As someone who has grown up in the saddle but (sadly) hasn’t kept up with riding - watching the equestrian events at the Olympics vicariously evokes a sense of the truly beautiful bond that is the human-horse partnership.

Tokyo2020 had some glorious moments: My favourite horse-rider combination Britain’s Ben Maher and Explosion W took Gold in individual jumping, Germany’s Julia Krajewski made history as the first ever woman to win an individual eventing Gold, and our very own Fouaad Mirza proudly wore the Indian flag in the ring, as the first Indian equestrian in 20 years to qualify and compete in the Olympic games.

But no matter how many times I watched Maher’s impeccable riding or cheered Mirza’s impressive showing, I can’t shake off the feeling that there were huge problems with the equestrian events at this year’s games.

Most obviously -- and something that got quite a bit of media attention, the German Pentathlon team coach punched a horse. Kim Raisner was trying to assist athlete Annika Scheleu as she struggled to control Saint Boy ahead of her show jumping round in the women’s Pentathlon event. The horse was visibly frightened, and Scheleu seemed equally nervous and upset as she left the ring with tears streaming down her face.

The entire show jumping component of the women’s Pentathlon was excruciating to watch. Terrified horses, nervous, emotional riders, and complete, utter disregard for animal welfare. Several riders fell, as horses refused jumps and bucked in protest.

The pentathlon rules are such that athletes are randomly assigned a horse only 20 minutes before the jumping component of the event.

Even though the modern pentathlon event isn’t managed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the body that oversees the equestrian sports of show jumping, dressage and eventing -- it was cross country (part of the eventing discipline) that had the most tragic outcome.

A horse on the Swiss eventing team suffered a fatal injury and had to be euthanized after appearing lame at a fence in the middle of the cross-country course.

All riders know that of all the equestrian disciplines, eventing -- in particular the cross-country component -- is the most dangerous. Eventing has been labelled THE most dangerous sport in the Olympics, and that is not an exaggeration. Just how dangerous? In a short year and a half between 2007 and 2008, 12 riders died while competing in eventing. Between 1993 and 2019, 71 eventing riders died, 69 while competing, and 2 more while training or warming up for competition. Of the 69 riders that died competing, only 3 deaths were not at the jump.

Rider deaths in eventing got some media attention when 17 year old rider Olivia Inglis died in a rotation fall and the hashtag #rideforolivia went viral. Not even two months later, 19-year-old Caitlyn Fischer died in a similar event.

And these are the reported instances in competition. Almost all eventers at the elite level have harrowing stories of falls and injuries. Take this year’s team Gold winner Laura Collett, who -- just a few years ago -- suffered an almost fatal fall, fracturing her spine, shoulder and ribs and spending six days in a coma. She lived only because she was wearing an airbag jacket.

But riders choose to take these risks. Horses do not. It is the responsibility of the FEI and Olympics Committees to ensure that competition at the highest level puts the welfare of the horse first.

Jet Set, the horse on this year’s Swiss team that was euthanized, is not the first competition fatality. In 2008, British eventer Zara Phillips lost 10-year-old mare Tsunami II after it somersaulted over a hedge and broke its neck. Later that year, Olympic horse Call Again Cavalier broke its leg in competition and had to be euthanized. A year later, United States eventer Phillip Dutton lost his horse Bailey Wick in a rotational fall, where Dutton was thrown clear while the horse landed on its neck. The list goes on… In 2010, Porloe Alvin flipped over a jump and broke its back. The same year, Desert Island twisted and broke her leg, and had to be put down. In 2012, Sugoi, a 2008 Olympic competitor, broke its neck in competition.

The sport treats injuries and fatalities as a tragic but sometimes unavoidable outcome. Jet Set’s rider Robin Godel said on Instagram that the horse "passed while doing what he loved most: galloping and jumping obstacles." There is truth in that statement. Horses at the elite level enjoy their sport. That’s why they excel at it. Of the eventing related injuries and fatalities -- a disproportionately large number are born by the rider. But in this day and age, more thought needs to be given to competition formats that have an element of risk.

While the risks in eventing have been discussed in the news pages, this year’s showjumping format also received criticism.

A new format was implemented in the team jumping competition, with three riders and no drop score. It was an exhausting format with too much pressure on both horse and rider.

“Today was great sport, but not because of the format – but because of the horses and the riders and the competition. I am not a fan; I personally think the team competition should go first because then when you get to the individual medals it’s really a test of multiple rounds. Not having the drop-score in a sport where we have the variables of another living animal, I think that puts too much pressure on the situation... I don’t think it works for our sport and I don’t think it has to be that way, and I hope they take a good look at it because it creates a lot of stress for the horses,” American show jumping competitor and three-time Olympic medalist said of the format after the competition.

There was beautiful riding in Tokyo - in all three equestrian disciplines. And the reason why there aren’t a higher number of horse injuries or fatalities is because horse welfare has always been at the centre of equestrian disciplines.

But Tokyo2020 has lessons within it for the future of equestrian sport. We can do better. We should do better. And the formats need to change in a way that puts less pressure on the horse.

(Cover Photo: Annika Schleu of Germany in the ring. Credit: Reuters)