In August 2019, right after the Arjuna award ceremony, Asian Games double-silver medal-winning equestrian rider Fouaad Mirza packed his bags and made his way to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi to catch a flight back to Germany. He was yet to book a place for the Tokyo Olympics and so his routine was entirely pointed towards this one goal.
As he checked in his luggage, the official at the counter recognised him, something he says had never happened before and congratulated him while handing over his boarding pass.
“That was as humbling an experience as I could have ever had,” Mirza said. A few months later in November, the International Federation of Equestrian Sports released their rankings for 2019, confirming that Mirza had secured a berth for India in (what would have been) the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, for the first time in two decades.
Meanwhile, Mirza is stationed in Bergedorf, a sparsely populated village in Hamburg state, Germany, training under Sandra Auffgarth, former World Champion and World Number 1. As of May 8, the country has registered 169,000 confirmed cases and over 7,300 deaths.
“It’s quite bad actually. Almost every state has recorded a considerable number of cases. But, it’s not a red zone where I stay. We go to the supermarket once in three weeks and going out to fetch supplies for our animals is permitted here,” Mirza told Sportstar .
- Focus on personal quota for Olympics -
He may have secured a berth for Tokyo by topping his group in the individual event category of the qualifiers for South East Asia and Oceania, but he wants to confirm his personal quota for the Games, for which the sport and competitions scheduled for the year have to find a way to resume.
The 28-year-old had earmarked the Four Star Long competition in Motilibretti, Italy. Originally scheduled for the second week of April, the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was still ready to risk it all and go for this event, because I thought it’s better I got this done early rather than leave it for later. However, it obviously got cancelled and set off this domino effect where all my qualification events just kept dropping off the calendar. Naturally, I had to tweak my plans. The priority then became to tend to the horses and keep them fit so that I am event-ready as soon as it’s safe to resume.
Despite more time to secure the qualification, the delay poses a whole new set of questions.
“Peaking concerns apply to the horses too. The two horses I am competing with—Fernhill Facetime and Touching Wood—are not at the favourable parts of their prime. With good management and care, we can get another good year out of them but I probably won’t campaign them as aggressively as I would have last year. They may not be able to hold up to that sort of strain,” Mirza explained.
There is a silver lining though. The Embassy Group, which has supported Mirza and his campaigns internationally, has purchased a mare named Dajara 4. But the biggest shot in the arm is that his old running mate, Seigneur Medicott may recover in time for the Olympics.
“Medicott had a disruption of his fibre ligament in the hind leg last year and had the year off. Having these two extra horses is a big plus,” he added.
Does the prospect of having his Asian Games medal-winning steed make things easier for Mirza?
“I maybe biased, but I don’t think any of my horses have the natural ability Medicott has. Fernhill Facetime is a great horse and he tries so hard but he just doesn’t have that fluid natural ability like Medicott. Meanwhile, while having Medicott is a great and proven back up plan, he is not just in the right form. Everything in your gut is telling you to pick Fernhill Facetime but I often find myself anxious about how to improve his jumping and what I can do to get a better showing from him,” Mirza explained.
- Eyes on Touching Wood -
Mirza identifies Touching Wood as the horse to compete with at Tokyo. However, his inexperience has Mirza struggling to decide.
“We’ve got a year of competition out of him and we need to keep building. He’s a horse that can do some very cool things for India, even past Tokyo but now, it feels like it’s not enough. However, my gut says he will come good.”
He does, however, understand the perils of pushing his partner too hard.
“There are some things you cannot change. Overdoing things is never good and you stand to lose the trust of your horse – your teammate if you don’t go about it right. So when anxiety takes over, I kind of just tell myself that hey, look, this is the best he can do and look at what I can do myself to better things. Generally, anxiety is good. It keeps you focussed and thinking. It keeps you sharp between the ears,” he added.
The extra time also gives Mirza’s horses the liberty to taper off a bit and take it easy, especially with the physical demands the sport and an Olympic-focussed schedule place on the animal.
“Each horse needs a different regime depending on his/her diet, physique and temperament. Horses, like us, have personalities. Some like work, some don’t. So we have to work around it. Therefore, we treat them like elite athletes,” Mirza explained.
- The three disciplines -
Equestrian involves three disciplines – dressage, showjumping and cross country. While the first two primarily test rider-horse partnership, routine and discipline, cross-country is a test of endurance and fitness too.
“Dressage and showjumping take a lot of discipline and for a horse to give you that attention and that kind of focus, it takes years of preparation. Some enjoy the concentrated work and find it easy. With others, it’s a slog,” Mirza explained.
“In cross-country, your horse needs to trust you to get through terrain with obstacles. It’s a 4500-5000m track where the horse has to go at about 34 kilometers per hour, with all the jumps. Laying a foundation of strength and stamina is crucial.
"We do hill work with the animals, where we get them to gallop uphill to get their heart rates to a certain level. 180 beats per minute is a good indicator that the horse is going into anaerobic and aerobic fitness and to get that elevation and to maintain it is just so hard. These routines also come with a risk of injury,” he added.
- Mirza's routine -
A typical day in Mirza's life begins at 6am, with exercising the horses registered as the first order of business. Mind you, he has four of them in training for the Olympics and, consequently, four different routines that eat into his day.
“I live on our training base, so I don’t have issues as far as preparation goes. It’s not like I have much of a choice. Even if I don’t want to train, I need to feed and groom them. They’re like my children. So life hasn’t changed drastically for me at all, and for that I am grateful,” he says.
The 28-year-old has a disciplined routine which he follows with dedication. While maintaining his weight has never been an issue, for Mirza - who initially started off as an aspiring racing jockey under champion jockey and veteran trainer Pesi Shroff - maintaining flexibility, balance and core strength are paramount. Strict social distancing policies have kept him away from the gym but he enjoys doing yoga and does heavy exercises thrice a week.
“I try not to think of the possibility of an injury. It’s an unnecessary worry and all I need to do is stick to the right processes and maybe not do something stupid like fall off a horse,” he said with a chuckle.
A rigorous no-artificial-sugar diet helps him with focus, but for Mirza, the hardest part is keeping his sweet tooth in check. He, however, does allow himself the occasional feta cheese treat and watermelon.
- Away from family -
In between all the COVID-19 anxiety and event-focussed training, Mirza has not forgotten that he has not visited his parents in Bengaluru for over a year now.
“I like staying in a routine and going home would disrupt it, so while it would be nice to meet everyone, it’s also a huge break in momentum. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I’d like to see this through staying in my own bubble. Plus I have the horses to stay back for,” he said.
With the new dates for the Olympics now available, the only concern for the rider seems to be a possible impact of the summer sun in Tokyo on the horses, an element equestrian circles were deliberating before the IOC announcement.
While he emphasises on the welfare of the animals, Mirza isn’t too worried.
“Humid conditions are not ideal for horses but I see it as an advantage for Fernhill Facetime or Seigneur Medicott. I’ve competed with Medicott in Indonesia in similar conditions. Of course, the Asian Games difficulty level is slightly lower and cross-country distance is shorter too when compared to the Olympics but it gave us all a good indication that he can cope more than well. He ate well and travelled fine from Germany to Jakarta too. So these are positives for us."
Fernhill Facetime has immunities of his own, Mirza explained.
"He is New Zealand-bred. Summers there can get hot, maybe not as humid, but more testing than here in Europe so we’re sure they’ll manage. Also we must remember that these are thoroughbreds - race quality horses. They can cope with adverse conditions a lot better than we credit them for, be it pressure or weather,” he added.
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