While the world still grapples with COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on various sporting disciplines, equestrian in Europe has enjoyed a low-key but successful return. Social distancing protocol, no crowds and sparse show personnel are little parts of a new normal that riders are now trying to adapt to. One of them is India’s Asian Games double silver medallist Fouaad Mirza.
The 28-year-old is visibly tired when sitting down for a virtual interview with Sportstar , fresh off a show in Strzegom, Poland. With fewer assistants allowed and longer travel durations due to varied protocols in different neighbouring countries, Mirza is stretched between getting himself and his horses from one show to the next and actually competing. However, a wry smile makes its way across his face when asked about the fatigue and he says, “You can’t get out of the kitchen saying it’s too hot. It cancels everything out then.”
As he targets an individual quota spot at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Mirza talks about COVID-19, adapting to a new normal and what Indian equestrian should do to keep up with the world.
How does it feel to be back in competition?
Since the restart in June, I’ve participated in three events. Fortunately, equestrian is a non-contact sport. When you’re on a horse, you are as socially distant as you need to be, because horses can get riled up if they’re too close to each other. We have restrictions. There are no spectators, there are curbs on the number of people who can be with you on a show. For every two horses, you can have one person along to help you. The shows have a lot of security to ensure those who don’t have accreditation don’t come in. There used to be stores and food stalls and other things around. Now, you have one store which offers coffee or tea and light snacks, but people are usually carrying their own food. There’s no prize ceremony — your rosettes and medals will be sent home with your prize money. At this point, though, none of us are complaining. We are just happy to be back.
How is it shaping up for you and your horses? Are you hitting form after the long break?
I am now competing with Dajara 4 primarily. Time away from competition isn’t good. It’s important to keep competing and stay sharp between the ears. There was a lot of ring rust and a lot of silly mistakes that normally would not have happened in these few tournaments we’ve competed in.
Dajara wasn’t too prepared to perform well and there was a little anxiety considering it is her first time out for a competition and she’s been around other animals after quite a while. I am using these events to build up her fitness and performance.
How is the partnership with Dajara 4 looking like so far?
I have high hopes for her at the moment. I am trying to educate her and bring her up through the grades in a way where she can learn as much as possible and she has held up well. She has a very good brain for the sport. She is not a horse that gets too flustered. She is an easy-doer at the shows, compared to the others I have. The others — Seigneur Medicott, Fernhill Facetime and Touching Wood — are still on a break of sorts, as I had let them go completely. Dajara is a lot younger and I thought, even though we don’t have a plan exactly, she is easily moulded into dynamic schedules like this. The others will properly get to compete maybe at the end of the year or sit this year out completely.
How is Seigneur Medicott’s recovery coming along? Do you have any plans to field him in a show anytime soon?
It takes time for a ligament injury to stop troubling you. Horses are heavy but have skinny legs and it is going to take him time to get back to full strength.
At some point, I do worry that this is perhaps taking more time, but it is important now to not rush him back into competing. He can afford to take his time.
Considering Dajara 4 has a packed schedule now, does the risk of an injury worry you? Does she have her workload managed?
No, I am not worried. With the other horses, the main thing I have learned is how to manage their loads — to know when to back off and when to put more pressure. The priority is to keep Dajara healthy on the road. She is doing well fitnesswise and we are pacing her well. We have already introduced her to an aqua trainer — which is a water treadmill that our older horses use. It works on her ligaments, muscles and legs quite well, along with cardiovascular exercise support. It also helps us facilitate some longevity for her.
Your takeaways from the past few weeks of competition? Any areas to improve?
My cross-country riding has taken a slight hit. It’s not a weak phase, but I need more match practice to get back to my usual form. My show jumping has improved by leaps and bounds, but my dressage has dipped a little. With dressage — I think I approach it with a little bit of doubt. I am on my guard there, so I think that comes in the way sometimes. It keeps playing on my mind, so I am working towards easing the pressure and how to get the best from my horse. Dajara is a great dressage horse, but in the last few international shows, I haven’t got the dressage marks we are capable of getting. But we’ll figure it out as we have time.
How are you doing personally? Has the restart been overwhelming?
I am doing alright. At some point, something like this is going to weigh down on you, and I am at that stage now.
I am glad the competitions are back and I am not sitting and wondering what’s going to happen next, so that’s good.
The schedule between shows seems a little more hectic than usual. Do you get time to take a break?
Not really. It’s better for me to stay under the siege of the Tokyo pressure. I want to stay in the danger zone. What’s important is that there is a lot of gap between international shows and competitions. When I travel to a place like Poland, which is about a 10-hour drive (from Bergedorf in north-west Germany, where he is based), you have to give your horses a week or two to recover from travel before we start working them again towards a show. National shows are easier; I participate almost every other week. It’s good match practice, as they say. You go to a national show to train. Whatever happens there is not on your record and you don’t worry. International shows take a lot more out of you mentally as every result matters. Visibility and good performances there matter. It would have been three times more intense if my other three horses were also competing internationally, so that is a relief with the gaps. Otherwise, I would have been out every other week and that would have been tiring.
What are your priorities now? You still need to cement that individual quota.
Since I am working with Dajara now, she needs a three-star long and a four-star long qualification (see box) . I am hoping to get the three-star done soon and looking at the October-November window for the four-star long. For the older horses, I am looking at taking them to compete in the second week of December. All the shows at the beginning of the year got cancelled or I would have finished this right then and be a little more at ease now. Having said that, a few new shows have been added. Right now it seems a little too soon to get them back. So the window at the end of the year is favourable for me to get what I need to do.
There is still a little doubt about the Tokyo Olympics. Does the speculation bother you, especially now after the postponement?
Of course it is at the back of your mind — whether it will happen or not. I’ll be gutted, for sure, if it didn’t. At the same time, I have my work cut out. I still have a lot to do to get there, so irrespective of the end result, I am just focusing on the process to get there. All we can do is look at it in the best light. It is what it is. I am not going to slack off now just because there are uncertainties.
Would it have been different if you were in India now?
I would have struggled to get back to action. I would have lost a lot of important time. On the other hand, though, it would be nice to be with my family and spend time with them. But this is my goal and I really don’t know what I would have done staying home.
Your comment on Indian equestrian’s approach to rebuilding post-COVID?
Well, I think in the end, to a certain extent, things have to move. We have to find the best way to make things safe. Take horse racing for example. It doesn’t need an audience. Things can be televised in a risk-free manner. They’re doing that in England and the U.S. Horses in each centre are based in the racecourses and you don’t need outsiders coming in. With a little care and planning, things can be pushed along if people want to. For the Olympic discipline, it’s difficult, because the distance to travel between shows is so vast in India and then there’s crossing of state borders and all the permits involved now. Horses face longer hours in the floats and that’s not good for them. Riding schools within cities should look to keep themselves going with shows and other activities. People have some extra time now, so this could be an opening to take the sport (racing or equestrian) to a larger audience. My only concern here would be, should an accident happen — if someone falls off a horse or gets hurt — you don’t want to burden an already overworked health system.
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