TOKYO (Reuters) - Sugar lumps and telepathy are the ingredients for success in the equestrian sport of dressage, according to Japanese rider Mieko Yagi.
Eleven times national champion, Yagi makes her Olympic debut on her horse, Dow Jones, at the age of 58 when Hong Kong hosts the equestrian events for Beijing in August.
“I was so happy to share the joy of qualifying with my horse,” said Yagi. “We’re partners. I’m trying to be in perfect harmony with the horse.
“I have got so used to the horse that I feel there is a distinct overlap in our feelings. We know when one of us is not 100 percent.”
Dressage requires horse and rider to work in harmony executing a series of precise, pre-arranged moves. The horse is also judged on its behaviour in the ring.
In 2002, Yagi won the national title after her then-mount instinctively realised she was ill and needed its help. Yagi had earlier been taken to hospital with abdominal pains.
“I have had horses do miraculous things like that many times,” Yagi told Reuters in an interview. “I was so sick I could only walk about 10 metres under my own power. Amazingly the horse understood and took up the slack.
“The wavelength between horse and rider is extremely important. If you have strength, you use your strength. But for me to manoeuvre a 600-kilogram horse, I rely on communication.
“You can do it by power or technique — I believe that heart and trust is the most important thing.”
Yagi said Dow Jones would need tender loving care to help the gelding acclimatise to the testing conditions in Hong Kong.
“We will need to get him gradually used to the heat or he could feel stressed after a week or so of being at the Olympics. Conditioning will be key.
“He can only go outside for an hour or two a day so he needs constant attention for the other 23 hours. It’s a lot harder than looking after a human being,” she said.
Dow Jones, the former mount of Germany’s 2004 Olympic team gold medallist Hubertus Schmidt, has been under Yagi for two years and horse and rider have formed a tight bond.
“It’s almost telepathic,” said Yagi. “He has a look in his eyes which tells me exactly how he’s feeling. In competition his ears prick up as he concentrates on hearing my instructions.
“He knows when he’s performed well. He’ll turn around and look bright-eyed at me as if to say: ‘Didn’t I do well?’ Sometimes he will look annoyed to show me I should have done better.”
Yagi is not predicting miracles for Japan in Hong Kong.
“I think Germany and Holland will be the favourites,” said Yagi, who took up riding again at 38 after stopping at the age of 15.
“Japan will be outsiders but you never know — we could do well. We have a good team. We’ve got nothing to lose so it will be interesting.”
With 67-year-old team mate Hiroshi Hoketsu set to become Japan’s oldest Olympian, Yagi and Japan are never likely to be far from the spotlight in Hong Kong.
“Hoketsu-san is the leader,” said Yagi. “But the fuss over his age won’t bother any of us.”
Yagi’s more immediate concern is keeping Dow Jones in sugar lumps.
“He always wants sugar after he’s done well. He’s quite capable of eating grass like normal horses too but he will only eat it if I hand it to him,” she said.
“He’s so spoilt.”
Editing by Robert Woodward