Until a fortnight before leaving for Tokyo, Fouaad Mirza's evenings were consumed in watching videos and going over dressage sheets. It was a selection dilemma of Olympic proportions between Micky and Diana - stable names for his horses Seigneur Medicott and Dajara4. Mirza is set to make history in Tokyo - only the third-ever Indian rider, and first in 21 years, to have qualified for the Games. He'd first picked Dajara4, then switched to Medicott while still tossing between his two mounts until the July 16 final deadline for entry change. Eventually, he decided to persist with Medicott as his significant debut Games ally. In 2018, they'd won two Asian Games silver medals together.
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So just how does this partnership between man and animal, navigating fences and complex combination jumps at an Olympic event, really work? While the horse is seemingly the more crucial member of the pair, executing the actual routines, the tactical decisions, for instance deciding on which side of a fence to jump for more efficient landing, are taken by the rider. Riders are not looking for an automaton but rather a partner with whom they share an intuitive link and who'll respond to their cues and touch and get the job done.
"You have to let the horse become an extension of your body and really be a part of the animal when you ride," says Mirza. The 29-year-old will compete in the three-day individual eventing discipline - a mix of dressage, jumping and cross-country riding, starting on July 29. The Sea Forest cross country course in Tokyo, previously a landfill site, is set at roughly 4420m, taking around seven minutes and 45 seconds to complete. Penalties would accumulate when a horse dislodges an obstacle or refuses to jump over it, as well as when the horse and rider complete a course too slowly. If the horse or rider falls, they are eliminated.
Good riding is about the economy of cues, aids and interference, and letting the horse think for himself. "The best thing a rider can do is to stay out of interfering with what the horse does," says Mirza. "When you do that, it definitely makes the partnership look a lot smoother and much more precise. The opposite is very distracting for the horses as well. You end up taking their attention off the job in front of them and instead put it on you, which is not required when you're galloping at fences."
Horses typically learn best through association, so it's important that a rider keeps the string of cues consistent. For instance, every time Mirza wants his horse to pick up a canter on the right lead, for that particular movement, he consistently has to use the same aids, same seat position, same leg position and same hand position, so the horse is attuned to it.
"To the extent that when you think of putting your leg or your hands in that position, they already know what you want and they give it to you," he says. "That's when the horse really becomes an extension of your body because you're seemingly doing nothing on the horse, but the horse is doing a lot under you."
"Our sport is, at the end of the day, about two hearts, two brains and two pairs of eyes working as one." Fouaad Mirza
Much like athletes can crumble under pressure, trained horses too can spook at fences and freeze with their hind legs. "They can sometimes shy away and not play ball and of course there's no guarantee because at the end of the day, you are working with an animal. Mine though, have a good head for sport, they know when it's go-time so they knuckle down and get the job done," says Mirza, who is supported by the Embassy Group and has been training in Bergedorf in Germany for four years now. "We tried giving Micky an Indian stable name, 'Mukund'," he laughs, "but the others had a tough time pronouncing it so it never really caught on."
Apart from being the more well-rested horse, two factors tipped Mirza's last-minute decision in favour of Micky - the precision of his jumps and previous experience of surviving humid conditions, during the Asian Games in Jakarta three years ago. For the jumps, Mirza explains, the horse should be allowed to do so on his own, rather than being spurred from speed or fear. "They have to use their head and neck for balance and a smooth landing, or else it can be like falling off a ledge. Micky for instance, is very agile, very precise. He's a technician, he knows exactly where the poles are and does just enough to clear them. When you're that precise, and know how much to do to clear them, it saves energy. He doesn't have to give his 110 percent at each fence."
"Our sport is, at the end of the day, about two hearts, two brains and two pairs of eyes working as one. It's the most beautiful and terrifyingly difficult part."