One of the most surprising Asian Games medallists for India was Fouaad Mirza winning the silver in the eventing category of equestrian sport. He became the first Indian rider to win an individual equestrian medal at the Asian Games since Raghubir Singh who had finished on the podium, with an individual gold, back in 1982 when New Delhi had hosted the Asiad.

The Indian team, comprising Mirza, Jitender Singh, Akash Malik and Rakesh Kumar, also won the team silver in the same competition with a combined score of 121.30.

Mirza, 26, was on top of the standings after the dressage and cross-country with a score of 22.40. However, he slipped to silver after jumping, by the margin of just one penalty, on the final day of the three-day competition.

Even then, Mirza’s silver could be the catalyst the sport of equestrian needs in India, according to Anisha Sodhi Bhandari, a former national champion and currently one of the five members of the selection committee of the Equestrian Federation of India.

Her parents, Col HS Sodhi and Roshan Sodhi, have been involved in organising equestrian events across India. She is the first civilian rider to be national champion on her own horse and is also the only civilian on the national selection panel.

Sodhi Bhandari, who was the equestrian expert for Sony Pictures Networks during the Asian Games, also explained the dynamics of the sport and how it has grown in India over the last decades.

By winning a silver at the age of 26, at just his second Asian Games, Fouaad Mirza has broken a glass ceiling. His medal is the individual equestrian medal for us since 1982. From the next Asian Games onwards, people will look at equestrian sport as a medal winner, once again.

Mirza won his medal in the three-day event. This is competition in which riders attempt three different equestrian disciplines: dressage, cross-country and show jumping – over three days.

The three-day event is all about stamina, fitness, and being good at all three disciplines.

On the first day we have the dressage. On the second day we have the cross-country where you literally have to gallop across country. It’s like the steeplechase, but the horses do it over a much larger area of land and they have to jump over ditches and into water. The last day is the show jumping day where you have a course of jumps, in an arena, to finish.

Foouad Mirza was leading the event from the very first day and he continued to lead after the cross country. We were quite sure he was going to win an individual medal because apart from Japan’s Oiwa Yoshiaki, who eventually won the gold, he was ahead of the rest of the field by enough points.

When he went into the final round, Yoshiaki had already jumped a clear round. It was a tense and close finish as, with not even four penalties separating their scores, Mirza had to jump a clear round as well. Unfortunately, he dropped a single fence and fell to second place.

The gold was within touching distance, as we had seen happen in a lot of sports. But silver is a good colour too!

Facilities and training in India

Mirza trains in Europe like many of the other top riders in Asia, including Yoshiaki, because that is where three-day eventing is really big. All the big events happen there, like Badminton Horse Trials, which is the equivalent of Wimbledon for equestrian.

The riders also have access to better facilities and coaches in Europe and they can go and enter events which we don’t have in Asia. In India as well, we have national events, but the standard of these events and level of competition is obviously lower than it is in Europe. There our riders competing against Olympians and they need that level of competition to prepare for the big events.

Some people, like the Setalvad brothers [Zahan Kevic and Kaevaan Kevic] who were competing in the show-jumping event, in Jakarta, do train in India. They had imported horses to Bangalore as well as a foreign coach. In fact, they were the only two from the Asiad squad who had actually trained on Indian soil for the Asian Games.

They did really well at the Asian Games, performing better than what was expected. They didn’t get a medal but finished with a commendable performance with very few penalties. Experience is valuable and I have no doubt that they will improve upon this result.

Right now, the level of competition in India is really wanting and that is something the Setalvad brothers may have missed out on.

There are many other talented riders in India. Mirza is our leading eventing rider but there are others like Colonel (retd) Rajesh Pattu, Jai Rathore, Sahej Virk as well as Shruti Vora, a dressage rider who is among the leading women riders in the country. There are lots of youngsters coming up as well.

[About the selection controversy before the Asian Games] I cannot comment as I am one of the selectors but I can say that it is all resolved now. The main thing is that we managed to send a team and they came back with a medal. These medals are not something achieved in days, it is achieved in years.

Equestrian is not an expensive sport for civilians

In India, the Army has dominated this sport for many decades. In 1982, when equestrian first became an Asian Games sport, the Indian team was completely Army, including the coach. But since then it has really caught on with the civilians.

Earlier, civilians either did not know where to go to ride or thought that it was too expensive. But that is actually a myth, it is very doable now and many riding schools and equestrian centers have sprung up all over the country in the last five to ten years, such as Embassy in Bangalore, which has been behind Mirza’s success. There are several in Delhi as well as Tollygunge in Kolkata, the Chennai Equestrian Centre, Japalouppe Equestrian Centre in Pune, Madhya Pradesh Equestrian Academy in Bhopal, ARC in Mumbai, etc. So, wherever you are, it is not difficult to find a place to ride and coach.

How to start the sport

When you start off at a young age – five or six is a good age to start – you can just become a member at one of these centres. Getting a riding lesson would probably cost less than a golf lesson and you can get into group classes so it does not need to be one-on-one right at the beginning.

There are different levels of competitions available for young riders, like the Under -12, under-16 etc. The time to think about importing a horse or getting serious coaching is probably once there is some success at the junior level. One can become a member of the national team only once they are 16 years old thing because of the safety factor.

Once you reach that age is when you think of importing a horse and then it does need a lot of money. You need a license and it is quite complicated, so a lot of people just choose to go and train abroad instead and get a horse and keep it there. But of course you can also begin by buying an experienced horse off one of the senior riders in the equestrian community.

As for coaching, the Equestrian Federation of India gets coaches from overseas to come and hold workshops. A rider can qualify for those workshops based on performance in the national events.

Within the country there are good coaches as well, especially the senior riders who often coach in their free time. But once a rider wants to get to international level, they will benefit from exposure to coaching and competitions abroad. But that is now and it will change because the sport is growing really fast.

Training, however, is more or less on your own cost to start with. You will find help once you reach a certain level. India’s medallists – Mirza and the three Army riders – were all sponsored by a civilian, Jitu Virwani from the Embassy Group who has been sponsoring them since the last Asian Games. The Setalvad boys are self-sponsored.

A gender-neutral sport

One special thing about equestrian is that is completely gender neutral. As far as I know, it is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete in exactly the same event with no discrimination and there is no advantage of being one gender or another.

Some of the most successful riders in the world have been women. In three-day eventing, Lucinda Green is the only rider to have won the Badminton Horse Trials six times. That is like winning Wimbledon six times and each time she has beaten all the men in the field. In fact, Mirza’s coach is a woman as well, Bettina Hoy who is an Olympic medal winner for Germany.

The other amazing thing is that it is a sport which is not just about a player but about the player and the horse. It involves another living creature. Apart from training and fitness, you have to build a deep bond with your horse in order to succeed. You literally need to have telepathy with your horse and that is again something that doesn’t happen in days or weeks, it takes a long time.

That is another thing behind Mirza’s success, his bond with Seigneur Medicott, his horse. If you treat your horse with great love and respect, your horse will you give the same back to you and that will make you a successful pair. This dynamic is like no other in sport and it is what sets equestrian sport apart.

As told to Zenia D’Cunha