Tokyo 2020 Pentathlon horses under fire as Britain’s Kate French wins gold

Britain's Kate French with her gold medal after winning the women's modern pentathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. At left is silver medalist Laura Asadauskaite, and ar right is bronze medalist Sarolta Kovacs.
Britain’s Kate French with her gold medal after winning the women’s modern pentathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. At left is silver medalist Laura Asadauskaite, and ar right is bronze medalist Sarolta Kovacs. © IOC/Filip Komorous

British athlete Kate French has taken out the gold medal of the women’s modern pentathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games;  Lithuania’s Laura Asadauskaite sprinted to a finish to claim silver, and Sarolta Kovacs of Hungary bagged the bronze.

» Comment: The modern pentathlon might need, for want of a better word, modernizing

The medals were presented by Dr Klaus Schormann, the president of the sport’s governing body, the UIPM. He said it was a historic occasion to have all disciplines of the modern pentathlon taking place in one venue.

» Update: Review of horse jumping phase under way

The Modern Pentathlon was invented by the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. It has its roots in a 19th-century legend, and athletes are challenged to complete five very different elements in a single day. The story goes that a young French cavalry officer was sent on horseback to deliver a message. To complete his mission, he had to ride, fence, shoot, swim and run – the five challenges that face competitors in Modern Pentathlon today. The sport first appeared at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games, while the women’s competition made its debut at Sydney 2000.

There was controversy over the riding discipline of the event, which also includes fencing, laser run (running and shooting), and swimming. Several riders struggled to control their horses on the showjumping course, but Schormann said there was “no basis for athletes to complain”.

» Update: German coach disqualified from Tokyo 2020

“Now we are looking forward to the Men’s Final tomorrow and I must say to those who do not know our sport so well, the presentation of the facility and the horses were of a high quality. Maybe there were a few moments that you would say were not so nice but I tell you – the horses are absolutely excellent.

“We tested them and they were well prepared, and there is no basis for athletes to complain. It is only because of the athletes themselves if they were not successful in some parts of the competition. Nobody from the organising committee should be blamed. Everything was genius, was super, and I’m very happy with Secretary-General Shiny Fang in what we have achieved together with the organising committee.”

Some of the horses used in the women's Modern Pentathlon event at Tokyo 2020 did not earn the praise of their riders. Pictured is Amira Kandil of Egypt riding Pecora.
Some of the horses used in the women’s Modern Pentathlon event at Tokyo 2020 did not earn the praise of their riders. Pictured is Amira Kandil of Egypt riding Pecora, who finished 29th overall. © IOC/Filip Komorous

Only Lithuanian riders Laura Asadauskaite and Gintare Venckauskaite went clear and within the time around the 14-obstacle course. There was disappointment for host nation Japan as Natsumi Takamiya was eliminated and Rena Shimazu incurred 48 penalty points. World champion Anastasiya Prokopenko (BLR) dislodged two rails, giving herself too much to do in the Laser Run.

Those who fell out of contention included Elena Micheli (ITA), Michelle Gulyas (HUN) and Natalya Coyle (IRL), who had been in fourth place.

After a sudden rain shower and the elimination of Marcela Cuaspud of Ecuador and Ieda Guimaraes of Brazil, calm was restored by the Lithuanian pair of Laura Asadauskaite and Gintare Venckauskaite, both of whom achieved perfect scores of 300. It was a relief for Asadauskaite after her elimination in Riding at Rio 2016.

There were solid rides from Elodie Clouvel (FRA) and her team-mate Marie Oteiza, Marina Carrier of Australia, Alice Sotero (ITA), Sarlota Kovacs (HUN), Sehee Kim (KOR) and Uliana Batashova (ROC) – as well as a crucial 294 for Kate French.

All of that might have been immaterial in the destination of the gold medal if the last ride of the competition had gone differently. But what ensued was a devastating experience for the outright leader.

Riding Saint Boy, the same horse that had refused to jump several times for Gulnaz Gubaydullina (ROC), Annika Schleu (GER) struggled to persuade her mount to start the round – and it wasn’t long until the horse was refusing to jump. Despite her frantic efforts to calm the horse and the exhortations of her trainers, Schleu finally had to accept defeat – elimination and the end of her medal quest.

Having dominated the 2021 UIPM Pentathlon World Cup season, French was a gold-medal favourite but she had to come from behind after falling a little short of her usual standards in Fencing. The 30-year-old, who finished fifth at Rio 2016, kept herself in contention during a dramatic Riding session and started the Laser Run only 15sec off the lead after the shock elimination of leader Schleu.

That kind of margin is not daunting to a pentathlete of her calibre and French (GBR) moved into the lead on the second lap, before gradually increasing it. Her final victory margin was 15sec and she set a new Olympic record of 1385 points in becoming her country’s second Olympic champion and first since Stephanie Cook in 2000 in Sydney.

Behind her, an intriguing battle for silver was finally settled by one of the true icons of the sport. Laura Asadauskaite, the London 2012 champion, emerged from the pack to win silver and give Lithuania its first medal of the Olympics in any sport.

Turkey's Ilke Ozyuksel and Cristbal 21 finished the riding round with 293 points.
Turkey’s Ilke Ozyuksel and Cristbal 21 finished the riding round of the women’s modern pentathlon at Tokyo 2020 with 293 points. She finished fifth overall. Italy’s Elena Micheli was eliminated riding the same horse. © IOC/Filip Komorous

Sarolta Kovacs of Hungary, the 2016 world champion, has struggled to replicate the highs of the past in recent years, and almost didn’t make it to Tokyo after struggling with injury. But there was a fairytale ending as she bravely held on to bronze, winning a ding-dong battle with fourth-placed Alice Sotero of Italy.

Ilke Ozyuksel of Turkey ended a typically brilliant Laser Run by finishing fifth, ahead of Rio 2016 Olympic silver medallist Elodie Clouvel of France.

The arena for the jumping phase of the women's modern pentathlon.
The arena for the jumping phase of the women’s modern pentathlon. © IOC/Filip Komorous

Rank Name Nation MP Points
1 FRENCH Kate GBR 1385
3 KOVACS Sarolta HUN 1368
4 SOTERO Alice ITA 1363
5 OZYUKSEL Ilke TUR 1350
6 CLOUVEL Elodie FRA 1347
8 PROKOPENKO Anastasiya BLR 1342
9 BATASHOVA Uliana ROC 1341
10 OTEIZA Marie FRA 1334
11 KIM Sehee KOR 1330
12 GULYAS Michelle HUN 1325
13 POTAPENKO Elena KAZ 1322
14 MUIR Joanna GBR 1318
15 OLIVER Mayan MEX 1310
16 ARCEO Mariana MEX 1302
17 KIM Sunwoo KOR 1296
18 SILKINA Volha BLR 1292
19 MORSY Haydy EGY 1289
21 SCHULTZ Samantha USA 1278
22 ZHANG Xiaonan CHN 1275
23 SHIMAZU Rena JPN 1271
24 COYLE Natalya IRL 1268
25 ZHANG Mingyu CHN 1268
26 MOYA LÓPEZ Leydi Laura CUB 1261
27 CARRIER Marina AUS 1257
28 LANGREHR Rebecca GER 1248
29 KANDIL Amira EGY 1221
31 SCHLEU Annika GER 1088
33 MICHELI Elena ITA 1049
34 TAKAMIYA Natsumi JPN 985
35 CUASPUD Marcela ECU 860

Latest research and information from the horse world.

18 thoughts on “Tokyo 2020 Pentathlon horses under fire as Britain’s Kate French wins gold

  • August 7, 2021 at 8:06 pm

    The organisers had no right to force an angry, sour and emotionally damaged horse to be part of the pentathlon. It was grossly unfair on the horse as well as for the riders.
    Far from “trying to calm the horse” as written in the article, both riders did their very best to force that unhappy horse to comply. Medals were put before welfare. The horse was pulled about in the mouth, whipped and kicked in the ribs. It was obvious to any experienced rider/judge/and the governing body, that this horse was severely emotionally damaged (historically). All those avoidance behaviours it performed were learned behaviours – poor thing. Just goes to show how welfare is never put before peer pressure and chasing medals. It made me extremely angry

    • August 8, 2021 at 1:47 am

      I agree with you whole heartedly. The horse may even have been hurting somewhere. The expression on the horses’s faces in their eyes was something even a non horse person can recognize This is a horrible thoughtless event

      • August 8, 2021 at 4:44 pm

        The expression on the horse’s face is one of pain. As you said you are not a horse person. That horse was being yanked so hard in its mouth that it had to contort its face to try and get away from the pain. Think of it if you put something in its mouth you pull it as hard as you can and it makes the mouth elongate with the corners being pulled up as high as they possibly can. The horse is trying to get away from the pain. The face is one of sheer terror as it was being beaten senselessly and pulled in all directions with no clear input from the rider. If you don’t give the horse clear commands it doesn’t know what you are wanting it to do. Simply whacking it with a stick or punching it, of tearing its mouth open aren’t commands the horse knows to respond to, it will just try to get away from the pain. I would be shocked if there weren’t bleeding areas on its face after exiting the ring. Blame the idiot on top of it who spent too long learning to swim and not enough time working with horses and learning how to ride. My kids had better riding skills when they were 8. She expected to just get on the horse and it do its job for her, when she realized she had to actually know how to ride when put on him she knew it was over. That’s on her, not the poor beaten horse who is probably now headed to the abattoir.

    • August 8, 2021 at 4:33 pm

      Thank goodness we have an equine psychologist in the comments!

      If someone was punching you, yanking on your face with a hard metal bar between your teeth and whipping you, would you do what was being asked of you? The riders were harsh with the bit, they weren’t trying to work with the horse, they were beating them. In the case of the German rider she had been abusing it before she even got in the ring. You agree the horse was beaten senseless but you blame the horse, not the creature of “superior intellect” who was riding on its back? How do you determine that the horse was “angry, sour and emotionally damaged”? Because it wasn’t doing what the dolt on its back was beating it to try and get it to do?

      It wasn’t “severely emotionally damaged (historically)” until it got in the ring with those riders.

      I’m not sure what degree or experience makes you an equine psychiatrist but you clearly haven’t been watching the footage I have.

    • August 8, 2021 at 11:01 pm

      It may be great to test the rider’s prowess but for some horses, they cannot understand what is going on. I would never let others ride mine. Selfish? No. You work and train together to achieve a symbiotic relationship that can so easily be destroyed.

    • August 10, 2021 at 3:58 pm

      sorry but i think this is just due to the lack of capabiity of the rider.

    • August 21, 2021 at 7:46 am

      “To McDonnell, a world-renowned equine behaviorist based at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the horse’s message was clear. He was overfaced, scared, and in pain. ‘He showed classic mouth pain face (physical pain or entrapment panic): gaping mouth, backing away from pain, head high, visual focus downward toward the mouth,’ she said. Basically, he tried to tell the people around him he wasn’t okay, but they didn’t hear him.”

  • August 8, 2021 at 12:42 am

    I completely agree with you Melanie. I just hope that poor St Boy does not pay for this with his life. I would like to know who his owner is and what they think about this appealing treatment of their horse.

  • August 8, 2021 at 1:26 am

    Yes this horse should never have been included in the pool of horses provided for the Pentathlon. Doing so was a catastrophic failure on the part of the Japanese organizers.

    It is supposed to work like this: 35 competitors so assemble 55 prospective horses. Have local riders take them round the course against the clock. The 10 best horses (almost anyone can get them around in good time) and the 10 worst horses (refusals, running out, many knockdowns, overtime, etc) are then eliminated from the pool, leaving 35 horses all of which have jumped the course competently.

    As Melanie has posted, this horse was emotionally damaged, was apparently determined not to jump the course and therefore should not have been included in the pool.

    The pentathlete assigned the horse has trained for 10,000+ hours to qualify for the event. Naturally they will use all aids available including seat heels voice whip and reins to get their assigned horse round the course. It is beyond reason to expect the pentathlete, after 5 years of preparation, to abandon their medal prospects and not apply all aids allowed to get round the course. I love horses, but I would have done exactly the same. The fault lies not with the horse, not with the rider, but with the organizing committee.

    Sackville Currie
    Olympic Pentathlete

  • August 8, 2021 at 6:09 am

    As an experienced rider and horse owner , I would not say that St-Boy was emotionally damaged, he was napping which means he did not want to leave the collecting ring, what I will argee with, is the he treatment he received was disgusting, and should not have been allowed, as soon as the rider started to whip him , she should have been disqualified, St-Boy was probably sick of having his back teeth knocked by the bit ,but he had a dropped nose band on so could not take the bit, the rider was pulling back with her hands , but trying to send him forward, I hope this horse was given good treatment by his groom, and checked over by a vet, I would like to know what will happen to him now,!!

  • August 8, 2021 at 9:49 am
    The coach even abused the horse! Just look at the expression in the animal’s eyes! The horse is screaming out loud but no one is listening. It’s high time this outdated section in the Modern Pentathlon was replaced with BMX bikes instead. Stop using horses where there is no rider relationship built-in. They are not slaves- sorry- yes they are -obviously!

  • August 8, 2021 at 9:57 am

    The horses weren’t the problem, the appalling display of incompetent, horrific riding was! The disgusting riding traumatised those horses who quite rightly refused to do anything for a rider they didn’t trust. The German girl’s complete meltdown frightened her horse, who is a flight animal. She then proceeded to yank at its mouth & beat it with her whip. I’m amazed he didn’t throw her off. She wasn’t the only rider whose riding was a disgrace; quite frankly, I wouldn’t let 75% of those athletes near a horse let alone allow them to jump it. Pentathlon ruling body needs to either require a basic riding test to be passed or to drop the horse riding and replace it with cycling where these dreadful riders can’t harm their mount!

  • August 8, 2021 at 11:00 am

    I was astonished at the bad standard of riding that some of the riders had. Some bounced, hung on with the reins, got far behind the horses movement and generally made the horses lives miserable. Many of the riders had no idea of getting the horse to a good distance to the fence to take off. I have to say that some of the horses did some spectacular gymnastics in order to get over the jumps. Saint Boy had already gone round twice before, each time getting worse. But he was not the only horse that performed worse as each time round progressed. More and more of them were entering the ring wild eyed and sweating heavily. It was painful to watch. There needs to be some sort of basic standard of riding proved before competitors are allowed into the competition, before the sport gets a bad name.

  • August 9, 2021 at 7:27 am

    Not a single one of these athletes was a competent rider and even the gold medalist should be ashamed. I am not calling for the elimination of the riding portion of a historical sport, but if you need literal schoolmaster Packers to haul your dead body around the ring while you steady yourself on their mouths, perhaps reevaluate yourself. No sympathy for either rider of Saint Boy, who preserved his own neck by refusing to fall over fences for two amateurs who would never set him up for the right distance or stay off his face.

  • August 9, 2021 at 8:12 am

    That poor horse had taken enough abuse after the Russian rider ran him through several jumps. The fact that he didn’t even want to approach the jump course when he came into the ring with the German rider was proof enough that he’d had enough. He was then kicked and whipped until he gamely tried. The rider then got him to a terrible spot into a jump. No wonder he refused to continue. He had a lot more sense than the rider. The open mouth and the whites of his eyes gave unmistakable signals that the horse was scared and confused. That was not a display of horsemanship. It was abuse.

    • August 13, 2021 at 10:15 am

      100%. She was actually quite fortunate he did not have a more aggressive response. Her behavior was completely appalling BTW. It was clear the Russian had destroyed his confidence. If she and her coach knew anything about horses other than considering them ‘equipment’, they might have made a try at dropping the poles, popping some low fences, quieting and consoling him. Instead, they wound him up, showed him that indeed, there was plenty to be afraid of. The two of them shouldn’t be permitted to be around horses, let alone attempt to jump them over 4′ fences which90% of the athletes have less than no business attempting. Check out this same event at London and Athens. It’s just as appalling. The fences are too high for casual riders which is what these athletes appear to be. This is stupid and abusive to all concerned. I’d be DAMNED if I’d ever loan my good jumper to a Pentathlon event. Ugh!

    • August 15, 2021 at 12:45 am

      I have absolutely the same assessment of the lack of ability and empathy displayed by the majority of the Pentathalon riders (?) Were frequent Vet checks mandated? Did they jog the horses for soundness or check their temperatures?
      I question its continuation of this event at future Olympics, or frankly, anywhere. Regardless of how you choose to classify the mindset of St-Boy, this horse was in obvious pain, as well as frightened. He has what we call a ‘reverse neck’ with more muscling on the underside, which is the result of inappropriate training and pressure resistance. It developed long before these 2020 Olympics. Saint-Boy’s upright head carriage, hollow back, whites of his eyes and not wanting to move forward or jump were ALL red flags, and it doesn’t take an ‘expert’ to recognise this. There were SO MANY negative factors, including the gruelling temperatures and humidity, and using the horses for multiple riders. The heavy handedness and blatant abuse was on display for viewers around the World to see. The Pentathalon ship has sunk.

  • August 13, 2021 at 10:07 am

    EQUESTRIAN PHASE OF THE OLYMPIC PENTATHLON : The answer to every “expert” who declares riding isn’t a sport and the horse does everything! Apparently NOT. As we have seen. Oh so painfully. Experienced rider commenting. This certainly doesn’t mean people won’t disagree! lol. First of all, this portion of the event is RIDICULOUS. The fences are too high for casual riders on strange horses. The higher the fence, the more rider inaccuracies can unbalance, frighten and hurt the horse. These riders can’t accurately see a distance, routinely get popped out of the tack due to simple lack of experience, pull and haul on the mouth and all in all, do what is called ‘riding backwards’ which is far too much dependence on the bit, pulling back when they should be calmly sitting, balancing, driving the horse forward into the bit with a light hand, maintaining a consistent rhythm in the canter to safely gauge striding , guiding the horse by seat legs and weight, and riding up over the top of the jump off the horses back with a good release and perfect balance. All the horses were tested prior to the event and capable of completing the course. WITH ACTUAL RIDERS. Further, It is a mystery to me why Saint Boy’s flash noseband was on backward during an event of this level. Even a C pony clubber knows better. Did the athletes tack their horses? And, he was rigged in a severe gag bit with a running martingale, hints of a horse that requires tactful riding. This, he certainly did not get. To conduct a temper tantrum and a beating session in the collecting ring is absolutely heinous. The best thing the coach and rider could have done in warmup was drop some poles and try a quick confidence re-build. Instead, they beat and abused him. IMO the rider made an absolute fool of herself and displayed quite possibly the worst sportsmanship in recent Olympic history. Getting back to the event, take a glance at this same event at the London and the Athens Olympics. It’s basically the same level of total sh*tshow with riders bouncing off the turf, popping out of the tack over the top of the fences, and otherwise crap riding. Again, these fences are too high for these riders. If they absolutely INSIST on keeping the riding portion of this program, I have the cure. The test must be two phase…1. A First Level Dressage test. Any rider not scoring high enough doesn;t have the capability to safely jump a round and does not progress. 2. The jumps are lowered to 3′ max, maybe lower. Nearly 4′ H with spreads is utterly ridiculous and abusive to all involved. Poor Saint Boy. Idiotic event.


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