'Riding Free' review: Olympian Imtiaz Anees's memoir is call to arms for the dreamer

"You don’t tell a horse. You ask a horse.” With these words, British equestrian Diana Wilson changed the outlook of a gritty, impatient teenager. Imtiaz Anees would learn to build a deep connection with the horses he rode, and would talk to them gently even in the tensest situations. It was something he learnt at 14, and would prove invaluable to him at 30, when he became only the second Indian to participate in equestrian events at the Olympics, in Sydney 2000.

In school, a new teacher takes you to the next level. I had horses and mentors playing those roles. —Imtiaz Anees, former Olympic equestrian

In Riding Free, Anees’s memoir, two things stand out from cover to cover—his bond with horses and his recognition of how the mentorship of a few key people in his life moulded him into an achiever.

Be it Rajesh, Arizona, Baggy or Kevin—horses he partnered at different stages in his young career—they were his best friends. He would spend long hours in the stables and on walks, pouring his heart out to his four-legged pals. Only horses listened to him patiently and sympathetically, he writes.

“They were all so special to me,” Anees told THE WEEK. “It’s like going to school. Every teacher is different. Every year, a new teacher takes you to the next level. I had horses and mentors playing those roles. I had support from both.”

The underlying motive of the book, he adds, is to pull readers out of their comfort zones. Anees acknowledges that he comes from a position of privilege, but he did not let that define him. For a civilian to break into a sport that was dominated by military folk took extraordinary determination. His reputation of being a “sucker for hard work” and for possessing a fighting spirit all his life made him a champion at different levels. There was no horsing around.

On his journey, traversing through different national and international tournaments, he was fortunate to have not just good coaches, but mentors who shaped his thinking and technique. Each of them left him a part of themselves that built him not just as a player, but as a person. And that is why Anees, today a mentor to many young riders, is a strong advocate of such holistic guidance in life as in sport.

“Parents are biased, mentors aren’t,” he said. You need more than one mentor to walk you through different phases of life. I was so fortunate to meet Diana who was both a mentor and a coach…. This is what is lacking in India. We only have coaches, but we need more mentorship programmes. We need ex-Olympians to come back to their sport not to coach, but to mentor.”

Riding Free is a breezy read and comes at a time when the nation’s attention is turned to the Far East. It took India over 20 years to have its third equestrian at the Olympics—Fouaad Mirza at Tokyo 2020. “Thanks to Fouaad, the sport has got a new life and that is important,” he said. The book is a reminder to a medal-hungry nation that it is not about excelling every four years; it is about excelling every day.

Riding Free: My Olympic Journey

By Imtiaz Anees

Published by HarperCollins

Price Rs299; pages 162