LETTER TO PENTATHLON GB in August

MODERN PENTATHLON – RIDING PHASE

Given what happened during the Ride at the Tokyo Olympics – provoking an outcry which has found expression over a number of recent Olympiads, but never so much as this year – it is clear that radical changes are needed. A solution is outlined below.

First, a look at the sequence of changes.

Originally, the Ride comprised a cross-country course, ridden against the clock. In the days when the majority of pentathletes were from military, probably cavalry, backgrounds – and possibly also rode to hounds – this made sense. But the changing demographic of competitors, plus the closing of cavalry schools with their ready supply of suitable horses, led to this being replaced by a set of show jumps in an arena. Not a course as such – fences were randomly placed, to the advantage of better riders able at least to balance and steer their horse, and find a quick route.

In the last forty years, this has given way to a more regular show jumping course. More, the pentathlon Ride has evolved along the same path as show jumping, in which fences have become bigger, more airy and more demanding of accuracy, skill and partnership of horse and rider as standards have improved. The pentathlete shouldn’t be examined by the same parameters as the present-day show jumper.

The main problem is the maximum height of fences, which has increased to 4′ (1.20 m). At this height, a horse needs to be placed correctly to jump. MOST PENTATHLETES ARE UNABLE TO “SEE” A HORSE’S STRIDE CORRECTLY. And so we get the sort of carnage we saw earlier this month: horses arriving on the wrong stride, crashing into fences, sending poles flying, endangering themselves (and their riders), losing their nerve and starting to refuse. And, in some cases, being punished for that by their riders. Tokyo has brought the sport into disrepute; this must never be allowed to happen again. Apart from the obvious ethical problem, there is justifiable public outrage that risks closing pentathlon down for good, or replacing the Ride altogether.

A horse who has to find his own stride should not be expected to jump more than 3’3” (1 m) – 3’6” (1.05 m) at the very most. So how to you sort out the riders with a smaller course? For the answer, look to eventing. Here, where the standard of cross-country has gone up as in show jumping, it isn’t possible for obvious reasons to keep building bigger fences. Instead, a premium has been placed on accuracy. The rider who can keep their horse balanced and aligned through twists and turns has the best chance of a fast time, while the less skilful risks a run-out, or opts for a slower alternative. Modern pentathlon needs to evolve along these same lines.

Such a course could easily be built in an arena. Skinnies, corners, banks, bounces, demanding lines reward the rider who can ride “forward, with rhythm and balance” (legendary trainer Lars Sederholm) even if they can’t see the perfect stride – and who can sit tight while doing so. The less competent rider will glance off a fence incurring penalties, even fall off at a bounce or drop… or (crucially) be given a ”safe” but slow alternative, carrying penalties. Fences shouldn’t fall too easily and scores should reward time saved by riding the most demanding line accurately.

Look for the solution from such as Mark Philips, or Yogi Breisner.

Gill Suttle

(GB modern pentathlon team 1978/9)