Firstpost Masterclass: 'Taking care of horses is a full-time job', Fouaad Mirza dissects the nuances of equestrian riding
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Fouaad Mirza opens up about nuances of equestrian riding, the logistics of transporting horses (including what a horse passport is), how riders forge a bond with their horses, and more.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Fouaad Mirza, the equestrian cliché goes, was born in the saddle. Coming from a long line of equestrians and having ridden horses when kids his age were riding bicycles with training wheels, Mirza won India its first individual medal in 36 years ― a silver, besides also contributing to a team silver medal ― in the eventing discipline at the Asian Games in 2018 and then earned India a quota place at the now deferred Tokyo Olympics in January this year.
While athletes around the world have been forced to take a vacation due to the coronavirus -enforced sporting shutdown, Mirza has spent the lockdown in the German hamlet of Bergedorf, Ganderkesee, preparing ‘to go to war’ with his four horses ― Seigneur Medicott, Fernhill Facetime, Dajara 4, and Touchingwood. Mirza chuckles awkwardly as he tries to remember ― unsuccessfully! ― the last time he took a vacation. After all, as he admits, equestrian riding is a full-time job. No vacations.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Mirza opens up about not having the time to take a vacation, his inability to talk to people if it’s not about horses, the logistics of transporting horses (including what a horse passport is), the finances required to compete at the top level (approximately Rs 3.8 lakh per horse, per month!), how riders forge a bond with their horses, and more.
You’ve been living in Ganderkesee, northwestern Germany, for the past few months with your four horses. What’s lockdown been like?
The lockdown here has been quite similar to everywhere else around the world. Some regions in Germany had stricter restrictions. Fortunately for us the restrictions were not so heavy. The population here is quite low, so we never had to queue up outside supermarkets. In other places there were queues lasting hours outside supermarkets and other essential needs shops. With regards to training and looking after horses, everything stayed the same in the lockdown. Horses need to be looked after every day and they need daily care. That didn’t stop at all. Our work, our training all kept going through the lockdown. The training had to be toned down a bit due to the cancellation of many events. You train over the winter and prepare the horses for specific events. The pandemic has stopped the entire world in its tracks, across every industry. We cannot do too much about it. But our line of work continued without any hiccups or too many restrictions.
Due to the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics have been deferred by a year. According to you, is that a setback or a relief?
I must say at first I was very disappointed as every single athlete would be. You spend a lot of time working, training… moreover the mental aspect of it, you think about the Olympics a lot. How you’re going to compete at the Olympics, what’s your game plan going to be when you are there. And then suddenly you’re told that the Olympics are in a limbo, where we didn’t know whether it was going to be cancelled altogether. Eventually it was postponed which is probably the best decision they could make given the circumstances. But looking at the decision in hindsight, I think it was a good decision not just for me, but for equestrian athletes in general. The added year is most likely a benefit for most equestrian athletes because it gives us one more year to train the horses. I am relatively new to this level, the four-star level. So for me to get another year to train at this level, to work towards a better relationship with the horses, particularly the new horse the Embassy Group has acquired for me, is very beneficial. It also gives another horse of mine, Seigneur Medicott, who had sustained an injury last year and was out for the entire year, an extra year. Ideally, I would have preferred to take him to Tokyo had the Olympics been held this year. but we were in doubt whether the Olympics were happening too soon for him. To get a horse to full fitness it needs to do a lot of work. It requires months of foundation fitness, which you have to keep building up. It's not that you just pull them out and take them to the Olympics. You have to prepare them for these big events. So it has really worked out in my favour. I'm very happy about how it's played out eventually.
What sort of things do you have to do as a rider to form a bond with your horse?
It’s a partnership that you form by training together and by being around each other. It's a bit like how pets get attached to you and they know when you are sad or happy. All animals have this sixth sense. You sort of grow together as you train. You go to war together so to speak. Maybe not in the dressage event, but the cross-country test, which is a very important part of our sport, especially in my discipline, which is eventing. (There are three equestrian disciplines at the Olympics. Jumping is an event where horses and riders navigate a course laid with obstacles. Dressage, a discipline compared to ballet, is an artistic event where routines are choreographed to music. Eventing, which is the discipline that Mirza specialises in, is akin to the triathlon, where riders and horses compete in three tests: dressage, cross country and jumping.)
It's like going to war against what the course designer has put up for you to tackle. The horse has to put its complete faith in you, and it has to trust that you're not going to make it do things that might harm him or put it in danger in any way. I think when you begin you start slowly. But as you work together, it starts to trust that you're not to endanger it. It builds up like that. The sheer amount of time we spend in the stable around the horses: we feed them, we look after them, we clean them... this helps a lot to build a bond. Sure, some horses may like me more than the others. But each horse has its own personality and you have to find out what makes it tick.
Tell us a bit about your horses…
They're sport horses. In India, we primarily use ex-race horses for equestrian sports such as eventing, dressage and show jumping. Up to a certain level, they're very good. They're very capable. When you come to the higher levels you need horses that are bred specifically for the sport that you want to compete in. For example, I wouldn't be able to ride majority of my horses in pure, high-level dressage competitions. Nor would I be able to ride them in pure show-jumping competitions. The horses I have with me in Germany are bred specifically for my discipline, which is eventing. They really go into specifics when they're breeding an eventing horse, which needs good attitude, fair ability to run fast over long distances and a strong type of breed. You look at these characteristics and then you pair the matings so that they can produce horses for a certain discipline. You may be able to get a dressage horse to do an eventing job to a certain level. But it can only do so much as it's not bred for the sport. There are completely different types of horses, with completely different muscle formations, different shapes and sizes. These horses I have with me in Germany wouldn't fare too well on a race track, they would be too slow. The make of these horses is for a specific discipline.
Can you talk about the logistics of your sport, specifically transporting horses from one country to another. I know horses also require a passport just like humans.
Transporting horses, at least before the coronavirus pandemic, was quite easy. Horses would fly every two weeks all over the world to compete. Having said that, there were a lot of logistics that went into it. The horses have passports which are similar to what our passports are like. The have an identification page, the passport contains details of where the horse is born etc. The only thing different on a horse’s passport is that they have a record of their flu vaccines, and their boosters and their tetanus shots. The vaccinations page has to be up-to-date before the horse is allowed to leave a country or come into a country. This is primarily for disease control. Because these horses are travelling from different countries, you don't want them to transmit a disease from one country to another which hasn't had the disease before and can lead to an outbreak there. Horses are very, very workman-like, you can put them on a flight or in trucks. Some horses travel easier than others. Some don't like it, but there are ways of working around that and getting them comfortable to it. Flying horses is very expensive. They're heavy and large animals, and they need a lot of care especially on flights.
Seigneur Medicott flew all the way to Jakarta for the Asian Games. I was a bit nervous at first to load him on the palette that then went into the flight. But he was very calm and it didn't faze him at all.
You mentioned how expensive it is to transport a horse from one country to the other. Could you tell us a bit about the amount of money it takes to be an equestrian rider?
It's a very expensive sport. I'm very grateful for the Embassy Group for its support right through my international career. There are huge investments involved. Buying horses is expensive, sure, but looking after them is the most expensive part. Taking care of them is a full-time job. I don't do anything else. I don't have time to do anything else. You've got veterinarian expenses. You've got sire expenses. To maintain a horse in my discipline at the level at which my horses are at, you're looking at around 4,500 euros (approximately Rs 3.8 lakh) per horse, per month. This is inclusive of everything, training, show costs, transport, vets, feed, bedding, all of this. At the end of the day, these horses are top notch. So their care is a little bit more intensive than hobby horses. You could look after a hobby horse for 300 euros (approximately Rs 25,000) a month. It's expensive even to look after a hobby horse. It's a lot of money. But it's expensive all over the world. It's not as if it's cheaper at some places. In India we have the advantage of having a lot of labour, such as grooms to look after the horses. Here in Germany, it's slightly more expensive as labour is more expensive. This is why in Germany I don't have those sort of comforts, wherever I can cut the costs down, I do that.
You mentioned that for a rider taking care of a horse is a full-time job, and that you don’t have the time to do pretty much anything else. When was the last time you actually took a vacation?
I don’t think I remember that. Probably four years ago? Really, I don’t…because it’s funny. Everything I do has got to do with horses. There’s not one thing I do, not one conversation I have during the day since I moved abroad to compete and train (that doesn’t involve horses). Every single conversation I’ve had with anyone is to do with horses. That’s how engrossed I am in this whole sport. It’s funny, I can’t talk to people if it’s not about horses. Not that I don’t follow the news and I don’t other things, but I just don’t know what to say. Sometimes I speak to my friends from India who are not involved in the sport, and the conversation only goes so far because I realise that I can’t talk to them about horses. I’ve asked them how they are and how everybody else is, but that’s it. But I have a very close friend who went to school with me and like me decided to take up the sport. He’s currently in France, training by his own means. I speak to him every day and I can speak with him for hours and hours because we have so much to talk about: our horses, what they did, how we can help each other. In today’s world things have gotten so competitive and people have so much talent that you have to be insane to your craft. You got to look at it in a way where some people from the outside think it’s unhealthy. But if you look at me, I’m healthy, I’m happy, I’m fit. But someone from the outside might think I’m a little too deep into this or that it’s not healthy for my mind to be so invested so deeply into this. But my feeling is that that’s how it’s got to be. It’s so competitive. The lengths which people are willing to go to to achieve greatness is unbelievable.
As a rider, is there a specific diet you have to follow?
Not necessarily for this discipline of equestrian sport. For racing, of course, yes you have to have a strict diet because your weight has to be under a certain limit. If you’re an apprentice jockey, I think the limit’s somewhere like 48 or 50 kgs. That’s very light. So you have to follow a strict diet. But in our sport, not necessarily. You can weigh as much as you like. Obviously, it’s a disadvantage for your horse if you’re too heavy. But there’s no weight restriction. But as far as diet goes, I like to focus on eating healthy. I try and stay away from junk food but of course I do have my cheat days. I stay far away from artificial sugar. Besides that my diet is not very strict.
The perception is that in equestrian riding, it’s the steed that’s doing the heavy lifting. But as a rider you also have to maintain your fitness?
Absolutely! You can make your horse more tired if you’re not fit. This is because you as a rider have to maintain your balance. You need a lot of core stability. You have to hold your position and maintain your stability on the horse. The minute you start moving around you make the horse more tired. You can put the horse off balance. You risk your horse getting injured cause he’s off balance. Fitness for riders is very important.
Could you tell us the secrets behind the name of your horses, Seigneur Medicott, Fernhill Facetime, Dajara 4, and Touchingwood?
These horses were bought with those names. I didn’t get to name them. When it comes to Fernhill Facetime, I know that Fernhill is the stud farm that breeds horses for sport, our sport particularly. So you have all these horses like Fernhill by Night and Fernhill Adventure, who have come from the same stud farm. As for Seigneur Medicott, Medicott is a big company that makes medical grade cotton. They used to own Seigneur Medicott. That’s how he got the name. Touchingwood, I believe, was named after a very famous race horse in England that did a lot of cool things on the race track. As for Dajara, I tried to find out what Dajara means in German, but I think it’s just a normal name in Germany.
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