An injured horse, a pandemic, a breakout of equine herpes and limited competitions to secure Minimum Eligibility Requirements were the big obstacles that Fouaad Mirza, the first Indian equestrian to qualify for the Olympics since 2000, had to jump over to formally confirm his Tokyo Games berth.

The 29-year-old had clinched a quota late in 2019, but cancelled events due Covid-19 and equine herpes meant he could only complete the Minimum Eligibility Requirements for the Olympics last week at Baborowko in Poland.

Mirza, who won two silver medals at the 2018 Asian Games ending a 36-year-old medal drought, is only the third Indian after Indrajit Lamba and Imtiaz Anees to secure an individual spot in Eventing at the Olympics. Anees was the last to make the cut, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a wildcard.

Archive — Fouaad Mirza’s Asiad medal broke the glass ceiling: Former national champion on equestrian in India

The MER fulfilment ticked the final box and Mirza is now focussed on the journey ahead. But there’s one final unique challenge to complete — the choice of equine teammate.

He is yet to decide which one of his two horses – Seigneur Medicott, who won the Asiad medal, or Dajara – will accompany him to Tokyo. Medicott is the more experienced candidate and has made a remarkable recovery from injury but Dajara is better equipped at jumping, which is his strength as well.

“Seigneur Medicott is a fighter, we managed to get him back and in good form after the injury despite the vets and experts being doubtful. Dajara is lesser experienced but has far more potential. These two horses are very different from the two that helped India get the slot in 2019. But I’m lucky to have them both qualified, it’s an advantage to have two horses in the race,” Mirza said at a virtual interaction organised by the Sports Authority of India and Target Olympic Podium Scheme.

He is currently training in Bergedorf, a village in north-west Germany and hopes to get in more prep events because he had to make the decision at the end of the month. “It is very difficult to choose but the factors to consider are the experience, how they cope with travel and climatic conditions in Tokyo, and most importantly, the form of the horse,” he said.

The athlete-animal connection

Equestrian is a unique Olympic sport in many ways, but its reliance on the connection with an external being – the horse – makes it almost metaphysical.

Mirza describes it as “two hearts and two minds coming together to achieve one goal.”

“It is a different sport but at the same time, the horse is your teammate and partner. I know it’s a different animal altogether but when you train and work together every day for years, you develop this bond, like both of you are looking out for each other.

“I don’t have an exact explanation but I think it’s the hours spent together by the horse and rider that makes you know each other and forms this bond,” he explained.

Describing his relationship with his horses, he said, “We train every day, I look after them myself, I am in the stable for almost 12 hours.. we feed them, we train them, take them for walks, to graze, icing their legs. It’s like you would with any pro athlete... physio, recovery, massage.”

Mirza is himself training with a physiotherapist who specializes in teaching riders how to balance so that he can be at an optimum level to ride.

A childhood connect

The way Mirza talks about his horses shows a deep emotional connect, one formed in childhood thanks to his father, equestrian veterinarian Dr Hasneyn Mirza. This is also why the sport came naturally to him and his Olympic dream was fuelled by watching old tapes of Mark Todd’s Olympic glories of 1984 and 1988.

“My father is a vet who specialises in horses and that’s how I was pretty much introduced to the sport. I grew up around animals and I was very fond of being outdoors. I never had a Gameboy or a Playstation. I was a kid who was outside, playing with the dogs, horses, cats,” he said.

But his course to his Olympics debut was fraught with difficulties beyond anyone’s control – illness for both humans and horses.

“We had the equine herpes virus outbreak a few months back. Horses had to come back and quarantine for two weeks in a separate facility. It was not ideal because you had to shower, change clothes, use different equipment when training with your horse,” he explained.

For now, the horses, rider and the Olympic support team – a groom, a vet and physiotherapist for the horse – have been vaccinated and are looking to train the best they can in Bergedorf.

Amid the extreme lack of competitions, Mirza is glad to have got in last week’s outing in Poland which has helped him add the final touches to his preparation.

“It was a solid all-round performance. The only thing that let us down was show jumping,” he said while describing his recent form. “As a rider, especially with Dajara, that is a strong point so I’m going to work on that. In dressage, the test in the Olympics is different so we have to train that and see where the flaws are and correct that. The cross country is going to be difficult, we don’t know what is going to be set out there so we have to train. I am working on jumping it with another horse so I am also confident and fluent in my riding. As a whole lot of improvement and more to come.”

For now, it’s all about ensuring they peak in the next two months and then picking his partner based on that. One final obstacle to rise above before the big test begins for him and his team.