena where they are alone is a lot to ask. Factors like this are, in my experience, completely overlooked in the preparation of training competition horses, and a horse calling to his friends while in the arena is a regular source of annoyance to riders who are not aware of why the behaviour is occurring.

Introducing new riders to the sport with a more horse centred approach is easy in comparison to changing attitudes of those already competing. If the adaption of existing centres could be encouraged, or new ones created, with a LIMA approach supported, we would quickly see a new generation of riders who have learnt to train horses with an approach consisting of high horse welfare and never been told to hit, kick or pull at their ponies. An introductory LIMA based development pathway and perhaps certificates for those new to horses, covering topics such as equine behaviour, ethology, learning theory and groundwork in a safe environment, showing how force is not required if the correct foundations are laid – a principle that should be carried forward if clients begin ridden work – would be popular with clients and proprietors alike.

My experience has been that riders trained with a horse-centred approach are not only quicker to observe signs of uncertainty in horses but also feel comfortable accepting these behaviours as a signal for swapping to an alternative task that the horse is confident performing, or creating a shaping plan to achieve the original task with R+. Actions such as those shown by Anneka Scheule are not an instinctive behaviour – they have come about because that is how she has been taught to influence a horse.

Working with competition venues and encouraging an increase in training shows or adding training classes at events, and promoting force-free methods with the emphasis on confidence and relaxation would be beneficial in encouraging riders and trainers to take more time with young and underperforming horses. Education for less experienced riders at events would also go a long way toward encouraging people to understand their horse’s behaviour as a communication and to respond more compassionately. Pony Club Australia led the way with a wonderful “R U OK – Horse edition” social media post in 2020, listing behaviours that riders could view as equine communication rather than an irritation.

I also feel there is potential for grassroots and training organisations – especially organisations responsible for training children with their own ponies – to take a more active approach in preventing overfacing of combinations and educating riders. So often behaviour born out of frustration, fear, or embarrassment takes the form of young riders hitting, kicking, and pulling at their much-loved ponies. Whilst in an ideal world this would never have been an action taught to them, in reality “stronger riding” is still encouraged to solve problems.

How does preventing those situations present in the real world? In practical terms, requiring the horse and rider to complete a series of appropriate basic tasks at a lower level while remaining relaxed, responsive, and confident before the combination is permitted to move forward to a more challenging environment would ensure the horse is able to cope with the pressure of a competition setting without raising stress to an unacceptable level.

Whilst this approach is unlikely to be adopted at higher-level competitions in the foreseeable future I do believe grassroots events, riding clubs, and pony clubs could be approached with infographics and perhaps the offer of subsidised training with a view to seeing real change in the short term – with creative thinking this can be made a fun, educational part of the day for lower levels and children, encouraging and rewarding them for recognising their horse’s emotional state and allowing them to take responsibility for whether a more challenging environment is appropriate for them both on that occasion.

Whilst it is easy to feel that change at high-level events is out of reach, and can only be addressed by officials, much can be done via the education of grassroots riders. Many of them will go on to be competitive riders at a higher level and take forward the principles learnt in their early days, which they then teach to others.

Finally, the surest way to see change is to lead by example. The more riders seen out on well-trained, well-balanced, well-presented horses tackling tasks publicly (not necessarily competitively) with confidence and style and without the need for force, the sooner others will follow.

Hazel Heaton BHSAI UKCC 2 is a freelance coach and owner of Nine Acres Training Centre in Norfolk, England where she hosts practical clinics and workshops with a range of other trainers for children and adults who wish to gain R+ experience working with established horses. As a previous competitive rider she has always enjoyed working sympathetically with horses written off as difficult, and now has a strong interest in supporting clients transitioning from traditional methods to a more horse-centred approach. 

TO CITE: Heaton, H. (2021) The fall out from Saint Boy: Where next for equestrian competition? The IAABC Foundation Journal 22, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj22.6