Secrets of the horse-whisperers revealed as pentathlon team prepare for Tokyo

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Team GB’s band of intrepid horse-whisperers have revealed their secrets to overcoming an equestrian lottery and boosting the nation’s impressive medals record in modern pentathlon at next month’s Tokyo Olympics.

Competitors in the sport – which has been contested at every Games since 1912 and comprises fencing, running, show-jumping and a combined running and laser-shooting finale – are given just 20 minutes to get to know the horses with which they are paired in a random pre-competition draw.

And they are prepared to do whatever it takes to give themselves the best chance to bond, including risking ridicule and emulating some theories that seem more appropriate for a Hollywood blockbuster than the pressure-filled environment of an Olympic arena.

2019 European Modern Pentathlon Championships – Day Six – University of Bath
Kate French is one of four modern pentathletes in Team GB for Tokyo (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Former world champion Jamie Cooke, who is one of the four-strong British team confirmed on Thursday, admitted: “Occasionally I will blow into the horse’s nostril – I heard ages ago if you do that you’ll be friends for life.

“There is always that moment where you look at your horse and go, ‘are you all right, mate, or are we going to have a nightmare?’ You’ve got a very limited time to make that connection.”

Some pentathletes have admitted sneaking treats like apples or Polos to their horses prior to their quickfire introduction, which also includes five allotted practice jumps immediately prior to their event.

But Cooke’s team-mate Jo Muir, the only Olympic debutant in the squad, adopts a slightly more considered approach.

“I’ll go over and stroke it and have a chat with it,” said Muir. “A lot of horses we ride are foreign, so in France I’ll say, ‘bonjour’. I only know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Japanese, but hopefully that will be enough.”

Joe Choong and Kate French complete the team which has high hopes of continuing its strong record at the Games, having yielded five podium finishes since the turn of the century, including gold for Steph Cook in Sydney in 2000.

Team GB Olympic Modern Pentathlon Team Announcement – Hyde Park Barracks
Great Britain’s team announcement for Rio 2016 caused quite a stir (Simon Cooper/PA)

Tokyo will be the last Games in the which the sport is contested in its current format, following the announcement that it will be compacted in Paris in 2024 to incorporate all five events within a 90-minute period.

Choong, who is also heading for his second Games, insisted his focus remained less on future changes, and more on the particular aspect of the competition that can render all the best-laid preparations irrelevant.

“I think everybody’s fallen off in the warm-up but sometimes you can adapt quickly enough to get round,” said Choong. “Other times you go into the competition and fall off twice and are eliminated.

“Each horse is different. You’ve got to find out what it likes and dislikes and it can get quite technical. But I also heard that if you tickle its ears it’s going to love you straight away.”

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