Get to know India’s top rider who’s making waves across the Europe.
Equestrian sports are often a mystery to those who were not raised around horses. There are flags and rails and bells, little hats, and some combination of horses running and jumping. But unlike most sports that are a battle of the individual head-to-head against an opponent, equestrianism is all about symbiosis.
The rider must cultivate a bond with their horses, and the horse and the rider alike must understand each other’s signals and limitations. Together, not against each other, the two players race and jump ever higher and faster towards excellence.
Since he was old enough to hold onto a saddle, Fouaad Mirza has spoken the language of horses. His years of sport have led him to become the first Indian to win an Asian Games individual medal in the equestrian event since 1982, as well as earn innumerable awards and international recognition.
He, like all equestrians but few other athletes, share his titles and successes with his beloved horses. The 27-year-old has now set his sights on the world’s biggest competition and is confident on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
The subtle ques beneath the interview resonates with every horse-lover; earthiness, compassion, and the aroma of horses. In a chat with Fistosports, the 27-year-old talks about his early days, his role models, equestrian scene in India, Olympic dream and why he loves his horses so much and more.
1) You and your family have been involved with horses and racing since 18th century, and you’re probably sixth or seventh generation in the lineage. With that history of background, you started riding ponies very young age. Tell us some of your earliest memories with horses?
Since my young age, I always grew up around horses. I always used to play on the farms with my cousins. Initially, I was very happy to play around them but I never wanted to ride a horse, I never sat on them till I was 5-years-old.
Once I sat on the ponies, then I realised it’s quite fun. Then it became a disease almost – I couldn’t take me away from them – that’s how I started riding ponies.
My father is a veterinarian who specialises in horses and they had a stud farm where they were breeding various horses for racing in Bangalore.
At the beginning, I was never looking at it as something I would take up as a career. It was more like my affinity towards animals. Once a week or twice a week, I would go and ride at the Embassy International Riding School. It was only later on, come the age of 13, where I had the competitive spirit that I can also be sport with horses.
2) To master the sport of equestrian is difficult unless you have the proper guidance from the young age. Were you always competitive-minded when it came to horses or did the sport aspect develop later?
Ajay Appachu from the Embassy Riding School, who was one of the brightest Indian civilian riders has given me great impetus and confidence He taught us and made the training quite fun. Nitin Gupta was also influential in my young career.
3) Did you ever have equestrians that you looked up to when you were starting out in your career — any role models?
If I have to pick one, I would say Sir Mark Todd, who is a former Olympic Champion from New Zealand. During my childhood days, one of my father’s friend Karnal Rajesh Pattu, who was an officer in the 61st cavalry. My dad and I went to the Cavalry on a holiday and my dad asked me to look after the horses.
Mr. Rajesh gave me this old tape which I didn’t know who he was at that time. The tape was all about Sir Mark Todd’ successes and interviews and all the stuff. You won’t believe it, I watched it every day and even today I can tell you minute by minute what happens in the tape. I still have it with me and in fact when I came to India for a short visit. I was watching it with my dad and I was even narrating him what going to happen in the tape. My dad was shocked because I had not seen the tape in a long time. I could even tell you before what’s going to happen and what was going to happen. That’s how much I watched it at a young age.
Sir Mark Todd was a huge role model for me. I have also competed against him in competition as we have been in the same competition and same classes. It’s something I can’t explain, because when you look at them as idols and god; and put them on the huge pedestal; then when you went to compete against him is awe but at the same time you have to beat him. It was a crazy and valuable experience I would say. He is a very nice person. You can go and speak to him, ask him for advice and stuff. Although he’s quite a huge idol for many equestrians but in real he’s quite humane and normal.
4) Tell us more about your education, like where you have studied at?
I went to Bangalore International School, In fact, I did my whole education there till 12th standard. Then from there, I got a chance to study abroad in England, so I took that up at the University of Northampton. After two years, I took a year off because I wanted to pursue my career in Equestrian, then came back when I got a chance to ride for Embassy group Mr.Chitu Varman and then I never looked back. I really loved doing and I didn’t go back to university which my parents very unhappy about.
5) What roles does Embassy International Riding School and Jitu Virwani played in your equestrian career so far?
They played a huge part in my equestrian career. They have got me the horses to compete on, they were very much the helped me in every which way and provided everything I needed as an athlete. They have been instrumental in my career and I am very grateful for them. They are still continuing to support me and forever I am indebted to them.
6) If you could tell people who don’t know anything about this sport what you do as an equestrian, what would you say?
Equestrian is an amazing sport because it’s one of the very few sports probably the only sport where men and women compete on an equal platform unlike other sports where there is specific men’s category and women’s category. And another thing is I don’t think there’s any other sport like it where you and our horses considered athletes.
7) Did you ever imagine when you were younger that you would make it this far, competing in so many events and the Asian Games and now Olympic hopes? How thrilled were you after winning the medal in equestrian after 36 years?
It was amazing and especially when you worked really hard and facing some hiccups along the way with the federations which I am not very much aware of or the Integrities of it.
Lots of people said that I won’t do well – this and that. But in the end, we ended getting two silver medals. It showed our hard work and perseverance paid off which was very satisfying. When you work hard for something and you see the results of you, it’s a satisfying feeling.
Obviously, the medal is the icing on top of the cake or cherry on top of the cake for sure, but the satisfaction came when the hard work being paid off. Asian Games experience was something else. It’s quite a deal to go there from Europe and the horses had to fly there from Europe and winning medals doesn’t sink and these sunk in much later on.
The Asiad silver medals have been my biggest achievement in my sporting career so far. It’s nice to look back upon and you proud of it and at the same time, I am very focused now what’s to come and the future.
Often, I tell myself now, look it’s in the past now and we aren’t in a game where you meant to be scary – that’s in the past. You have to focus your attention in the future.
8) You’re on the road a lot travelling and we also come to know that you traveled 990 kilometres with no company except your horses! Is it true? and how do you fell after completing the long journey? You go for another/different ride the next day? And what’s your strategy for maintaining your training when you’re on the road travelling?
Absolutely, yes. Even last weekend, I was competing in an Olympics qualifier in Poland. We have to drive something like 920 km from our Germany to Poland, I took two horses. We were successful in the competition; I did finish seventh.
In fact, I had a similar mistake like I did in the Asian Games where I had showjumping down and in the Asian games that cost me a gold medal over here it’s cost me the gold as well. I wouldn’t say it’s the weakest part to my game but it’s a face that my horses also say not so strong in that pace.
There are lots of miles that you have to travel because you have to participate in various qualifiers and various shows. It’s quite hard. In India, we have a lot of help but here in Europe, you have to do it on your own from cleaning the horses, feeding them and it’s a lot of tedious work, almost as equivalent of having a full-time job. I still have to improve, getting better. Next week, I am travelling to Belgium for another shot at the qualifier. And in regards to maintaining the strategy, with equestrian athletes you have lots of variables. I think the mental side of an equestrian athlete has to be strong and very focused.
9) Now, we must ask you about your horses in particular Seigneur Medicott who you got most of your medals with. It took you and Seigneur Medicott a bit of time to adapt to each other but where did you originally find him? And what was he like to ride?
Medicott is a hero me. I think to be a hero that brought glory to the nation and he also helped me in many ways in many well-known competitions in Europe. Medicott is an amazing athlete and I am very thankful to him as he carried our flag to many podium finishes. He’s a very kind and gentle horse. He’s like my pet. He always greets me in the morning when I go into the stable to see him. He’s always the first one to welcome me.
It’s very rewarding when they acknowledge you. I have a very good relationship with him. We have quite a strong bond now. It’s a big blow to our Tokyo program that he’s out of the running as he sustained an injury at the start of this year.
10) You partnered with Seigneur Medicott in October 2017, you have gone through lots of ups and downs. He’s a very talented and experienced horse, had a solid partnership before he got injured recently? What happened and how’s he doing now in the recovery process?
Medicott’s in rehab now, taking very light training only. I hope to have him back for the start of the next year season.
We will take our time and gradually build him up because it’s like the injury that he sustained is like somebody in athletics tearing their ACL. It’s quite a serious injury and it’s something that takes times to rebuild and rehabilitation.
Of course, it’s a huge blow but at the same time the other two horses I have here are shaping up nicely and very stepping up to the plates. I think the most important one thing to say is keep working hard. Nothing can deny hard work.
11) Your horses have some pretty good colorful names. How do horses get their colorful — and sometimes inscrutable — names?
These horses get named at a young age. They even have passports and everything. The people who breathe the horses give the names and I just give them pet names.
For example, Medicott – we call him Micky (Mouse) because he always seems to be a happy, never sad face. He’s also quite happy to see everybody.
Frankhill – we call him Facetime because he’s got a very sweet face, got some interesting colouring on his face.
Then we have another horse here, we call him, Diva as he’s the queen of the bond. He’s a bit possessive – If you go to the stable and he always wants the carrots first. If you don’t give her carrot first, then you’ll be in trouble. He’s a little bit like a lady.
12) Looking back, are there any horsey moments that stand out to you?
Yes, I have. When I was growing up, falling off is not so much fun but it happens. Sometimes you have nice falls and sometimes you have the odd falls which I had a little bit.
During my early stages every time I fall off; I would have one book and I used to write down the number of times that I actually fell off. I kept the count up to some 134 falls. My uncle used to tell me that the more you fall, the better you get.
It was a nice little diary I used to keep which horse I fell off and when the date and everything. It’s one of those funny anecdotes from growing up, still vivid in my memory.
13) What do you wish everyone knew about horses?
Horses are amazing animals to work with and I think we can learn a lot from them. They are fast, they are not mean or they don’t everybody says dangerous, this and that. Any animals can be dangerous but they are friendly, kind and leaders.
14) Last thing, not everyone can win an Olympic medal, but there’s something magical about that Olympic hope and the effort that goes into each equestrian being the best they can be. What plan have you laid out Fernhill Facetime and Touchingwood for the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics?
Facetime is doing very well, shaping up very nicely. He’s leading the individual ranking stage at the moment with me as it stands where in front of everybody. In terms of ranking goes, he’s taking the highest-ranked athlete.
Touching is the second on the ranking. He’s a little bit more temperamental to ride than facetime. He’s very moody. He has his days and so is his performance that may or may not be as consistent as the others. But he’s very, very talented, probably the most talented so that’s nothing one days he wants to do it and one day he doesn’t want to do it. Sometimes, you go to the shows, you have to hope and pray that he’s in a good mood.
15) Anything else to the readers?
I would like to say this in general, I think where countries that focus when a young talent growing up, we focus a lot on education. Mainly in India, there is a lot of talents and I think if we took them up seriously enough and persuaded it and followed it we could be new heights within the realms of what’s on the world and in the international stage.
Besides equestrianism, what’s your favorite sport? – Basketball
Indian sports favorite player? Virat Kohli, Swapna Barman
What are the three things Fouaad Mirza good at? Horses, horses and horses!
What are the three things Fouaad Mirza bad at? 1) Eating habits because I skip meals a lot. 2) Going for haircuts as I take long time before I decide and 3) Going to sleep late.
Your favourite song? I am fan of all types of genre – R&B, hiphop.
What’s your favourite among the three – dressage, cross-country and jumping?
WOW! It solely depends on which horse I ride. With Medicott, I prefer to ride him dressage, With Factime, I prefer to ride him cross country. Because each horse has also its strong and weak facets. But ultimately, for any athletes at least in my discipline in my sport general rush comes from the Cross Country. So, for me I’ll go with cross country.
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