Asian Games: In equestrian riding, the X-factor is the bond between rider and horse

When equestrian rider Ashish Limaye competes at the Asian Games in Hangzhou he would have already made the most important decision he needed to make: deciding which one of his two steeds, Willy Be Dun and Dinard Penguinan, will accompany him to China.

After a lot of thought — and after delaying the decision as long as he could — Limaye chose Willy Be Dun to be his companion for the Games in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

“I made the decision two weeks ago. Dinard wasn’t feeling like himself. So we had to pick Willy to go for the Asian Games,” Limaye told The Indian Express from Germany, where Willy Be Dun was in mandatory one-week-long quarantine before they flew to China.

For Limaye, the decision was a vexing one. One that was as difficult as it would be for any parent to publicly announce which of their children is their favourite. But both horses also felt a tinge of emotion after being split up.

“This is the first time they’re not together. Usually, we travel to events together, and they’ve never been separated. In quarantine, Willy also was not feeling quite like himself for the first few days. I understand what he must be feeling, I felt the same when I left India to shift base to Germany a few years ago. I also felt homesick,” said the 30-year-old who will represent India in the eventing discipline.

Different personalities

Just like two humans have different personalities, Limaye’s horses have contrasting temperaments.

“Dinard is very sensitive. But he’ll really follow whatever you ask of it. He doesn’t normally make his own decisions. He can get nervous and go into a shell. But if you tell him something, he will follow it with closed eyes. Sometimes Dinard can be really nervous,”Limaye said.

Will is the more confident of the two. Both the horses seem to know when to step up during competition.

“Will is bolder. You really have to pamper Dinard and convince him that nothing’s wrong. Will, on the other hand, has his own personality. He shows off a little bit more. He has his own brain, you have to be smarter to deal with him,” said Limaye, before adding: “But both of them are very competitive. In competitions, they both seem to think that they need to do better than they do back home in training. Most of the horses know when you’re in a competition. Before you start a competition, there is a bell that rings. The moment that bell rings, you see the demeanour of horses changing completely. You will see that the same horse is different at home and in competition. They even understand when it’s an important show for you or it’s a normal show for you.”

What could make things slightly tricky at Hangzhou for Limaye is that Willy Be Dun has never been on an airplane before. Since they’re based in Europe and most competitions and shows happen in the continent, Limaye transports his horses by road on specialised horse trucks. Thankfully for the duo, they have plenty of time before their competition to get settled in.

Reading a horse’s mood is a subtle art that equestrian riders learn to master after spending months cultivating a bond with their horse. Since you cannot work horses for four or six hours in a row like the average athlete does, most riders spend just about an hour or so daily training with their horses. The rest of the time is spent taking long walks with the horse. Limaye, like many other riders, spends time talking to his horses and has a separate routine with each horse.

“Every morning when I look at my horse, I know if he’s happy or he’s sad. The moment I look into my horse’s eyes… I have a bond with them where I believe they can tell me what they’re feeling through their eyes. In the morning there are a few signs that tell you what they’re feeling. They paw their legs, they scratch their nose. These are different for each horse,” he had said in a previous interview with Express in July this year.

In his translation of body language of his steed, pawing of feet can be a sign of discomfort. The trick for any rider, he added, is not just understanding what the horse is feeling.

“These are the small reactions you need to keep an eye out for in the warmup as well, before you go to competitions. There are some days when your horse feels low. Some days it feels angry. It’s just about manipulating the situation in such a way that you are both thriving for each other.

“Since you’re not dealing with a machine, it’s possible that something can go wrong at any one stage in a competition. You have to know how to play with their mind. You cannot treat them like employees and demand that they get this job done. The horse needs to respect you as a friend,” he said.

Limaye said that if the rider is nervous on competition day, the horse can catch that bout of nerves as well. He has a simple game-day trick to put the horse, and himself, at ease.

“The competition atmosphere is completely different. If we’re nervous the horse will be nervous. One simple thing that works for my horses is going for a ride two hours before an event to calm them down. Then you take the horse back to the stable and give him time to rest. Then you come out 20 minutes before the event starts. Your coach cannot tell you what the horse is feeling at the moment. That’s just something you will feel when you’re astride. If they’re not feeling up to the task in a competition, you have to take the call. Rather than trying to achieve 90 percent, you have to back off and say 75 percent is good enough.”

All riders talk about their craft as a friendship between them and the horse. Limaye goes one step further, comparing it at various points during the conversation to a marriage and even to the equation between a psychologist and their patient.

“It’s the same equation you have with your spouse. When I am talking to my wife, I don’t have to say everything. Sometimes you just look at her and it’s understood. I have the same relationship with my horses,” he said.

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Edot: What are the three equestrian disciplines?

Equestrian riding has three disciplines: dressage, show jumping and eventing.

Think of dressage as the equivalent of figure skating. The horse and rider have to exhibit a series of predetermined movements. The horse will walk, trot and canter as music plays in the background. The discipline, contested on a flat 20×60 metres patch of ground, demands complete precision and harmony between horse and rider.

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Show jumping is a discipline where the rider and his steed negotiate an obstacle course of sorts with the horse having to jump over multiple fences — which lead us to the inevitable comparisons to sports like pole vault, high jump, hurdles or steeplechase.

Limaye says Willy Be Dun is better at show jumping because he is careful. This means he really doesn’t want to touch the poles they’re leaping over. Limaye used to be a show jumper before switching to eventing a couple of years ago.

Eventing, the discipline that Limaye will compete in, is best described as an equestrian triathlon. It’s a complete test of a horse and rider’s ability across three formats: dressage, cross country and show jumping. Some riders, like Fouaad Mirza, talk about the cross country event being like a war as horses have to speed through rugged terrain to compete.