[Equestrian] Training Camp for Top Japanese Athletes—Matching Horses with Athlete Is the Problem
Equestrian events are score-based events in which humans and horses work together to put on a beautiful show. A domestic training camp was held for top Japanese equestrian athletes in early August at the Gotenbashi Field, a National Training Center for equestrian high performance training. Since the Rio Paralympics, the athletes have started on a new path towards a new goal.
Miyaji focuses on his weakest point: walking
Miyaji continues training, motivated by his disappointment in Rio
The camp was held in the indoor field. On the first day, participants worked on basic exercises such as pulling reins, followed by practicing riding figures on the actual course.
Mitsuhide Miyaji (Grade 2 disability) was the only athlete who attended the Rio Paralympic equestrian events. He now trains daily on his problem area: making his walk more beautiful.
Miyaji has paralysis in his right side, sequelae of cerebral hemorrhage. His right eyesight is narrower than his left, causing an unbalance in his vision that makes it difficult to walk straight. At the camp he showed great motivation in training, for example adjusting the stirrup to a shorter length for better posture, as advised from Coach Nobumasa Asakawa (Japan Team member at the London Paralympics). Another troublesome point is moving his healthy leg subtly to communicate with the horse—that is, controlling the horse uniformly. His disability (executive dysfunction) makes it difficult to multi-task, but he was seen trying hard while the coach peppered him with commands like, "Breathe in!"
Miyaji is now 59 years old. Core training is important, but he says ever since Rio he has been focusing on learning how to "relax." He tries to be aware of his breath and to relax. Before getting on a horse, he empties his brain. "But when I do that, I only think about breathing out (instead of the course or movements) and this is very hard for me." However, according to his wife Yumiko, who accompanied him on his training tour to the Netherlands in July, he "put on a focused performance even though it was crowded and in a very difficult environment." Miyaji has announced his hopes to attend the Tokyo Paralympics and is moving steadily forward, with a vision of himself putting on his best performance at the equestrian venue three years from now.
Chinju, a veteran working on improving stirrups
Chinju, one of the best equestrians in Japan
2004 Athens Paralympic Japan representative Mina Chinju is another athlete aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics. Her disability is cerebral palsy, and her disability class is the heaviest Grade 1. She does not have complete control over her body's movements, which causes a good amount of wobbling while on the horse. For this reason, she consistently practices keeping her foundation solid. She has also been working on improving equestrian tools, and at the camp was seen checking the saddle width and height. She seemed happy with the improvements ("It is easier to place my hand [to steady the body] than before.") but still not completely satisfied ("[because of my disability] my hand tends to open up, so I want the seat to be narrower."). She continues to make millimeter-level adjustments to improve synchronicity with her horse.
Chinju's performance is one of the most stable among Japanese athletes. Her coach Kaoru Miki says, "If she has a good horse for Tokyo she has a chance to place among the top eight."
Chinju says, "If I do well at the World Games (in the U.S.) next year, I think I will naturally see what my next step towards the Tokyo Paralympics will be." Her goal for the World Championships is "a little better than the middle."
There are some problems she must overcome in order to get the good results she wants at national events. Chinju works full-time and finds it difficult to take long breaks. On short tours, there is not a lot of time to practice with the local horses. How well she can synchronize with the horse in a short period is a crucial point.
Each year there are more athletes in Chinju's classification (Grade 1), which raises the competition level. Right now she is using the Tokyo Paralympics—the Games that her own country will host—as motivation to continue forward.
Towards the 2018 World Championships
High school student Soshi Yoshigoe, former-jockey Katsuji Takashima and other high performance program athletes attended the camp, each training according to their respective needs.
Katsuyoshi Tsuneishi, who attended for training, has the same disability as Miyaji (executive dysfunction) and finds it hard to remember the course. On the new course used for practice, he commented, "I am having a hard time memorizing it."
The 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games is the next target for Tokyo 2020 hopefuls. Norio Miki, coach for the Rio Paralympic Japan Team, says Japan's main theme for greater competitiveness continues to be finding good horses and "matching horses to athletes." Let us look forward to the athlete-horse combinations they find.
Yoshigoe, a young up-and-coming equestrian aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics
Takashima is one of the top Japanese athletes in Grade 4.
text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1