Last week, I attended my first Modern Pentathlon competition. The Olympic sport held its World Cup Final in Sarasota, Fla. Being a newspaper reporter, and the only person in our newsroom that understands anything about horses, I was assigned to cover the event.
For those that are unfamiliar, modern pentathlon consists of five elements – athletes have to run, shoot a laser pistol, fence, swim, and ride an unfamiliar horse over a course of 120-cm height fences. The riding was — interesting, to say the least. But while out at the event, I was able to meet a bunch of really delightful pony clubbers who volunteered their horses for the event.
A muscular bay-colored horse grazed in a pasture behind the Sarasota Polo Club Wednesday, blissfully unaware of the work that was to come this weekend.
Finn, a 13-year-old thoroughbred gelding who lives with his owner in Clermont, will be one of 26 horses chosen to carry world-class athletes in the show jumping event of the modern pentathlon World Cup Final. The horses were donated for use in the competition by youth riders from around the country.
The show jumping happens at the Polo Club with a tentative start time of 2 p.m. The women compete Friday, the men Saturday. The mixed event takes place Sunday.
Finn’s owner, Kirstin Myers, offered up her horse for the competition after USA Pentathlon officials watched them compete at a U.S. Pony Club-sanctioned event earlier this year.
She will be paid $400 for the use of her horse, and will use that money to help get to the Pony Club Championship event in Kentucky later this year. Horse owners will use their own equipment on the horses in this competition, and are also responsible for the horses’ transportation to the polo club and care over the weekend. USA Pentathlon provides insurance for each animal, in case one is injured during the competition.
Owners will also get to keep the unique pentathlon saddle pad and other riding equipment that the horses wear during the competition.
“It’s not every day that you can say your horse was in a world cup final for pentathlon,” said Myers, 14.
Myers is one of several young horse owners, and U.S. Pony Club members, who have made their animals available for the competition. Most of the horses came from Florida, but some arrived from as far as Tennessee.
Unlike three-day eventing and dressage, which are also Olympic equestrian sports, the pentathlon has athletes riding horses that aren’t their own. Athletes are assigned horses on Thursday, and are able to observe the animals as they are exercised by other riders that day. Athletes get a handout with information about their particular horse’s temperament, warning them if the animal is “sensitive” or “sensible.”
Competitors get just 20 minutes to ride and five practice jumps to test their four-legged partners before entering the ring and completing the course, which entails jumping over 15 obstacles that are up to 120 centimeters high.
But all this is easier said than done.
“The athletes only have a few minutes to really bond with their horse,” said Katherine Harris, a former U.S. representative and state politician and the chairwoman leading the organizing committee for the pentathlon world cup event. “They have to trust these animals and prove their skills as a true horseperson by riding one they don’t know.”
Modern pentathlon includes five phases of competition: running, shooting, fencing, swimming and equestrian show-jumping. The show-jumping portion is easily the most dangerous, and is where athletes are most likely to experience injuries.
Video of Hwang Woojin, a pentathlete from Korea, went viral during the 2012 Olympics in London after the horse he was riding reared up and flipped over backward on top of him. Woojin and the horse were able to walk out of the ring relatively unscathed, but the footage of the display sparked debate online about the sport’s safety.
For years, equestrian athletes have criticized modern pentathlon for the lack of “horse sense” pentathletes have. It’s one thing to be a rider, some insist, but quite another to be a horse person.
A bad round or a miscommunication with a horse can significantly drop an athlete’s rank in the competition standings, or worse, athlete and/or animal can be hurt in a fall or a crash through an obstacle.
“Some athletes just have a way with horses. They’ll know what their ride is going to be like before they even get in the saddle,” said John Amabile, the director of communications for USA Pentathlon. “It’s really the luck of the draw.”
On Wednesday, the horse owners saddled up and worked the horses over jumps set up at the Sarasota Polo Club to better acquaint the animals with the facilities. Egan Spoltore, from Collierville, Tennessee, jumped his fit gray Arabian and Oldenburg cross gelding over fences without any issue. His horse, Ironstone, never batted an eye at the colorful obstacles provided for the competition by Fox Lea Farm, an equestrian competition facility in Venice, soaring gracefully over each.
Ironstone was chosen for the competition by International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) officials with show jumping experience. UIPM officials also design the jumping course, which has a variety of double and triple combinations where obstacles have shorter distances between them.
Tori Turner, a 15-year-old horse owner from Mount Dora, said she’s excited, if somewhat nervous, to watch a pentathlete ride her horse, Sammy. “When they asked for us to come, I didn’t know what to think,” said Turner, who will spend the weekend caring for her horse at the polo fields in between Sammy’s competitions.
But, she added, “it’s really cool.”
This story originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper.