Ask Saint Boy

Content warning: discussion of the mental and physical harm that comes to horses in a competitive setting, and the continued practice of selling horses as livestock for slaughter. We do not link to any of the images or video in question.

If you followed the news flowing from the Tokyo Olympics, you are already aware of the incident of German Modern Pentathlon coach Kim Raismer being banned from the remainder of the  Olympics.  The coach punched the horse, Saint Boy, in the back of its leg while urging rider Annika Schleu – who was already hacking away at his sides with her spurs – to repeatedly hit the horse as well.  Schleu, who was leading in the Pentathlon pack until the riding portion of the sport, left the ring in tears and with a scream.

If you missed it, the uproar heard around the world has been tremendous, with every news outlet reporting the incident simply because the footage of horse and rider was agonizing.  Kaley Cuoco even offered to buy the horse.  A well-known actress and avid equestrienne, everyone recognizes Cuoco and she probably drew more attention than most media reports. 

For those unfamiliar with Modern Pentathlon, it is a sport that consists of five phases for each contestant including swimming, pistol shooting, running, fencing, and – of course – the equestrian event.  Saint Boy had already given a previous Olympic rider, Russian Gulnaz Gubaydullina, his thoughts on the whole competition thing; he refused to jump three times for him as well.

With the eyes of the world on the Tokyo Olympics after this incident with Raismer and Schleu was caught on video, the UPIM board is now revisiting its rules and regulations.

But that wasn’t the only equestrian incident at the Olympics.

Jet Set, a horse ridden by Robin Godel for the Swiss Olympic Team, was euthanized due to a torn ligament in his right foreleg, right above the hoof. In fact, Jet Set is the fourth horse to suffer fatal injuries on a cross-country course this year – a sad distinction he shares with Pakistani Olympic hopeful Kasheer (formerly known as Riverbreeze), Australian horse Nightcaps, and Britain’s Hendrix.   

Sumo wrestlers – yes, really! – added to the chaos at equestrian events in Tokyo this year as well. A huge statue of a wrestler with his arms outstretched was located next to one of the jumps in the Equestrian Ring. While the jump itself doesn’t appear life-threatening, the statue did (at least to the horses), and its presence wrought havoc, spooking horses as they approached the jump. The statue was removed as questions and concerns surfaced.

Because the Olympics is an International event and filmed for the world to watch and we live in a world of constant cameras and screens, the footage documents the casualties of sport.  Unfortunately, the accidents and tragedies documented and reported are few, when the terrible reality is it happens more often than we hear.  

Horses were not meant to jump 7 feet high, or jump ditches 14 feet wide.  Most horses can only clear 3 feet comfortably.  Of course, a mini isn’t going to clear what a thoroughbred can, but the average horse is able to do a 3 foot jump with some ease. 

But it isn’t just jumping.  Racing, show jumping, eventing – the entire horse sport industry is taxing.  Even something as mundane as Western Pleasure has its physical demands.  

For whatever reason, there was a time Western Pleasure judges decided horses’ heads should hang below wither level, creating the term “peanut rollers”.  Unfortunately, I have heard stories of trainers tying horses’ heads to the stall ceiling for extended periods of time, so when they let the head loose, it dropped to the ground from fatigue but ready for the show ring. A head held too low puts unneeded stress on the front end. AQHA has said horses should have a smooth topline when showing…yet peanut rollers still exist.

You could pick any equestrian sport and find something uncomfortable or unnatural for the horse physically. The question is, who decides what and why?  A whim, a fad with no thought to how it affects the physical and mental health of the horse is not sport – rather, it is arrogance. 

But back to Saint Boy.  With all the media attention on this incident, I would have thought the first question would have been “Why?” What happened that Saint Boy decided he was having no part of the games people play?  His refusal wasn’t the first time, so did they ask why?  

Horses were not meant to jump 7 feet high, or jump ditches 14 feet wide.  But it isn’t just jumping.  Racing, show jumping, eventing – the entire horse sport industry is taxing.
— Barb Godwin, Publisher

My question is: why do we need to put horses in the arena, to begin with? Why do humans need that competitive edge?  I know people who aren’t happy riding unless it’s in a show ring.   

Of course, there are competition riders that truly enjoy their horses; I am aware of that. If it was only about the horse and rider experience I would be okay with that, and for some competitors it truly is. 

But so much of the sports mentality is only about winning, and the human need to conquer.  And money.  Always money. 

It’s not that I am against all equine sports.  There is a reason horse racing is called the “Sport of Kings”.  But I am pretty sure when they raced centuries ago it was less about the money and more about the sport itself. (Perhaps ego as well.)

Racing today is a huge business with a dark side. I recently spoke with a retired jockey who told of an incident where he rode a horse whose trainer had injected some sort of nerve agent above the horse’s knees.  The horse who was usually pretty laid back, yet carrying on like never before.  The horse had never won a race and was not exhibiting behavior normally shown before an event; the jockey kept questioning the trainer, to no avail. 

The starting gate burst open and the horse leaped onto the track – only to have his front legs actually break off so many strides in. Yes, completely severed from his body. The jockey was injured as well.

The trainer was banned from the track, but no one broke off his legs completely.  I think that would have been justified.

Also, you will never convince me that a horse that is not physically matured doesn’t suffer the consequences of being rushed into a sport.  

My own history of equine sports is limited – a few barrel races when I was a kid, little more.  One memory that sticks out is a barrel race where I rode a horse owned by someone else. He was a palomino gelding, short and stocky, the color of cheddar cheese, with blue eyes and a wide white blaze. His nose was sunburned.

Bought at auction for a teenager who had no knowledge of horses, this horse had issues.  He would continuously back when ridden, with no forward motion – if you could get on him at all.  He would shy away anytime a saddle came near or someone tried to ride. 

I don’t recall the specifics of the day – only that I decided to ride him. This wasn’t a show barn, just a local trail riding rental barn alongside a dairy farm. It took me a while, but I figured out if I just dropped down on his back from a rail, he was okay with it.  Riding bareback, once on, you could move forward as long as he wasn’t startled. If startled, his head would start bobbing, looking side to side as he backed up.  But that day, we rode a couple of miles in an easy circle. I was ecstatic, and with that accomplishment, I decided I would try him in the arena. 

The local saddle club held speed events – including barrel racing – the second Saturday of each month, at night during the heat of summer. With little thought to his issues, I registered for the event.  Being held at night, the lights were bright and the crowd loud and rowdy; as we entered the gate, I could feel him tense up.  The gate opened, a signal was given, and we made our way into the arena.  

But that was as far as we got. His head began to bob sideways, his neck stiff, and when I urged him forward, he stood stock-still. As I continued to urge, he began to back. 

With all the media attention, I would have thought the first question would have been “Why?” What happened that Saint Boy decided he was having no part of the games people play?  His refusal wasn’t the first time, so did they ask why?
— Barb Godwin, Publisher

The crowd was shouting: Hit him! Kick him! 

But I did not; I could not. I knew the horse well enough to know he was scared. He didn’t buck or rear or carry on…he just kept backing.   

 As I left the arena I could hear the groans.

One morning I went to the barn to discover the horse was saddled.  His owner had decided if I could ride this horse, his daughter could as well.  I had reservations, but I helped her on the horse. The rider was a large girl, with no riding experience, and her weight shifted the saddle.  The horse started getting tense, and the next thing I knew, he was leaping over the hood of a brand new Ford Mustang – also a gift from the father to the horse’s rider. 

It did not bode well – and sure enough, the horse was put up for sale.


I had no horse of my own at the time, and I begged my parents for the opportunity to own this horse. But in the time it took me to convince them of my need, he was sold. For slaughter. 

Years later I realized something about that horse…his eyesight.  Those beautiful blue eyes had trouble seeing the world as everyone else saw it.  That night at the arena – the crowd might have been noisy, but I am betting it was the lights that really spooked him.

I knew something wasn’t right, but I was young and it wasn’t my horse.  It devastated me to know that his life ended because of something he could not help.  

But the point is, no one asked why he did what he did. It was obvious something was out of sync, but it didn’t matter; he was viewed as a cheap horse that wouldn’t comply, so his life was ended. 

Things have changed over the years, and we are much more in tune with the horse psyche, but I still wonder if we really understand horses are much like people.  They have likes and dislikes and issues and health problems not obvious to the human eye. They cannot converse on a human level, so they suffer.  While our knowledge has expanded we still don’t know all of the “whys”, and too many times no one bothers to ask..

So maybe Saint Boy had his reasons. I am sure despite the treatment from his rider and her coach, he has the best of care with his owners – and hopefully, they can get to the bottom of the Olympics episodes.  Maybe he just doesn’t like crowds.

A conversation with Saint Boy might be enlightening. I hope he gets one someday.

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel.