The recently published photographs show Kittel holding his horse Scandic with short reins, pushing Scandic’s muzzle down to its chest, in what looks like a rollkur or the hyperflexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force.
This procedure is banned by the world governing body, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI).
Since publication in German magazine St George, the photographs have circulated online and sparked heavy criticism of Kittel’s handling of his horse, as several commenters on international association FEI’s Facebook page have questioned Kittel’s participation in the Olympic Games and accused him of animal cruelty.
However, Kittel himself claims the photographs were simply taken at an inopportune moment, and have been misinterpreted.
“She took a series of pictures just when Scandic jumped. It’s kind of sensational journalism,” said the Olympic rider to the Aftonbladet newspaper.
Bo Jenå, who coaches the Swedish dressage team, agrees that the allegations of animal cruelty are unfounded.
“Pictures such as that one could’ve been taken of plenty of horses,” said Jenå to national radio station SR.
This isn’t the first time that Kittel finds himself in the eye of an animal cruelty debate storm. In 2009, a video filmed by Danish animal rights activists showed the dressage rider’s horse’s tongue hanging out blue during competition, and Kittel was investigated, but eventually found innocent.
“But since then I’ve always been a bit of a target,” he said to Aftonbladet.
However, the latest allegations won’t be affecting his Olympic performance, he says.
“No, it’s just so ridiculous. I haven’t bothered myself with the comments.”