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Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009

Dressage instructor knows how to get best out of horses, riders


Special to The Japan Times

In the rarefied atmosphere of Japan's equestrian competitive world, Gool Wadia is a highly respected name. She is the "eye and mouth" on the ground, the person behind, specifically, some of Japan's best dressage riders as they endeavor to improve their riding, their horses and raise their marks in competition.

News photo
Instructor Gool Wadia stands with Chesento, a 7-year-old horse owned by Tadahiro Takemiya, proprietor of Avalon Hillside Farm riding club in Kanagawa Prefecture. BARBARA BAYER PHOTOS

Recently, Wadia was also in the media spotlight, due to her close work with Hiroshi Hoketsu, Japan's oldest Olympic athlete ever. He competed in dressage at the Beijing Olympics last year at the age of 67.

When she is not teaching or working horses at Avalon Hillside Farm in Kanagawa Prefecture, Wadia is traveling throughout Japan to teach privately and at clinics on both a regular and seasonal basis. She also interprets at various equestrian events in and out of the country.

Fluent in both Japanese and English, Wadia was born and raised in Kobe. Her father was Indian of Parsi ancestry, her mother half-Indian, half-Japanese. After attending an international school in Kobe and a boarding school in England, Wadia returned to Kobe planning on studying in the United States.

However, she shocked her mother and teachers by deciding to pursue her passion for horses and return to England to study riding. Then it was on to Austria for a couple of years, until returning to England to receive her certification as a British Horse Society instructor.

"I probably never worked so hard in my life," she remembers. She returned to Japan as one of the first, if not the first, qualified BHS instructors here. But, before she could settle in at a job, she was called to Australia to a new riding establishment in Brisbane, where she remained for four years. While there, she also changed her citizenship from Indian to Australian.

Following her return to Japan, Wadia worked at establishments in both the Kansai and Kanto regions. In the mid-1980s, she was privately employed by Hoketsu, whom she had known since her early teens. He kept his horses at the original Avalon site along the Tama River. She managed a riding school for three years in the early 1990s in Tochigi Prefecture before returning to Avalon.

Her experiences in a number of countries, coupled with years of hard work, have established Wadia as the respected professional she is. She is strict, highly articulate, and possesses a great sense of responsibility for her charges, both human and equine.

She is also extremely modest. "I am just a lowly riding school instructor and not a very good rider," she insists, much to the wry amusement of those who only dream of having a fraction of her talent.

Her keen eye and, more so, her ability to make the call as to what's needed to improve things, is what is so invaluable to riders. When she first began working with Hoketsu, "I was afraid of him," Wadia says.

"In fact, it took me a while to be brave enough to say something to him. He used to travel a lot and I would work his horses. I would think, this is not right, this is not right. One day, I said, 'Why don't you try this?' Instead of saying, 'What are you on about?' He tried it and it worked, so I became the mouth."

"It was not," she says in characteristic modesty, "as if I made him. We moved our way through the darkness together. He's a very talented and dedicated man. He had the goods."

News photo
Gool Wadia adjusts the side reins as she prepares to lunge the horse in the indoor riding arena at the farm.

Another of Wadia's fortes is knowing what to focus on, for example when to put the rider before the horse. Though a good eye is crucial, an effective instructor, naturally, needs to look to the rider to bring about what is needed from the horse. The rider must not only initiate the movement and communicate what is wanted from the horse, but not block or prevent the animal from doing what is being asked of it.

"I'm a great believer in being able to use the body correctly," Wadia says. "The body is such a great influence on the horse. And I hate to say just 'position' because position seems like something stationary.

"But the way a person sits, the way a person uses the body has a big influence, and the horse mirrors that."

As a child, Wadia says, "the horses were everything." Now, what holds the attraction for her is simply seeing good riding. "If you see good ballet you appreciate it. Whatever good riding is, whether it be jumping or dressage, it's always a wonderful thing to see two living things being able to blend and harmonize."

It may, however, be far easier to judge good ballet than good riding. Wadia admits that an appreciation of dressage is extremely difficult to develop. "At the lower levels of dressage, where a horse only goes through the paces — walk, trot and canter — it is very difficult for a layperson or even a longtime weekend rider to be able to really judge movement."

At the higher levels, such as the Grand Prix, "it is very easy to see different things happening," she says referring to such movements as flying changes (like skipping), half pass (a sideways movement), piaffe (trotting in place) and pirouettes (circling in place).

Though this "flash movement," as Wadia calls it, "to the lay eye looks extravagant and wonderful, good movement is not flash."

A newcomer to dressage, laments Wadia, "will see a Grand Prix horse and say 'I want to do that!' So, they get a Grand Prix horse and, for a while, can seemingly push a button and get the movement."

But, she warns, "if the understanding that to be able to get this movement there has to be suppleness and balance is not there, in time the horse will break down. . . . The horse's body has to be maintained and ridden in the correct way so he can do the things he is required to do," she explains.

"Dressage is supposed to polish the natural movement of a horse," Wadia emphasizes. "The criteria of dressage (are) to be able to make the horse last a long time by getting the horse to use his body correctly. Therefore, his joints and his body will last a long time, and through correct training the horse becomes easy to ride.

"These are the two main reasons dressage was invented. But in this day and age, when the horse is no longer a means of transport or important, it has become a sport. People say, 'What is dressage? It's in a 20-meter by 60-meter arena and the horse goes from A to B, his legs crossing,' " Wadia laughs.

"Or, 'His legs go up and down and he skips across the center,' this sort of thing. People need to understand that dressage just means training to make the horse last and make it easy to ride. The old masters would call it an art."

To riders, Wadia advises: "See past the tricks. If you understand how the horse's body should be working, it will be easier to be interested and to stay interested. Otherwise, the tricks will happen, but the quality will be bad."

Five years ago, Wadia took up her "very first hobby" — ballroom dancing. With a big party planned for her 50th birthday, she says "I wanted to shock them all!" She began taking lessons, was hooked and continues studying today.

Becoming a student herself again has helped open her eyes to what her pupils are experiencing. "You understand something, but the body can't do it," she says with a chuckle.

Indeed, ballroom dancing may have even influenced Wadia's teaching. "Oh yes. I try to be a kinder person," she says, a hint of mischief in her eyes. "I try to be a more understanding instructor."



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