Modern pentathlon: Rider, horse must be as one

Modern pentathlon is one of the toughest sports at the Pan Am Games because the five skills needed to compete are so different from each other.

Sport includes 5 skills that are different from each other

Canadian Olympian Donna Vakalis will be competing in the modern pentathlon event at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough,Ont., on July 18. ((Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images))

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course, unless, of course, the horse is one you only met 20 minutes before having to ride him in a major international modern pentathlon competition.

What does one say to someone to whom one has just been introduced?

"You definitely do have a moment when you meet a horse and you are on the ground, you usually go up and pat the horse's neck and … just say 'Hi!'" says Olympian Donna Vakalis, one of three women on Canada's Pan Am modern pentathlon team.

"One trick my coach [Rick Maynard, from Vancouver] taught me is that horses really like to take in your scent, so if you get near them, you stand near their nostrils and you just breathe."

She's saying this over the phone while lining up for an early coffee, having finished one workout and now moving along to another. Makes more sense this way.

"You can feel them taking a deep inhalation, paying attention, and their ears [are] flicking, and for a few seconds, you are speaking horse."

After a 20-minute speed date, the horse and rider enter the jumping ring for one of five events in the pentathlon, a sport built around an old military legend involving running a message from headquarters to its intended recipient.

It's as tough as there is on the Olympic calendar because the five skills are so different from each other.

First, fencing in the morning, then a 200-metre freestyle swim followed by the show riding. Finally, there's running and shooting [biathlon without the snow] where each participant uses a pistol to fire at targets before each of four 800m laps around the track.

It's all at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough, July 18 for the women and July 19 for the men.

Canada has five athletes — Vakalis, Melanie McCann (11th in the London Olympics, this country's best-ever showing), and Hillary Elliott, plus Joshua Riker-Fox and Garnett Stevens.

The event that can trip you up the fastest is the riding, where because of the difficulty of shipping your own horse, you have to draw for one of the provided mounts, mount up and then after a few times around the practice ring, it's show time.

"Things move really quickly," says Vakalis. "You have to be checking the tack [the equipment on the horse], to make sure it's in good working order so that, for example, your stirrup length is correct for your leg."

Different commands

Then to the ring where both athletes stretch and warm up and you get to know each other, experimenting with this and that, working out reactions to different commands.

Vakalis once had a horse whose bridle and saddle weren't "in good working order" and the reigns actually broke during the event.

Beatrice Cigagna, a young up and comer (just 19) on the national team who isn't at these Games, climbed aboard a horse in the Dominican Republic recently and realized she couldn't get the animal to canter.

"We train our horses here that if you press in with your inside leg and move your outside leg back, then you kind of kick them [and they go]," she said last week. "In the Dominican Republic, it was more of a sit and squeeze with your whole body."

That took a few minutes to work out.

Cigagna agrees the horse draw is kind of like borrowing someone else's car –  everything isn't where you are used to it being, and what does this button do when you press it?

"A certain amount is dependent on luck," she says. "How the horse is feeling on that day, and how well you can connect in a short period of time."

Sometimes, however, you get a wonder horse that reacts to you like The Pie, in National Velvet. And it's a dream.

One other thing Vakalis points out about horses – they have a sense of humour. So, you never know.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.