Agarwalla trots into Indian dressage history
Astride his nine-year-old stallion, the rider became the first Indian to win an individual dressage medal at the Asian Games, bronze, on Thursday
Two days after he helped India win a landmark dressage team gold, Anush Agarwalla scripted history by winning the country’s first individual medal in dressage at the Tonglu Equestrian Centre on Thursday. Astride his nine-year-old stallion Estro, the Kolkata rider took bronze to mark a seminal moment in India’s equestrian history.
“I am still coming to terms with it. The team gold is yet to sink in and this bronze is truly special. This is what I had always wished for and visualised,” Agarwalla said.
The 24-year-old is based in Borchen, Germany where he trains under 2004 Olympic champion Hubertus Schmidt. Agarwalla took up equestrian aged eight when his parents enrolled him in Kolkata’s Tollygunge Club. “Actually, my parents wanted the club membership and rules stated that at least one member of the family ought to play a sport at the club. So, I was enrolled in equestrian classes there.”
Three years on, he started making weekend trips to Delhi to train but soon realised it wasn’t yielding tangible results. In 2017, he shiftedto Germany to train under Schmidt. “That was a big, life-changing decision. There were times when I felt I was not good enough, but somehow I persisted. All that has paid dividends,” he said. Agarwalla’s day began with a text to his mother, “Today is going to be special”.
By evening, the family was having a celebratory drink. “I just knew it was going to be my day. Luckily, it worked out well for me.” Agarwalla aggregated 73.030% — 69.900% in technical and 76.160% in artistic — to finish third in the final intermediate 1 freestyle section of dressage. Malaysia’s Qabil Ambak won gold with 75.780 and Jacqueline Wing Ying Siu of Hong Kong took silver with 73.450.
The other Indian, Vipul Hriday Chheda, astride Chemxpro Emerald, was eliminated after his mount’s left front leg developed a bruise. “You can’t have visible blood on the horse, and though Chemxpro Emerald had only a bruise, more like a nick, his blood was visible to the judges, which is why I was eliminated,” said Chheda, who had helped win the team gold. Dressage requires the rider and horse to perform a pre-decided set of routines which are set to music. The rider-horse pair is evaluated on intangibles such as aesthetics and grace, which requires impeccable co-ordination between the rider and horse.
Agarwalla and Estro came together only in February in Schmidt’s stable but developed a strong bond. “This was only our seventh or eighth show together and our first international freestyle event. He is a lovely creature,” he said.
In fact, it was Agarwalla who felt all the pressure while Estro seemed to enjoy the moment. “Estro loves being the centre of attraction. From the moment he landed in China, he knew it was game time and he had been fully clued in. To compete twice in three days is never easy for a horse, especially for a nine-year-old. So, full credit to him,” he said.
In August 2022, Shruti Vora and Agarwalla made history by becoming the first Indians to compete in an individual dressage event at the World Equestrian Championships in Herning, Denmark. “I would like to give a lot of credit for my Asian Games success to that experience. I competed with Olympic and world champions, and to be around them, compete against them and just observe them helped a lot,” he said.
That experience came in handy when Agarwalla, who was the last Indian rider to perform, handled the pressure. “The pressure was immense. I knew I had to finish well. You don’t get to show your talent in stadiums like these or stages like these every day. You don’t have such high stakes rides often. That is where the World Championships experience helped.”