Leg-yield, rein back, travers, pirouette and piaffe—for the uninitiated the terms might be alien. For those in equestrian sport, they are daily jargon to be kept in mind before mounting their steeds and training them for trophies. Training became the biggest casualty during the nationwide lock down due to Covid-19 as the horses were confined to the stables. Now, with a semblance of normalcy returning, riders and grooms must get their mounts back in shape and polish the subtle movements the above terms refer to.
“Horses, like athletes, have muscle memory and bringing them out of lockdown and guiding them to peak fitness will be a huge challenge,” says Navjit Sandhu, a top equestrian exponent in the country who has excelled in eventing and polo.
“There are two things which need to be kept in mind—be it polo, dressage or eventing; one is training involving muscle memory, and the other is fitness. As we get the horses out of the stables after a long period of inactivity, we have to figure out that they don’t pick up injuries,” says Sandhu.
MANAGING THE DIET
With reduced activity during lockdown “we also had to reduce their feed to avoid complications like colic. The challenge is to readjust their diet gradually and have a structured training routine while keeping social distancing norms among grooms and other support staff,” he says.
Bringing horses back to peak fitness will be a long process, taking at least two months. Every “muscle, tendon and joint” is worked upon to ensure they don’t turn lame or succumb to exhaustion.
Muscles are toned by making the horses walk, initially for half-an-hour which is gradually increased to an hour over two weeks. Hard-surface walk is then introduced, which helps strengthen the muscles. The saddle comes on, which will prevent saddle sores when the horses are fit for competition. “The girth comes back and the body starts getting used to a routine,” Sandhu says.
They now start doing a bit of trotting as well. A week on exercises for flexibility, suppleness and obedience begin. If the first month goes smoothly, canter-work is introduced. Depending on the specific work a horse has to perform, some more nuanced and advanced movements are introduced.
“Let’s say he is competing at a particular level, certain obedience exercises, and then more suppleness and exercises for flexibility, elevation, cadence and suspension are introduced.”
SLOW AND STEADY
For show-jumping horses there’ll be smaller jumps, some “gymnastics” exercises and build-up workouts to get their confidence up, while ensuring a horse is not pushed too much. By the seventh week, the horse is ready for intense training.
An eventing horse is introduced to gallops over the next two weeks and should have the “wind back” by the end of the phase. A polo pony should be ready to withstand the rigours of a truncated chukker (3-4 minute period; a full chukker is of seven minutes) by the end of the eighth week.
That should get the horses ready when the season starts, likely in September. Polo stalwart Uday Kalaan, looking forward to playing after missing the last two seasons due to an injury in competition that left him paralysed neck down, says bringing the horses back to competitive fitness will take a lot more time than usual.
“Normally we get our horses back (for training) in August but this time we will have to start bringing them back in early July. Usually, they are playing till April-end, but this time events stopped in mid-March. Which means it will require an extra month’s effort to bring them back into shape,” says Kalaan, who played in two World Cups, was coach in one edition and owns 24 polo ponies.
“Muscle memory plays a big role in polo. Ponies require a lot of schooling (training to stop, turn and do agility movements). If we start by July, we can make them fit by September,” he says.
MEN OVER MOUNTS
Army Polo and Riding Club (APRC) secretary, Lt. Col. Arjun Patil, a three-goal player, says he is still waiting for permission to start the training process.
For him, the bigger challenge is to “keep the security of my men rather than the horses. Keeping the riders and grooms fit is more important because the Covid-19 disease is contagious. We’ve to ensure individuals are quarantined in time before it spreads to others. I’m not very sure if it is transmitted to horses, but definitely some level of precaution must be taken. Since it is a sport where horses, riders and grooms all are part of the set-up, we’ll have to be very cautious.”
Simran Shergill, a veteran of four polo World Cups and as a six-goaler one of the highest handicap players in India, says, “With the virus, we don’t know how the season will happen. That is a call the Indian Polo Association will have to take. IPA will have to come up with norms. We haven’t heard much from the association.”
The issues faced in equestrian are different from other sports.
“There is so much happening behind the scenes when it comes to polo or equestrian. A lot of staff works for the upkeep of horses and they have their problems. They are concerned about their families that live in villages; they ask for leave, and we have to grant them. Once they go, they are unable to return because of all of this (pandemic-related restrictions). If they return, they have to be quarantined for a specific number of days. Then, testing is not easily available,” says a frustrated Shergill.