A Belgian trainer who whipped a pony during a cross country clinic in South Africa after its refusal to tackle a jump has been suspended and fined.
Joris Vanspringel’s treatment of Sherwill Valerian in an effort to get the pony over a jump left his owner in tears.
The young rider described how Vanspringel – a veteran of four Olympic Games and two World Equestrian Games – had handed her back a broken whip and walked off.
Vanspringel has since apologised over his treatment of Valerian, saying if he could turn back time he would.
The circumstances of the incident were considered by the FEI Tribunal after a formal complaint was lodged by the South African Equestrian Federation, which alleged Vanspringel’s conduct amounted to horse abuse.
The tribunal, comprising Laurent Niddam, Henrik Arle and Constance Popineau, after considering the evidence, ruled that Vanspringel’s treatment of Sherwill Valerian amounted to horse abuse.
He was suspended for nine months from the date of the decision, fined 3000 Swiss francs, and ordered to contribute 3000 francs towards the cost of the proceedings.
Vanspringel’s cross-country clinic took place at Fourways Riding Centre in South Africa on November 17 last year. The clinic was attended by Hannah Francine Corbet Boulle and her mother, Sara Zoe Corbet Boulle.
Hannah, a minor, was riding Sherwill Valerian.
Hannah described how, at one point during the clinic, she had made several unsuccessful attempts to get Valerian to tackle a jump. Vanspringel asked if he could try and Hannah agreed.
Her borrowed her stick and spurs and, after getting Valerian moving forward, attempted the jump. Valerian stopped.
“Joris smacked him very hard and tried again and again,” Hannah told the tribunal.
“Valerian kept stopping and he kept smacking him very hard and started pulling the bit right through his mouth.
“Valerian started getting welts on the side that Joris was smacking him on. I told Joris to stop but he ignored me or didn’t hear me. After more attempts, Valerian kept stopping.
“Joris kept hitting him hard and pulling on the bit very hard. I told him that Valerian was very tired and that he wasn’t going to jump. Joris replied that he would do it once more; he didn’t, he tried more than once.
“After a few more attempts he got off, he handed me the pony and broken whip and left. I took my pony, put my stirrups up, loosened his girth, undid his bridle and checked his sides.
“When I got to the top Joris handed me my spurs and walked off again.”
When Hannah arrived at the trailer she told her mother what had happened.
Sara Boulle described how her daughter had arrived in tears. “She told me Joris had beaten Valerian and was being so rough with his hands the bit had been pulled through Valerian’s mouth.
“She showed me her whip that had been broken in two. Valerian had huge, tender lumps on his right side behind the saddle and sores both sides of his mouth. He also looked absolutely exhausted. I noticed he had lost his front right shoe.”
Sara described how things had been going well earlier in the lesson, with Valerian working over the cross-country and showjumping fences.
“The pony does have a stop in him but Joris was giving Hannah great advice and said the pony was cheeky, which he is …”
She had seen, at a distance, Vanspringel’s initial attempts to get Valerian over a fence after his refusals when Hannah was riding him.
“I was watching from the above field but my horse had had enough, as by this point I had been on him for quite a long time so I decided to take him back to the trailer.”
It was 20 or 30 minutes later that Hannah arrived with Valerian.
The South African Equestrian Federation received a written complaint about Vanspringel’s handling of Valerian. It handed the complaint to the FEI because Vanspringel was registered under the Belgian National Federation.
Together with the protest, the South African federation also provided photos and a video clip filmed by Shannon Smeddle who was present and witnessed the incident. There were also written statements from Hannah and Sara Boulle.
The South African body, in its protest, said it believed the supplied material, including affidavits, photos and video, was self-explanatory.
“Any athlete displaying the behaviour as seen in the video clip in any competitive or warm-up arena would be instantly yellow-carded and face disciplinary investigation,” it asserted.
“The South African Equestrian Federation does not believe that because you are not in competition that this behaviour is acceptable.
“This behaviour is even more disturbing when it is displayed in front of a minor, who is looking up to such a person to be a role model.”
The tribunal said, in essence, that Vanspringel did not deny the allegations.
“I felt very sad after reading the complaint concerning the allegation of horse abuse,” he told the tribunal.
He said he had been a professional rider, trainer and teacher for more than 30 years, and this had never happened to him before.
He outlined the circumstances leading up to him riding Valerian, explaining that he had lowered the fence and had made it as easy as possible, but the pony had still refused to jump.
“I was asked by the attendant of the young girl to ride the horse. She gave me her cap, her spurs and her whip. I really wanted to help this young girl but what I did on the pony is not who I am, and I feel terribly bad and sorry about it. Still today.
“Like I said before, I’ve been training all these years so many combinations and never did I disrespect the horse (or rider). I’ve never received any warning, yellow card or allegations of horse abuse. If I could turn back time I would, but that is impossible.
“I sincerely want to apologize to everyone that is involved in this case. This will never happen to me again, of that you can be sure. I am too much of a horseman for that.”
The FEI, in its submission, said it had carefully watched the video, which was only 12 seconds long. Vanspringel can be seen striking the horse repeatedly in an effort to make it jump. The FEI counted 8 strikes, some of them against the head of the horse.
In addition, there are several photographs which show marks on the horse, damage to the mouth, and the stick broken in two pieces.
“Mr Vanspringel is a very experienced rider and horse owner, namely, he has participated in four Olympic Games, two World Equestrian Games, and seven European Championships. The behaviour seen in the video has no place in equestrian sport and especially not from a rider with this great experience.”
The FEI said it considered the evidence presented amounted to horse abuse.
At the final hearing, Hannah was asked about Valerian’s refusals when she was riding him. She admitted that she had given him a tap on the shoulder, but believes nowhere else.
She also confirmed that she used the spurs, as her legs were not strong enough.
Vanspringel further explained that he had been asked to ride the pony, and was given the whip and spurs, which he claimed had been previously used by Hannah.
He indicated that he rode the pony for between 5 to 10 minutes (whereas the video showed only 12 seconds), and that he made three unsuccessful attempts to jump the fence with the pony.
He did not contest having used the whip. However, the video only showed him hitting Valerian with the whip on the shoulder, but not any whipping of the back of the pony. Nor was the whip on the video broken.
According to him, he used a loose rein, the pony’s head was still in front of the body, and there was no video footage available of any spur abuse or the alleged jabbing. Neither did a veterinary report exist.
Furthermore, the photo material did not illustrate the pony prior to him mounting it. He was convinced that Hannah must have whipped the pony whilst trying to jump.
Since there was no video or photo material from before or after these attempts by Hannah, it was unknown whether the marks on the pony were already present before he mounted the pony.
Nevertheless, he realized that his use of the whip was not acceptable; his intention was not to cause the pony any pain, but to merely help the pony and the girl.
It was important that only the whipping of the shoulder of the pony had been proven in this case, he submitted.
The FEI argued that the video by itself was sufficient proof of horse abuse; the pictures were only adding to the facts which are not shown in the video.
Further, when looking at the video in slow motion, a clear jab in the mouth can be seen, and the head of the pony goes left and right.
The tribunal, in its decision, said it noted the pictures presented in evidence, and Vanspringel’s claim that there was no evidence that the marks on the pony were caused by him.
“The tribunal agrees that there is no evidence of the state of the pony before it was handed over to Mr Vanspringel,” it said, “but there is no evidence on the record and Mr Vanspringel did not attest that he saw Ms Hannah Boulle hit the horse in a way that could have caused the welt marks that can be seen on the photos.”
It ruled that the video, the photos and Hannah’s affidavit were sufficient to conclude that Vanspringel had abused Valerian. He had undoubtedly caused pain or unnecessary discomfort to the pony, it said, before imposing the suspension, fine and costs.