Samantha Achterberg Schultz aims a laser gun, one element of modern pentathlon. Photo by Shannon Gray, courtesy of Samantha Schultz.

The Ever-Changing Modern Pentathlon

Release Date: April 13, 2024

Modern Pentathlon history will be made at the Paris Olympics, because it will likely be the last one to include horses.

The catalyst for this change was an incident from the women’s competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where competition leader Annika Schleu had a bad day on the equestrian segment and couldn’t get her assigned horse Saint Boy to jump. In the heat of the moment, Schleu’s coach hit Saint Boy.

If you remember from my initial interview with Olympian Samantha (Achterberg) Schultz, athletes meet the horses they’re riding just before they have to compete with them. They get a little bit of time for a warm-up with the horse, and then they have take that horse through an obstacle course, with jumps that are not insignificant.

In training for five sports, pentathletes have to divide their attention, and so they do not have the intensive training that competitive riders do. They are also on an unfamiliar horse, which riders tell me is a huge challenge.

Sometimes a horse just doesn’t want to cooperate:

This incident led to headlines like “German Coach Kicked Out After Punching Horse.” This brought a lot of attention to the sport, including TV star Kaley Cuoco vowing to buy the horse.

With perhaps a little pressure from the International Olympic Committee, The UIPM decided it was time to replace the horses.

When the UIPM announced that horses would be removed, there was a great outcry from the pentathlon community. There was a lot of talk about how this would ruin the tradition of the sport.

But having athletes ride unfamiliar horses has been an issue that has been discussed from the beginning of the sport. The book Modern Pentathlon: A Centenary History: 1912-2012 by Andy Archibald describes how Pierre De Coubertin wanted unfamiliar horses, but in 1912, the first time the event was in the Olympics, organizers pushed back so that contestants who could were allowed to bring their own horses. That was the only time they were allowed to bring their own horses.

It’s worth noting that de Coubertin also originally wanted jumping and wrestling as part of the program and would have had rowing instead of shooting.

The book also details how in the early years there were changes in the rules to riding, shooting, and even the run. Archibald also writes, “the riding event, problematic from the very start in 1912, now rarely passed unmentioned in committee meetings around Europe.” He mentions that the organizers considered replacing horses with motorcycles from around 1948 until the 1960s.

The sport also endured later changes, such as changing the order of the events and the substitution of laser pistols for other types of guns, which also made the event easier to stage.

At Paris 2024, the event will have another evolution and will move from a one-day format to a 90-minute competition. This will speed up the event and make it easier for audiences to follow.

At Los Angeles 2028, the plan is to remove the riding portion and replace it with an obstacle course stage.

On balance, I feel like the change away from horses is better for the athletes. Getting on an unfamiliar horse adds an element of luck to the competition that I think hurts the sport. Having an otherwise excellent athlete lose because of the luck of the draw adds a certain amount of gambling to the event.

It will be interesting to watch how the event plays out in Paris. The new 90-minute format will also add to the intensity of Pentathlon (yet another change).

I already have my tickets for the women’s finals, and I am looking forward to seeing history made!

–Ben Jackson


Note: Where possible, we use affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links, we may earn a commission.