It's not often that equestrian sport makes headlines and catches the attention of people in India.
But that's what happened when India’s decades-long equestrian medal drought came to an end at the 2018 Asian Games. Besides winning a medal in the team event, 29-year-old Fouaad Mirza also won an individual silver medal. In 2019, the youngster was honored with the Arjuna Award by the Indian government.
Fouaad Mirza has also secured an individual Olympic quota in Eventing for the upcoming Tokyo Games, making him the first Indian in 20 years to do so. Indrajit Lamba at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Imtiaz Anees at the 2000 Sydney Olympics were the others.
No person has ever achieved anything by himself and one of the biggest supporters of Fouaad Mirza through his equestrian journey has been his father Dr. Hasneyn Mirza, a former rider himself and one of the most renowned equestrian veterinarians in the country.
Now, in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Bangalore-based Dr. Mirza opens up about Fouaad's journey from riding ponies on a stud farm to securing his Olympic quota. The proud father shares his hopes from his son at the upcoming Tokyo Games and gives our readers interesting insights into the equestrian world.
Exclusive interview with Dr. Hasneyn Mirza
Sportskeeda: First of all, congratulations on Fouaad's achievement in securing an Olympic quota. I believe he is only the third individual from India to qualify for the Olympics in Equestrian - Eventing from India.
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: Thank you. Actually, a team of four riders participated in Eventing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics when all the Western block countries boycotted the Games. A team of four riders was sent to make up the field. But yes, as an individual, he is only the third Indian to secure an Olympic quota in Eventing.
It’s a really huge achievement for a rider from India to qualify and get to compete in the biggest show on Earth. The Indian team winning medals in Eventing at the Asian Games in Jakarta itself has given a big impetus to the sport. Whatever he does at the Olympics will inspire others to strive to represent India at future Olympic Games.
Sportskeeda: Being a renowned equestrian veterinarian yourself, horses have been part of your life and Fouad's life from a very early age. Was Fouaad always inclined towards horses from a young age?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: I used to work on a stud farm, it was a family concern and we had some partners. Both Aly Asker (his eldest son) and Fouaad grew up spending a lot of time around the horses on the farm. I am a sixth-generation horseman, my father was an Army Officer in the 61st Cavalry, and commanded the President’s Body Guard.
Considering the association over generations with horses, if the boys hadn’t got involved with horses, I would have been quite surprised (laughing), because basically it’s become something that almost runs in their genes.
From a young age, both my sons were very comfortable around horses. Whilst on the farm they would be at the stables most of the time, they’d be happy leading the mares to the paddocks. Later, when Fouaad started riding, he would mount his pony and just ride off. We used to have to send a search party to get them back for lunch or when he was needed.
I was fairly certain that both boys would follow a career connected with horses – Aly Asker decided to become a vet and when he had to make a choice on whether to be a small animal practitioner or an equine practitioner, I wasn’t at all surprised that he chose the latter.
As for Fouaad, it was almost a given because for a while he toyed with the idea of becoming a professional jockey before realizing that the equestrian side of the sport was his calling in life.
Sportskeeda: This is probably a layman's question, but what makes a particular horse a racehorse and another an ordinary horse?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: Today, horses are specifically very selectively bred for sport, be it Racing, Show Jumping, Dressage, Eventing, or Polo. Horses have been bred for racing for the past 400 years. Sport horse breeding is much more recent and possibly only for the last 60 or 70 years or so.
Be that as it may, the horse is easily the major partner in any form of Equestrian Sport. These horses are bred with great attention to detail on pedigree, rearing, nutrition, farriery, and training with the sole purpose of excelling on the big stage. Even the best riders will be hard-pressed to make a horse with limited ability compete comparably with an elite equine athlete.
Sportskeeda: With the Olympics coming up, has there been any specific change to Fouaad's training regimen keeping the Tokyo Games in mind?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: It has been a tough time these past 13 months. First, it was the Covid-19 pandemic. Then this year, just when things were starting to settle, there was an outbreak of the neurological form of Equine Herpes Virus (EHV) in Europe, and on its heels the second wave of Covid-19. This has caused events to be canceled all of a sudden.
So when the horse is targeted for an event and the training and fitness is being ramped up to compete and then the event is canceled, one has to scale down the work. One doesn’t know when the next event will be held and whether to push ahead with full work or not.
This can cause issues with keeping horses sound as the major factor in horses going lame is fatigue, when they’re asked to do more than their level of fitness at the time. Moreover, it can add a lot of stress for the riders because they find themselves running out of events to train and compete for their own match fitness. A rider has to be mentally very strong to be able to cope with this pressure.
Sportskeeda: Are you involved on a regular basis in Fouaad's day-to-day career, or do you take a backseat and focus on being more of a support in the role of a father?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: Fouaad has Ms. Sandra Auffarth as his coach. However, Fouaad and I discuss almost everything concerning the horses almost every day.
This includes everything - from the health, fitness, the work, the nutrition, the vaccination schedules, the veterinary work, saddle fitting, event plans, even the shoes that the horses will be shod with.
A family friend, Mr. Bernard Duvernay, is a Master Farrier from Switzerland and he is the go-to man for any issues with the hooves and shoeing.
Every little detail is looked into and discussed as there has to be a lot of attention to detail so there is a lot to talk about and I offer any advice I can.
Sprotskeeda: Financial sponsorship tends to be a big obstacle for many Indian athletes. Has sponsorship been an issue in Fouaad's career? How have you managed that as a parent?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: Up to the time that he was competing in India I was able to support the equestrian activity of both the boys with horses etc. But since February 2014, Fouaad has been sponsored by Mr. Jitu Virwani and his Embassy Group. The entire credit for the Indian team winning medals at the Asian Games has to go to Mr. Jitu Virwani.
He moved heaven and earth to see that the team went on to compete in Jakarta after the Federation whimsically decided that the team wasn’t a medal-winning prospect – the rest as they say is history. But before this, he (aside from Fouaad) had sponsored four riders of the Indian Army to train in France, bought them horses, and ensured that they lacked nothing, just so that India could have a shot at winning a medal at the Asian Games.
Mr. Jitu Virwani has really been instrumental in propelling Equestrian Sport in India. Fouaad is blessed to have a sponsor like him who has given him an opportunity to chase his dreams. To get to this level in this day and age one has to be very wealthy or have a sponsor and someone like Mr. Jitu Virwani is one of a kind.
Sportskeeda: You must be following the equestrian circuit pretty closely. How challenging do you think the Tokyo Olympics will be for Fouaad? What are your expectations from him there?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: The Olympics will be very challenging, it’s the big stage – the best of the best will be there asking for no quarter and giving none. Fouaad has been competing with most of the riders who will be at the Games, at various events around Europe in the past few years.
I know that he will not look out of place or like he doesn’t belong to that group of elite horsemen and women. Fouaad is very competitive, he handles pressure well, he will give his best, and by the grace of God, we might just have a lot to celebrate about. I will be really happy to see him there and doing his best.
Sportskeeda: Fouaad had planned to take part in a couple of events in Poland and Germany in the coming months. There have been a lot of changes in the schedules due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the recent Equine Herpes Outbreak in Europe. How does his schedule look like in the coming weeks right now?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: Well, yes, he went to Montelibretti in Italy in February and competed in an event there. He was scheduled to compete in another event at the same venue but with the EHV outbreak, he had to return to Germany.
The horse went into quarantine for three weeks so that was a dampener on the plans and it was back to the drawing board. Shows in Europe started to get canceled in March and then the second wave of Covid-19 shut down shows till mid-April.
Fouaad leaves for Poland today (the interview was conducted on Tuesday, April 13, 2021) to compete in Strzegom and his next event was also in Poland in Sopot but we now hear that Sopot may be canceled. However, they may hold the Sopot event in Strzegom so we will just have to wait and see.
Sportskeeda: This is happening in several other sports as well, where a lot of the Olympic qualifying events are being postponed or not being held at all due to the COVID-19 outbreak or travel restrictions. Fouaad still needs to meet the Minimum Eligibility Requirement to get an official stamp on his ticket to Tokyo. Any idea on what the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) might do in case more events are canceled and not able to be held?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: I have no idea what the FEI will do in case more events are canceled, leaving riders stranded without events. However, I feel fairly confident that if the upcoming events in Strzegom are held, Fouaad will meet his Minimum Eligibility Requirement.
Sportskeeda: On a lighter note, any memorable incidents that you could share with our readers related to Fouaad's childhood - something that probably he would not tell us himself.
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: (laughing) Fouaad has always been very comfortable around animals and for a kid at the age of two, he was very bold. So once on our way to Ooty, we stopped in Mysore at the zoo, where we saw a panther in a harness being walked by the keeper. My wife asked the keeper if we could have a picture taken with the panther.
So the panther was sat down on a small bench and she sat near it with Fouaad in her lap and suddenly Fouaad reached out to catch the panther's tail. The keeper was immediately panic-struck and said, "Please don’t let the child hold the tail!". There was no way of predicting the panther's reaction to such an indignity of his tail being pulled by a two-year-old.
Sportskeeda: In India, sports is not always considered a viable career option. What message do you have for parents whose kids want to make a career in sports or follow their passion whatever that may be, but may not always have the right support around them?
Dr. Hasneyn Mirza: I think to excel at anything, whatever you may do, whichever field it is, your work should be your hobby, you must want to go out there every day and do better or do the best you can and really enjoy what you’re doing.
At the end of the day it’s a decision that the kid makes, it is their life and they need to be doing something that they really like and parents should be there to support them, and give them whatever help they can, and be there for them as long as their chosen path is legit.