Chennai's stables draw riders from across ages, inspired by city students recently winning National medals

The pandemic too has played a role, as more people started exploring horse riding as a means to get out of the confines of their homes

January 26, 2022 05:47 pm | Updated 05:47 pm IST

Yet another cake is being cut at the Chennai Equitation Centre (CEC) on Old Mahabalipuram Road. With an increasing number of children taking up horse riding, the stables often turn into venues for celebrations with young riders, for wins as well as birthdays of both horses and riders.

“There are cakes and carrots,” laughs Isabelle Futnani who trains riders at CEC. She is visibly pleased with the recent haul of medals by her students at the Junior National Equestrian Championship in Mumbai. “My girls won three golds, one silver and two bronze,” she says. In equestrian sports, boys and girls compete together in the different disciplines (Show Jumping, Tent pegging, Dressage and Equitation) and there is no separate category, she adds.

It is a similar tale of victory at Madras School of Equitation, Velachery, which has been competing in national and regional events for the last 15 years. “Our total medal tally stands at 50 so far, with two of our students winning three gold medals at the Junior National Equestrian Championship last month,” says Prem Kumar KS, president, Madras School of Equitation (MSE).

Over the last few years, Isabelle and Prem have noticed a rise in interest in this sport. CEC now has 80 students from 40, while MSE’s donor riding members have also increased. Picking up on the trend, a clutch of new riding schools have come up in Chennai as well as other cities in Tamil Nadu, including Coimbatore, Ambur, Vellore and Tiruppur, over the past few years.

A new awakening

Coimbatore’s Adhav Kandasamy, 12, won a gold medal at the Junior National Equestrian Championship 2021 held in Mumbai. He joined Equine Dreams, an equestrian club in his hometown, when he was four. Adhav’s coach Saravanan K says there has been a rise in enrolments over the last few years. “About 10 years ago, people here just knew about horse racing. But now they are aware of the existence of a competitive sport like equestrian,” he says.

Surendar Nagaraj, who was a trainer at Equine Dreams from 2012 to 2017, is now looking to get an international coaching license with the British Horse Society. Having travelled to Europe, where equestrian is extremely popular, he reckons India still has some catching up to do. “For instance, our national-level events have 30 to 50 competitors. Over there you see 800 to 900 equestrian athletes and about 1,000 horses in a single event. There are big cash prizes too, unlike here. Equestrian is not a part of sports quota, which means it can’t fetch you benefits like a Government job.”

For those who want to ride more casually, Walk & Trot takes riders on horse safaris along the windy coast of Panayur on Chennai’s scenic East Coast Road. Started by NR Janarthanan and Sabari Girish in 2018, this riding school teaches the basics, so even beginners can eventually do long rides.

The pandemic too has clearly played a role, as more people started exploring horse riding as a means to get away from the city, and the confines of their homes. “In the quest for Nature and the outdoors, they are giving this a shot,” says Isabelle, adding that of late she has noticed a lot of adults aged 44 to 50 taking up this activity as a hobby.

Saddle up

Despite being low key, riding has been a popular sport in Chennai since the 1940s when the Riding Club of Madras (with the help of Madras Race Club [MRC]) opened its doors in Guindy. Classes were attended by adults and children as young as 10. In the 70s, riders interested in polo started the Madras Polo and Riders Club near Guindy. A decade later, a few riding members of both clubs along with MRC started the Madras Riding School, known as MSE since 1999, after a change in management.

“Seeing an interest among younger riders, MSE, in 2014, introduced ponies so children, starting at four-years-old, could explore the sport,” adds Prem. Both CEC and MSE, over the years have had students who started learning as early as five and continued to do so for over a decade or even more. “Our oldest rider is 74-year-old Dr Nagajothi,” says Prem. He adds, “Often, it is the bond with the horse that draws the rider for a session of riding everyday. There are regulars who reach here at 5.30 am six days a week to practise horse riding.”

In Chennai, competitive equitation picked up steam in 1990 with in-house competitions and shows at Wellington, and Lovedale in Udhagamandalam. From 2000 regional shows at Chennai Equitation Centre (OMR), Red Earth Riding School (Pondicherry) and Embassy International Riding School (Bengaluru) garnered more attention. And then the International Dressage Development League, a brain child of Kapil Modi, Delhi-based equestrian and participant at the Asian Games, gave a leg up for children in equitation and dressage.

In recent years, horse riding has become more prominent as more schools embrace it. “I became interested in horses after I saw them competing at the Guindy Race Course many years ago,” says Janarthanan who then trained for 15 years. He has 10 students at Walk & Trot now, mostly in the eight to 12 age group. They also offer packages for casual riders. The 15-kilometre ride (priced at around ₹3,000) from Neelankarai to Kovalam is most popular, he says. It starts at 6am with breakfast and the trail runs along the shore and through the woods. For those who like riding through forests they offer a safari from Chengalpet to Thiruvannamalai.

“This sport combines athletics with team spirit,” says Isabelle, adding, “It’s a special feeling, especially for a child, who, in spite of weighing 30-40 kilograms is able to command a horse that weighs 500 kilograms.”

A mane influence

Chennai’s long standing tradition of equestrian sport and horseback riding has also opened various avenues for riders, while shaping generations of this city.“The city’s young riders have grown up to be vets, race club officials, coaches, trainers, instructors, equestrian show judges, show jumping course designers and race commentators among others. Some even have businesses dealing with sport horses and feed,” says Prem.

Jairaj Rajaram, now an equine dentist in Australia, recalls spending hours at the stables in Madras Riding School. After classes, he would spend time grooming the horses and trying to understand them better.

In 2012, this passion inspired Jairaj to give up his career in banking and become an equine dentist. “If not for those days spent at MRS I would have probably continued being a banker, and not a satisfactory one. My life would have been different,” he says, over a call from Australia where he treats around 3,000 horses in a year.

“Horses teach you a lot. To be an equine dentist you also need to have good horsemanship skills, and read their body language. You can tell a lot by looking at their eyes, ears, the way they snort. You need to be prepared and anticipate the next action they do,” he explains, stating that all these skills were acquired over years of riding. Jairaj adds that he continues to wake up at 4.30 am to make time for a sport he so loves.

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