Back in the saddle


Photo: AFP/John MacDougall
AFP PHOTO/John MacDougall

By John MacDougall


The modern pentathlon is one of the lesser known Olympic disciplines, but one of its more demanding. It was invented at the start of the last century to imitate some of the skills needed by a soldier of the time: Ride an unknown horse, display superb swordplay (fencing), shoot a pistol straight, run and swim.

For a photographer, the showjumping event is obviously the most interesting. Competitors have just 20 minutes to get to know their horse, which is allotted during a random draw. They then have to jump a range of obstacles within a set time.

A rider can never count on chemistry with his or her steed, and it’s not uncommon for a horse to try to dislodge its unfamiliar load.

Obviously, we don’t go hoping only to take pictures of mishaps, we also have to capture classic action shots of the competitors so we can transmit these if they win a medal. 

But the fact is, the obstacle course is the moment where we get the best chance of taking spectacular photos, provided the shooter is positioned in a good spot. 

Photo: AFP/John MacDougall
AFP PHOTO/John MacDougall

That’s what happened at the London Olympics on August 12 this year, when South Korea’s Hwang Woojin lost control of his mount, Shearwater Oscar.

It’s not totally clear what happened, but at the start of the contest there was evidently some tension between horse and rider, and the animal started behaving erratically. It wheeled around in every direction and seemed panicked, at one point kicking over a flower pot that marked the start of the course. 

The horse then reared up and then fell backward with the rider still on its back. We were scared: Competitors wear protective gear but if a horse lands on you with all its weight, it can be fatal.

Hwang stayed on the ground for a few seconds, then staggered to his feet. To loud applause from the grandstands, he got back on the horse and went on to ride the course. 

Photo: AFP/John MacDougall
AFP PHOTO/John MacDougall