Appachu’s distincion

“Most riders were surprised to see such high standards from India," says Ajai Appachu.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

The 32-year-old Ajai Appachu recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela, where he became the first Indian to reach the semifinal stage of the World Jumping Finals. By Ashwin Achal.

Ajai Appachu is the face of Indian equestrian proficiency, and the responsibility for bringing the unsung sport to the limelight rests firmly on him. With an accomplished trainer in Maj. J. S. Ahluwalia (retd.), and backed by the Embassy International Riding School, Appachu is well on track.

The 32-year-old Appachu recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela, where he became the first Indian to reach the semifinal stage of the World Jumping Finals.

“Most riders were surprised to see such high standards from India. Many of them came to Major Ahluwalia for tips on technique and other aspects, and even enquired about coming to India for training,” Appachu says.

The Coorg-born rider competed in the Show Jumping event, where a series of obstacles must be negotiated by the rider and his horse in quick time.

The horse — an obvious key element to success — is picked by a random draw. Appachu’s pick was a horse owned by a 13-year-old amateur. This put him at a severe disadvantage when competing against Grand Prix horses with significantly higher aptitude for world-class events.

Appachu, however, has no complaints, admitting that luck may not always be on your side in the sport. The experience of going head to head with the world’s elite provides a boost, and his team returns with positives in plenty.

“The most important learning from Caracas was that we are as good as the best. India does not have much experience at the world stage, so these competitions help build mental strength by learning how to perform under pressure,” says Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia — widely considered the godfather of Indian equestrian — was a pioneering rider before settling into a successful training role. Two Asian championship medals, a bronze in the Seoul Asian Games, and an Olympic appearance command respect, and his focus is now on Appachu’s continued growth.

Ahluwalia first saw Appachu in 1997 when Appachu won the junior nationals, and when he took the coaching role on, in 2008, he immediately knew his new ward had the right stuff.

“The talent was there, it just needed to be tapped. The will to work hard and the desire to excel was evident. Ajai has talent, a high IQ, as well as support from the Embassy International Riding School. All these aspects are combining well,” he says.

Appachu began his association with the Embassy International Riding School (EIRS) in 2001, joining as a trainer after finding himself disillusioned with the poor coaching he received when he was a junior champion.

“The most important learning from Caracas was that we are as good as the best. India does not have much experience at the world stage, so these competitions help build mental strength by learning how to perform under pressure,” says Ahluwalia an accomplished trainer.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The school, located in Bangalore, is run by its Director Silva Storai, who has the distinction of being India’s only professional woman jockey. EIRS gives lessons to about 200 children, who may join with the hope of becoming professional riders or for purely recreational purposes. Appachu trains his wards at the school even today, and this helps his riding no end.

“It is easy to stand and give instructions, but it requires skill to get on the horse and show the right way yourself,” Appachu says.

“When you impart training, you note your own errors. Then you work on eliminating the errors, and your technique improves with constant riding.”

“India first needs proper coaching. Coaches now take their students for a ride, charging a fee without possessing any skill or qualification,” the 57-year-old Ahluwalia says.

Riders who win events in India to qualify for bigger competitions on the world stage often falter badly. The retired Major points to qualification standards being lowered to ensure the country has a presence on the world stage for mere show, resulting in the rider being woefully out of depth against the world’s best.

As Vice-President of the Equestrian Federation of India, Ahluwalia is introducing policy changes which will improve the standards here.

“We want to create a high standard here in India itself. Selection to represent India will be harder, as now the riders must compete in open events of much higher qualification standards,” he says.

Jitu Virwani, who started the EIRS as Chairman and Managing Director of Embassy Group, is confident Appachu will do India proud, but questions the government’s role in the sport.

“Our company sponsors young riders and provides equipment, horses, training and more as many cannot afford it. The government spends 10 to 15 times that amount on riders, who cannot win even at the national level, never mind international events. Who is accountable for the money spend?” Virwani asks.

Having given a good account at Caracas, Appachu will soon travel to Europe to compete in more world-class events. The aim is to build form and confidence gradually, and make a mark at the next major event — the 2014 World Equestrian Games at Normandy, France.

After Normandy, all eyes will be on the 2016 Rio Olympics, the pinnacle. Appachu will not compete in the coming London Games, preferring to allot concentrated effort over a long period to win a medal at Rio, instead of staying content with qualification and participation.

Sound training and financial support are available to Appachu, and coupled with his own dedication and will to succeed, all goals seem possible.