Olympic gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum is in the media spotlight and on the defensive after German broadcaster RTL published an exposé Tuesday claiming the famed show jumper uses abusive training practices.
The story from RTL Extra includes video footage of a rider, allegedly Beerbaum, schooling horses over small fences while a ground person standing next to the jump hits the horses’ forelegs with what appears to be a long, thin pole as they are in the air. The practice, alternately known as poling, rapping or barring, typically is used to encourage a horse to jump higher and more tightly with its front end. It is prohibited as a schooling technique on show grounds by the Fédération Equestre Internationale and, in the United States, by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
On Wednesday, Jan. 12, the FEI and German Equestrian Federation released statements saying they are looking into the matter, while Beerbaum responded by calling the story “demonstrably wrong” and “defamatory in many respects.”
The FEI condemned the practice shown in the video footage and said it is working with the German federation to “assess the appropriate course of action.”
“The welfare of the horse is central to everything that the FEI stands for and we strongly condemn all training methods and practices that are contrary to horse welfare,” stated the FEI press release. ”The FEI has stringent rules in place to protect horse welfare which allow action to be taken both at FEI Events and elsewhere. The FEI absolutely condemns any form of horse abuse and the training methods shown in RTL’s video footage are totally unacceptable from a horse welfare perspective and against FEI Regulations.”
Beerbaum, in a statement published by German horse magazine St.GEORG, seems to acknowledge the footage was shot at his stables but defends it as a legal, but rarely used, training practice. According to a version of the statement translated from German using Google, he said: “The well-being of the horses is the top priority for me and my team. Only a horse that is treated appropriately, professionally cared for and fed, trained and managed can perform in sport. The horses are our capital that we take care of day in, day out.
“The scenes shown in the article on the riding arena have nothing to do with parallel bars. It is about permitted touching that was carried out by an experienced, practiced horseman. The object seen in the video met the requirements of the German Equestrian Association for permissible touching: no longer than 3 meters, a maximum of 2 kilograms in weight.”
The story, which reportedly involved a reporter posing as an “intern” at Beerbaum’s stable, had been in development since at least 2020, which was something else Beerbaum took issue with: “The fact that the supposedly two year long ‘research’ could only reveal four scenes showing the touching of a horse shows that this permitted training method is only used very rarely and is not part of our daily work.
“The ‘polygonal poles’ found in the barn by the alleged intern are wooden poles that are used exclusively for the construction and repair of our pasture fences,” continued Beerbaum’s statement. “The insulators for the fence tapes attached to the poles are clearly visible in the film. As soon as it is claimed that these are used for parallel bars, this is incorrect.
“The same applies to the bars with the ‘knobs’ in the attic. I can only say that these elements have been there for years. These come from a purchased inventory of obstacles and have been sorted out so that they are not used. They are also not used when training with horses. How one of these parts, polished and clean, gets between the common obstacle poles, I can only speculate. For me it is obvious that one of these poles was placed there explicitly for the contribution. We will do further research on this.”
For its part, the German federation took issue with RTL’s research methods, saying the team involved in the piece approached the federation as early as 2020 with video footage but refused to provide enough information for the allegations to be properly investigated, according to an article published on World of Show Jumping.
“As we expressed to RTL in 2020 and 2021, we take the allegations very seriously,” German Federation Secretary General Soenke Lauterbach said, according to a translated version of his statement released Jan. 12. “This is exactly why we will carefully analyze the footage that was broadcast late Tuesday evening and then draw appropriate conclusions on how to proceed. In order to be able to make a serious assessment of the facts, the entire video and evidence material is required. We are therefore asking RTL again to make this fully available to us. … Already now, regardless of the contribution shown, we can clearly say that the use of square bars and nubbed or spiked bar material is unacceptable and not in accordance with the principles of fair equestrian sport.”
In the statement, the federation said that questions posed by RTL in 2020 about the difference between “permitted touching” that is allowed in Germany and abusive methods, such as poling, that are outlawed revealed the difficulty in illustrating and delineating the difference between the two. In response, the federation set up a task force in January 2021 to review controversial training methods and suggest rule changes. While the federation stated it hoped the group would complete its work last year, it is still ongoing “due to the complexity of the issue.”