Horse power: Inside the Meerut centre where India’s Asian Games medallists trained
At the Army Equestrian Node, riders and horses are forging strong bonds and training hard, because their mission is medals.
It’s 7 am at the Army Equestrian Node in Meerut Cantonment and instructors are calling out to Jai, Jeet and Tarzan — “Kadam, kadam (Step by step)!” “Aagey badh (Move forward)!”
Their trainees are all Army horses, each paired with a rider also from the Army. By the time they’re done, man and horse will be able to canter together in form, clear hurdles with grace and execute a set of skilled movements from memory.
Those are precisely the events that won three young Army riders from here a first-of-its-kind silver medal in the team equestrian event at the Asian Games in Jakarta two weeks ago. The win — by Rakesh Kumar, Captain Ashish Malik and Jitender Singh along with civilian Fouaad Mirza — is still all anyone here can talk about.
“I was watching it on TV at the cantt,” says Risaldar Dinesh Kumar, 44, a rider at the Node. “I jumped up with happiness when they won. We drove down to Delhi to pick them up at the airport, and gave them a grand welcome with garlands and an Army band playing. They have done us proud.”
They weren’t the first — a total of 15 Army men have won bronze before this, in the 1986 Seoul, 1998 Bangkok, 2002 Busan and 2006 Doha Asian Games, all in the team equestrian events. There were individual wins too, a gold and a silver in 1982.
The recent wins have been a particular thrill for the Equestrian Node, because their mission is medals.
The infrastructure at the node is enviable. Here, Jeet takes a turn on a sheltered treadmill, set up so the horses can exercise in a controlled environment in case of bad weather or injury. ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )
There are Army horse training centres across the country, including in Karnataka, Haryana, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. But the Equestrian Node at Meerut is the only one that trains show horses.
It was set up in 2001, and later came under the Army’s Olympic Mission wing, which prepares young talent from within the force for the Olympics. Army riders and horses that show exceptional talent are deputed to the Node to train.
The Equestrian Federation of India (EFI) eventually selects the best for international competitions. The EFI also helps with sponsorships. This year, for instance, Jitu Verwani, chairman and managing director of the Embassy Group and VP for finance at EFI, sponsored the Indian equestrian team, including their six months of training in France with the two-time French Olympian-turned-coach Rodolphe Scherer.
Trainers at the Node also include international experts, as well as experienced Army riders.
The logic of this node is that there are few other places where Indians can afford to train in this field. Unless you’re in a posh riding club, or in the Army, winning an equestrian medal is out of bounds.
Boys Scout Company run practice drills. A total of 18 riders from the node have won at the Asian Games since 1982. ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )
This formula seems to be working. Aside from the medal winners, several Army riders from previous batches have also qualified for the Asian Games.
YAY OR NEIGH
There are currently 14 riders and 28 sporting horses training at the Node. Daily drills start at 4.30 am and cover cantering (a controlled, 3-beat gait), show jumping (clearing fences and hurdles elegantly), and dressage (in which horse and rider perform skilled movements from memory). The facility has blocks of fences with mirrors affixed on them so riders can see their posture and correct it.
“We take care of our horses, they are like our babies,” says Lt Col Amit Sinsinwar, 36, an Army rider currently training here. “My first walk in the morning is always to the stables to check on my horse, followed by yoga and meditation.”
Each horse gets a cubicle lined with grass and fresh hay so they can sleep comfortably. There are fans for when it gets hot, and vets on call round the clock. The horses even get radio-therapy to increase circulation.
“In bad weather, we have special treadmills the horses can use for exercise,” says training officer Lt Col Bharat Singh. There’s also an underwater treadmill with jet sprays, for hydrotherapy.
Lt Col Bharat Singh, a trainer at the Army Equestrian Node, with Tarzan. ‘A horse is just like a young child,’ he says. ‘If they are being naughty, you reprimand them by using a slightly harsher tone. But you also need to show them affection; hug them, talk to them and shout encouraging words like ‘Shabash ghoda!’. ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )
“A horse is just like a young child. You need to be careful in dealing with them,” says Lt Col Singh. “If they are being naughty, you reprimand them by using a slightly harsher tone. But you also need to show them affection; hug them, talk to them and shout encouraging words like ‘Shabash ghoda!’.
One of the few civilians who’s a regular on the campus is Ramesh Chand, 52, from Meerut city, who has tended the stables for 17 years.
“I can just take one look at a horse and know if it is tired, sick or hungry,” he says. “I felt so proud when the men won medals for the country. My favourite horse here is Wonderboy, age 24. He’s old, just like me.”
First Published: Sep 08, 2018 22:01:24