Hiroshi Hoketsu Aims for an Empathic Connection with the Horse

Fri, 10/26/2012 - 20:18
Eurodressage F.O.C.U.S.

Oldest Olympian in almost a century and certainly the most mature athlete on form in London, Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan is proof that you should never give up on your dream of "one day"! The 71-year old Hoketsu competed at his fourth Olympics, when he rode on the centreline of the Olympic dressage arena in Greenwich Park, and loves to dream about Rio.

"Am I aiming to 'one day' make it to Brazil? Very good question, but it is not an easy one to answer.  If I am very fortunate and meet a horse which has a possibility to bring me to Rio, I would certainly love to try," says Hoketsu, who is called “The Hope of Old Men” in Japan and is a spokesperson for a health-food company. "Although I feel that will not be so easy," he added.

A sport that enables more "one days" than most,  Hiroshi took up dressage at a time when it was certainly not popular in his hometown of Tokyo.

"When I was 12 years old I began riding after I attended a summer mountain camp and was offered the chance to ride a horse. Since that ride was very enjoyable, I joined a riding club in Tokyo."

One of only two riding clubs in the then 7 million person city, Hiroshi says the sport of dressage is now far more popular and he is glad he chose to pursue it over show jumping.

"I was a Jumping rider until I realized that my eyesight for jumping had gotten worse, around my mid-30s," said the Duke University graduate with a Master in economics. "From that time I started dressage on a far more serious level."

With more than 20 clubs now scattered around Tokyo, Hiroshi was able to train in his home nation until 9 years ago, when he made the move to Germany.

"After joining the riding club in Tokyo, I was trained by a former eventing rider who participated in the Los Angeles Olympics.  He trained me in dressage as well as in jumping. I was trained in Tokyo right up until I moved to Germany, at 63 years of age."

Working with many trainers, both from Japan and Central Europe, Hiroshi is currently training with Ton De Ridder and hopes to never stop learning more about the art of dressage.

"There were so many trainers who worked with me when I was in Japan.  Some of the European trainers I worked with were Mr. Lorenz Rageth, Mr. Raymond Withages and Mr. Henk von Bergen.  However since my move to Germany 9 years ago,  I've been working with Mr. Antonie de Ridder."

With legends likeHarry Boldt and Dr. Klimke having the greatest impact on his career, Hiroshi has achieved many highlights over his 59 years in the saddle.

"I won my first Grand Prix in Europe at the 2007 Vierzon CDI3*," said Hoketsu with pride. "As I was not expecting this at all,  it was a big surprise.  Listening to my national anthem at a competition in Europe, was very impressive."

Debuting at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Hiroshi doesn't have "a favourite Olympics yet", but has both good and bad memories from all three where he represented Japan.

"1964 Tokyo I could not ride the horse that I wanted to because of our training mistake. Then in 2008 Whisper was frightened of a big screen and could not perform satisfactorily in Hong Kong. In London, I made two stupid mistakes."

With little that he has had to sacrifice to get to where he is today the only thing Hiroshi feels he has missed out on is sleep!

"Sleeping is my only sacrifice," he stated. "I had to wake up at 5am everyday for 30 years, so I could ride my horses before going to work."

Set to shortly retire his Olympic partner Whisper (by Wolkenstein II) Hiroshi hopes to eventually put this chestnut lady in foal and keep her with him wherever he goes.

"Whisper is without doubt my best horse ever. You won't find many horses which take you to two Olympic Games. She is quite a character and very intelligent.  However she is a typical mare and likes to be loved.  You can not force her, but must always find a way to collaborate.  She likes males more than females. A lovely and interesting horse."

When the time comes for Whisper to retire, Horishi will try to get her in foal and then bring her back to Japan.  "I also have another 19-year old stallion who is still very fit, but I will retire him when I leave Europe," he said.

Wishing to continue his ride on Whisper, Hiroshi will decide how long the pair can work together and then hopefully search for his next Olympic horse!

"I don't know whether I want another mare," Hoketsu admitted. "If Whisper is around she would not want me to have a mare.  If I have another one, I would prefer a gelding. I am too old to start on a young horse and prefer to have a GP horse."

Inspired by his old riding friends, who "key up and help whenever he gets in a slump and/or goes stale", his greatest challenge in the arena thus far has been to keep Whisper relaxed.

"It is different from one competition to the other.  A lot of time I have to concentrate to keep Whisper relaxed.  If however she is ok,  I can then concentrate on doing our best. I think my greatest strength though, is being able to feel how my partner is feeling.  If my partner has fear or anxiety, it is not easy to change, so I try to ride in a way that will not enhance that feeling."

As for the question that everyone wants to know, how on earth does Hiroshi stay fit and strong at 71?

"I don't control my diet, but I am continuing my own fitness and stretch exercises program for the last 30 years," he explained.

Keeping up with this regime, Hiroshi wishes to continue his dressage career and hopes the younger dressage generation will consider these wise words of advice.

"Please try to feel what your partner is thinking and feeling," he said solemnly. "When you can feel what the mind and physical situation of your partner is,  you will know what you should do.  Also, never give up!"

by Sarah Warne for Eurodressage
Photos © Astrid Appels

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