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Jumpstart your day

RHEA LOBO | Updated on July 28, 2011

High on horses: Nishant Maller practises horse jumping as Aditya Krishna looks on at the Chennai Equitation Centre. - BIJOY GHOSH

Mr Pratika Gopinath trains for show jumping. - BIJOY GHOSH   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Mr Kishore Futnani   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Horse-riding enthusiasts swear by the many benefits of a sport that equally favours men and women.

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.

— Winston Churchill

The Mallers in Chennai will readily agree with Churchill on this one. For 13 years now, every morning they drive 30 km to the Chennai Equitation Centre, in Sholinganallur, for their date with horse riding.

“It's a great way to start my day. And I know the day will be better if I ride in the morning,” says Nishant Maller, a 25-year-old MBA student, who has been riding horses since he was seven. Such is the dedication that he and his sister never missed this family ritual even during their board exams, because horse riding “calms” them, he says.

Mental vs. physical strength

CEC has 35 members, aged four to 60. “A lot of people think horse riding requires brutal strength, because it was always apparently dominated by the armed forces and police. But, in fact, it's one of those rare sports where both men and women compete in the same category, even in the Olympics,” says Kishore Futnani, Managing Trustee of CEC, whose business card carries the above quote from Churchill.

Interestingly, the women riders often beat their male competitors. What differentiates the best from the good is the rider's relationship with the horse. “In the Olympics, you'll sometimes find very frail women who ride so well because they coordinate themselves with the animal — the understanding is so good. You need mental strength, not physical,” he says.

Fourteen-year-old Pratika Gopinath was into tennis and golf before horse riding caught her attention three years ago. She now devotes most of her free time to this newfound interest, describing it as addictive.

But before learning to ride a horse, one has to first learn to walk, trot and then canter the animal. Competitions take place every 3-4 months, with categories such as show jumping, dressage and sometimes tent pegging (a warfare tactic, which later went on to become sport).

Aditya Krishna, CEO of Saksoft, took to horse riding when he was nine and was part of the Indian equestrian contingent at the Asian Games in 1982. “It's an investment in my wellbeing. We all need something we are passionate about, other than work and family. I don't ride to win competitions. Anything else that comes with it is bonus,” he says.

A unique form of workout

After half an hour of riding, the riders are usually dripping in sweat. As Maller says, “You have to use muscles you didn't even know existed before. Your legs hurt the next day.”

So, does horse riding make for a complete workout?

Isabelle Hasleder, the Austrian coach at the centre says, “It's more like dancing rather than the gym. The workout is mainly for the horse — you need to adjust to the horse's movements. It may look nice, but it's actually really difficult.”

The riding centre charges Rs 5,500 a month for three classes a week.

“It's more difficult to teach adults than kids — when kids understand something, they just do it. With adults, you end up having a discussion. After a certain age you are not used to following instructions,” says Isabelle, who apart from teaching horse riding in the mornings and evenings, volunteers at a magazine called Inspired To Be Green.

Overcoming fear of falling

Perseverance is a much-needed virtue here, and there is no room for any fear of falling. “My sister Akshaya has fallen off the horse the most number of times, I think. Once she hit a tree and had a surgery for a hairline fracture. But in two or three months, she was back on the horse again,” says Maller.

Krishna appears to know when to expect a fall — “I fall off once in six months,” he says matter-of-factly. Isabelle, on the other hand, has lost count of the number of times she's fallen.

Futnani, in fact, believes it builds mental strength and teaches important life lessons, especially on facing ups and downs. “When you fall off the horse, you get back on it without any fear and continue riding,” he says.

Having trained over 300 children in the past 30 years, Futnani says he sees the change in them; “it develops confidence — when a six-year-old takes a 500 kg horse over a huge obstacle, it calls for a little confidence. It also builds patience, helps coordinate limbs and gives you a sense of balance.” It is also a great way to develop communication skills, he adds.

The business of horse rearing

The centre has 21 horses in all. Most of them were bred for racing, and bought off the race track. “Often there are good horses that don't have speed in them — they are like you and me. All of us will not be good at everything. Such horses are discarded from racing and we buy them. They turn out to be great jumpers,” says Futnani.

They look for certain criteria when selecting the horses, however. “We prefer horses that have raced till they were four or five years old, because by then they would have developed balance and are also strong. In racing, the jockeys are very light (around 35-40 kg), in riding we have people who are much heavier (up to 80-90 kg). So, unless the back of the horse is very strong, it'll be unfair to it.”

When well cared for, horses can live up to 25 years; each horse takes one or two years to train. On the cost of buying a horse, Isabelle says, “You get horses from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 crore — it's like buying a car.” Additionally, it costs about Rs 14,000 a month to maintain a horse at such a training facility. There is also the added cost of creating and maintaining jumping facilities and other training infrastructure.

Young riders

This recreational sport is especially recommended for children. Recalling some of the high points in his experience of training children, Futnani says, “I had a little kid, a famous doctor's child, who was too scared to touch a horse… by the time she finished the camp, she was so comfortable with the horses that she would stand on them and do exercises.”

Horse riding is also recommended as therapy for children with special needs. Says Isabelle, “In Europe, horses are used in therapy for disabled and challenged kids. Called hippotherapy, it's a big success… something about the character of the horse helps them.” Stating that his centre receives a number of children with special needs, Futnani says, “You have to coordinate your limbs and mind to do different things; you see special kids improve so much.”

Spend some time with the horses and you'll realise that there is more to the sport than just riding. “If I've had a lousy day at work, I come to the stables and sit with my horses,” says Krishna. Echoing his sentiment, Isabelle says, “Horses are an addiction; if I'm not with them, I get sick.”

Published on July 28, 2011

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