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Apprenticing Under a Paralympian to Train More! Equestrian Sho Inaba’s Challenge!

When the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are held in the summer of 2021, Sho Inaba will be 26 years old. He first started horse riding when he was in sixth-grade elementary school as a part of rehabilitation. Then in 2017, he started pursuing it competitively.

Sho Inaba (hereafter “Inaba”): I played in a youth baseball team as a child, but it gradually became too difficult to keep up with the practice. So we looked for something else. That was when my mother half dragged me to an equestrian stable. When I got on the horse, it was surprisingly high and scary. It definitely wasn’t something I wanted to do for a long time (laughs).

Inaba, who was born with cerebral palsy, nevertheless continued riding as part of his rehabilitation to loosen the muscles around his hip joints caused by hypertonia. When Inaba was 15 years old, his coach at the stable back then took him to a para-equestrian competition in the UK.

Inaba: It was like I had stepped into a different world. I thought, even if I did this competitively, I would just make a fool of myself. The people there were completely out of my league. Thinking back now, I assume that competition wasn’t the highest level in terms of skills, but I felt that all athletes, including those in Japan, were beyond my reach.

That experience turned into a bit of a roadblock for Inaba. So he continued riding as a hobby throughout high school and university, but never took it competitively. Nevertheless, when he was in his senior year at high school, he heard that the next Paralympic Games would be held in Tokyo and it stayed on his mind.

Inaba: Between my third and fourth year at university, I went to Australia as an exchange student. I wanted to go since I was interested in foreign cultures, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking it would be better to know English if I started riding competitively.

Then in June 2017, Inaba returned to Japan. It was the time of year when all the students around him were busy job hunting. Inaba realized right then and there what he wanted to do with his future.

Even when it’s raining, Inaba trains in the circular riding hall

In Search of Better Training Environments

A month after he returned to Japan, he began to train at the Shizuoka Riding Club. The club is owned by Nobumasa Asakawa, the only Japanese rider who participated in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Inaba’s intent was, of course, to participate in Tokyo 2020.

Inaba: I had virtually no competitive experience, so for me to say I wanted to compete in Tokyo 2020 in just three years was nothing short of reckless. I knew I had to take the shortest route and travel the shortest distance to make it in time. I contacted Nobumasa because he knows the shortest route.

Above all, Inaba was most passionate and clever about gathering sponsors and people who would support him. He knew he would need them to accomplish his goal so he took the initiative and approached most of them himself.

Inaba: I obviously had no accomplishments to speak of, but I made up for it with my passion for the sport, which I wasn’t afraid of showing to the companies I visited. Among them was Simplex Inc., which took me on as a para-athlete. That’s where I now belong. They allow me to focus on training at the Shizuoka Riding Club from Wednesdays through Sundays.

When COVID-19 struck, Inaba couldn’t ride for around two months, but he used the time wisely. He set up a website and started using social media. He also created presentation materials and spoke to many people remotely, gaining five more sponsorship companies.

Inaba spends five days a week in Shizuoka, training and taking care of his horses all day every day

Growing Confidence as a Top-Class Rider

In 2018, Inaba started to gain confidence as an athlete capable of competing on the world stage. It was when he was chosen to represent Japan at the FEI World Equestrian Games. Entering this tournament meant he was recognized as a potential Tokyo 2020 athlete. In the team test, he scored 65.50%, which was his personal record.

Inaba: Entering the World Equestrian Games was one of my major goals, so I was happy. But when I saw so many people competing for the medals at the tournament, I knew that just entering wasn’t enough. I instinctively felt that I would have to make a more conscious effort to reach for the top if I wanted to really make it there.

With that determination in mind, Inaba continued to train. Now, as of October 2020, he has four horses that meet the minimum standards for entering the Paralympic Games. Of the four, he anticipates entering Tokyo 2020 with Casanova, who was born in 2007. Although he was more expensive than a car, Inaba wanted and bought him on his own.

Inaba: I bought Casanova in 2019 after talking to my coach and team who all agreed that I should buy a horse that was slightly above my current skill level. Casanova has a calm personality, but when I first met him, he wouldn’t come near me. Since I usually drag my feet when I walk, I make a bit of noise when I’m on gravel, which spooked him.

Inaba uses a whip or clicks his tongue to signal horses to move. Casanova acutely responds to those cues from the rider but is sometimes a little too sensitive, as the first meeting between him and Inaba illustrated.

Inaba took the Tokyo 2020 postponement positively and continues to be passionate

To Make it to the Top at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games…

To win a medal at Tokyo 2020, Inaba is currently training hard to raise his score to above 70% in upcoming tournaments.

Inaba: If I can reach 70%, I could probably rank 5th or 6th place at the Paralympic Games. So our strategy is to first reach the 70% mark and then improve even more from there.

On the other hand, Inaba’s greatest strength is the amount of time he dedicates to training. He doesn’t hesitate to say he’s confident in that regard.

Inaba: At the Shizuoka Riding Club, I sometimes ride four horses a day. If it were only Casanova though, there would be days when I’d only be able to ride for half an hour. In Japan, there aren’t many places where you can ride as much as I do. Each horse is different, which means I need to brush up on different skills for each of them. Being able to ride so much and for so long is my greatest weapon.

One of the reasons he trains while living-in at the club is because he wants to spend as much time as he can taking care of the horses and being close to them. Equestrian sports require the rider and horse to become one.

Inaba grooms and saddles his horses mostly on his own

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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