The End of an Olympic Career
As seen through the eyes of Saint Boy, Olympic horse
As I walk around the arena, I take in the familiar smells and sounds of home. It is hot, but not unbearable. I have worked in more stifling conditions, after all.
The moisture in the air intensifies the scents of my surroundings — the rider on my back, a rabbit in the field, the impending storm. And a man standing by the fence.
I do not recognize him, but the dark, rectangular object in his hands catches my eye. Approaching carefully, I notice that the man and the object are following my movements. A sudden memory troubles me.
Not long ago, when the moon was in hiding, I experienced the defining moment of my career.
I recall the pain and uncertainty, the heavy stench of fear and anxiety emanating from the riders that day. Yet, I preferred it to their ensuing odors of hostility and contempt.
My confidence was shaken. Where did it all go wrong?
I have been training for as long as I can remember. For many moons, I competed in show jumping and placed first several times.
One day, after hours of travel, we arrived at the largest stadium I had ever seen. The course was not difficult and my rider was skilled. We completed the jumps with ease; with little tension in the arena, we went home in high spirits.
Little did I know that I would be returning. The days became hotter and longer, and soon, we embarked on another journey back east to the stadium.
A foul smell from the bay greeted us as we arrived, perhaps a harbinger of what was to come. I settled into the stables and waited for the show jumping to begin.
On that fateful day, however, something was different about the atmosphere and particularly, the riders.
Beauty, the mare who finished the course before me, walked past and let out a grunt. Be careful. You’re on your own out there.
The first rider was nervous. She barely acknowledged me as she clambered onto my back. We rushed through the practice jumps, her impatience palpable.
Once we got out onto the arena, I prepared to clear the jumps as I had done before, but as I responded to this rider’s cues, I felt lost. She pulled too tightly on the reins, the bit tearing at my mouth.
I managed to jump over several fences but rapidly began to lose confidence. Her body slammed into my back. I tried another jump, but this time, I hit a rail, something I rarely ever did.
That was it. I knew that if I continued with this rider, I might hurt myself. Badly. Fatally.
I sensed her frustration and acquiesced to moving in the direction of another fence. But I was certain we were out of sync and I would not make the jump in time. She spurred me onto another. This only agitated me further. I refused the jump again.
Until, finally, relief came. The ride was over. As I walked off the arena, I felt a twinge of pain in my knee. The rider threw down the reins and dismounted, not once looking in my direction as she walked away.
Respite was brief.
A number of people hovered around me for some time, until I was led back to the practice jumps. A new rider, of taller build, leapt onto my back.
I quickly realized that this rider, too, was heavy-handed and prone to giving out conflicting cues. Anxiety pervaded her every move in spite of her attempt to project calmness.
This could not end well. I did not want to enter the arena again. Even as she spurred me forward, I tried to avoid the course.
Desperation emanated from the rider and she spurred me in the ribs, kicking me forward. I moved toward the first jump, deciding that I might end the agony by finishing the course as quickly as possible.
With each stride, she tugged on the bit in my mouth. It was excruciating. I cleared the first, then the second jump. A third.
On the fourth, what rhythm we had faltered and as I got closer, I could only jump with all of my might to avoid falling on my face. I stumbled slightly on landing.
Then, the fifth one.
Making my way to the jump head on, I could not see it well. It disappeared from my vision just as the rider prompted me to jump.
When my legs clattered into the rails, panic truly set in. The rider’s breathing became erratic and her muscles tensed as she whipped me repeatedly.
I was reluctant to toss her off, so I walked backwards slowly away from the jumps into the arena fence. Shouts and sobs; each sound echoed in my ears as I frantically searched for a way out. My body was drenched in sweat. And there was a man with a large black box, following our every move.
Amidst the whipping, I felt a human fist hitting my sensitive skin. The rider kicked me forward again while pulling back on the reins. The clashing cues caused me to rear up in confusion.
Please stop, I tried to tell her — to no avail. She dug her spurs into my ribs and screamed. So I continued going around the course and refusing the jumps.
There was nothing else I could do.
I was led away as the rider mourned her career. I mourned for myself too, a show jumper who might never compete again. It was a work that dominated my 15 years of life. In time, with the right rider, I might be able to move on. But I’ll never be able to forget what happened on that oppressive summer day.
A note from the writer
As the modern pentathlon crisis unfolded, I was shocked to read articles that disparaged the horses and viewed them as an obstacle to “Olympic gold.” Many have since denounced some athletes’ subpar riding and ill-treatment of horses. I felt compelled to write about it from Saint Boy’s hypothetical point of view, to put ourselves in his (horse)shoes.