Sunday, January 8, 2017

For the Love of Royal Choice An Interview with Dr. Rakesh Pattu DVM

Dr. Rakesh Pattu DVM
For the Love of Royal Choice
An Interview with Dr. Rakesh Pattu DVM
by Gina McKnight

Archived Article from the May 2016 Issue of HorseBlaze Magazine
No Duplication Without Permission

From India, Dr. Rakesh Pattu DVM is an accomplished veterinarian as well as equestrian. Riding at an early age, his life changed with the unexpected demise of his first horse, Royal Choice. Besides a horse trainer, riding instructor, and veterinarian, Dr. Pattu is a seasoned rider, taking the title of India’s National Champion in equestrian sports. From there he has traveled the world, keeping his promise to Royal Choice, to serve horses for the rest of his life…

GM: What is your horse history?  
RP: I have been always an animal lover and horses came to my life as my Father got posted in New Delhi. He is a retired Indian army officer. My first riding lesson was when I was in the 5th grade. It was wet after a lot of rain and the instructor told everyone that we were only to walk that day. I was on the last horse called Nuri. I remember her; I was sliding off my saddle and was so scared. I never shouted “I am falling!” After that, I never rode a horse until I was 15, but used to go and meet Nuri all the time.

I used to play badminton and squash at the Army Club and on my way to the club was the 61st Cavalry (the only horse unit in the army in the world). I would sit down on the wall with my younger brother and watch all the guys playing polo or show jumping and started loving the sport. I asked dad to get us permission to start riding and he did. That’s when I started riding. I was very curious to see if I could do the same as other riders.  It wasn’t as easy as it looked - they all were champion riders. When you sit down and observe the best of the best, you learn a lot. That is the first lesson. I always tell my students never mind what sport you play, even watching badminton, for example, on TV and you observe the court movement the shots and the serve, one can learn a lot. So when you are in the barn or in the riding school and you observe, even when you are not riding, makes a big difference.

After many months of trotting and cantering on regular horses, I was in a horse show doing gymkhana races. I was offered a horse and some serious training in show jumping and grabbed it. When I was in high school and my school (The Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan, New Delhi) began a horseriding program; there was no looking back. In 1988, in high school, I won a few horse shows, including the prestigious Delhi Horse Show in show jumping.   

GM: What career did you pursue after high school?
RP: I am son of an army officer (Colonel R K Pattu). Joining the army was in my blood. But, life took a turn when my Father gave me permission to buy my first horse after seeing me perform in the horse shows from the Delhi Race Track in New Delhi .

Royal Choice, a beautiful 16 hands chestnut gelding, was in my life. He was a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse from the Delhi racetrack where I later worked as a vet and a starter for about five years. I started training him for dressage and show jumping. We had a bond like I have had with my dogs. Every horse has their own personality like us and most of the people talk to their dogs and dogs listen and respond. It’s almost the same way horses do. It takes a little bit more effort, but it works so well.  I would take my food and eat in the barn, wake up in the morning, run down to him as if waking him up like a little boy and telling him that we would go for a work out in a bit. I would saddle him to go to my school. I went to school with him talking to him all the way, leave him at the school stables and run to him whenever I would get a chance to just talk to him. Life was good and we had big plans for each other and life.

GM: Sounds intriguing. Then what happened?
RP: My Exam to join the National Defense Academy (NDA) to be an army officer was on the 7th December 1988. On the 1st December, 6 am, as we were coming back from morning workout, we met with a road accident. It was a very foggy winter morning and it was all my fault. Whenever I think about it I still feel it. My body still shakes. Royal Choice had a broken shoulder and left fore-knee. It was not far from my Father’s Army bungalow.  As I was screaming for help, Royal Choice walked a few steps and fell down on the side of the road. I had his face in my lap as he talked. That’s the first time in my life I had a conversation with a horse. He was trying to tell me, “Don’t cry. It’s ok. Serve horses for the rest of your life. Do something and make a difference…”

I talked to my parents, my teachers and friends in school. They said, “Rakesh Pattu is going to veterinarian school and not the Army.” It was a life changing morning for me…to keep my promise to my dying horse. I still remember his eyes looking at me when I was taken away from him by my Mother and Father as the vet was giving Royal Choice his final Injection. It’s still so fresh, like it has just happened I keep him alive within myself. I remember my promise to him. 

GM: So sad for your loss. That must have been a terrible morning, not only for you, but your entire community.
RP: The morning Royal Choice died and I was home sitting in the living room with my Mother as she was holding me. Dad left for his office wearing his Army uniform and I grew up looking up to him and always wanted to be an Army officer. I had been training all my life to be the best of the best officer. While in the United States, I joined the Virginia State Defense Force in Lexington, Virginia, for my love and passion for uniform and service. Major Cartwright was my company Commandant.

But that morning, everyone was gone from the house and in comes my school’s principal Mr. Dang, my class teacher and chemistry teacher Miss Manjodh. I still remember as if it were yesterday. They hugged me and were talking to me. I remember telling them I killed my horse and he was helpless lying on the road waiting for the vet.  Miss Manjodh told me to “Learn something; do what your horse wanted you to be - a medical student! Be a veterinarian. Go out there serve the horses.”

That was the turning point of my life. I don’t know the exact spot where they buried him. All I know is somewhere around the polo grounds at the Army Polo Club, New Delhi. He had a proper burial, even a priest was called upon. My parents took care of it. I will always be there on his grave. The accident didn’t even leave me with a scratch. It was my fault. I should have been more careful on that foggy winter morning. Royal Choice is still at the Polo Club, so he is still with a lot of horses.

Within a few days, I was buying books to study to be in veterinarian school. My teachers at school (The Army Public School New Delhi) would take out time or stay back after school to prepare me to get admission into veterinarian school. 

GM: Where did you attend Veterinary College? Did you continue your riding career?
RP: I joined the College of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry, PAU, Ludhaina, India. The first place I went was the stables at the college. We have an Army unit there with horses - with a horseriding course for the vet students.  My then commanding officer asked me to pick out a horse for myself for training. The next year was the National Equestrian Championship. Since I was already a National Champion, I was made the riding captain. I met Zorawar for the first time; his face was always out of his stall as if he was talking to everyone. I had picked up another horse for show jumping and would see Zorawar, pat him on my way in and out.  I saw him with another rider who was using spurs, whips, and using high pitched words to push him. He was a lazy horse with such bright eyes. There was an issue with my horse and my seniors claimed that the horse I had been training and working on belonged to them, as they had been riding him before me. I was mad, but gave up in front of my fellow seniors out of respect.

I had two major horseshows coming up and with no horse. Then Zorawar came galloping into my life. I always use to talk to my horses, never mind who I am riding. My friends and the whole university campus started calling me HORSE in Hindi. I would take Zorawar out for long walks, grazing, lazing around and now when I look back what I was doing when I was 18 makes sense to me. I think I was trying to go to his level and start all over fresh with him. It paid us both good, we were National Champions the next year.

I would leave my hostel room as soon as I finished with my studies. I was in my breeches with my saddle on my left shoulder, walking to the stables to sleep there with Zorawar. I would wake up, get us tea. That was his treat; he always loved tea and licked it from his cup every morning. I would make his stall, clean him up and off we went for our training in Dressage, Hacks & Show jumping . He was picking up so well. Of course we have had our bad days as well but we were a team and understood each other. He was a lazy horse at times but when we are in a show, God he was the best of the best. Yes he was slow in jump-offs; it makes me feel so good thinking about him and the shows and the travel we did together in the open trucks and trains. We were a team. It was a joke in my class as I would go to my classes straight away from the barn and in my breeches. I was running to my first class at 9 am, and was late by five minutes. Dr. Roy my teacher of Anatomy told me “Pattu, why don’t you get your horse in the class as well so you won’t be late?” The same Dr. Roy when I was leaving my college as a veterinarian hugged me and told me he was proud of me. I was awarded the University’s Equestrian Sport Roll of Honor twice. Sometimes in life when you have the passion and you hold onto it, never thinking about the future, money, fame, etc., heals you as it rewards you. I am not a rich vet or a horseman because I remember I promised Royal Choice.  Every time I save a horse I look into the sky and tell him I am trying to keep my words. 

GM: Did you and Zorawar make it to the National Championships?
RP: I was travelling with Zorawar on a train for the National Championships in 1992, along with a few more riders and their horses. I was with a friend, Satinder, talking about the championships. He was telling me he wanted a medal or a position in his event (Dressage), as he was going for the Army interview and it would help a lot. I told him he was good and sure would get a medal, but he was feeling low and told me if he had a horse like Zorawar he could win. We were at the show and were giving our entry to the events and I asked Zorawar if Satinder could ride him as he needed a champion horse that would help him.  I had a good feeling about it as if Zorawar said “Let him ride me.” I remember taking Satinder to the Dressage arena that night. It was humid and we were just running and doing the test over and over again. I wanted to make sure he didn’t forget the test. The next morning I saddled Zorawar for Satinder. I rode Satinder’s horse. It’s a feeling I can never forget when you want your horse to win, never mind you are in for quest for the championship. Zorawar didn’t let him down and won the Gold in Dressage. I was I think 4th or 5th, but we did win the Gold & Bronze in other events in the same championship.  When you have a bond with your horse and you are a team it’s an amazing feeling to see him beat you with another horse. It was an awesome moment seeing him getting the red ribbon.

GM: What brought you to the United States?
RP: I have my permanent United States residency. It has been a long ride though; I got it in 2008. Virginia was my home before I packed and moved on. I coached polo to the Washington and Lee University polo team in Lexington, Virginia.
GM: You lived in Columbus, Ohio, for a while. Did you attend the Quarter Horse Congress, Ohio’s great horse event?
RP: Yes, I loved it there in Columbus and had some wonderful friends. I was living with a buddy, he's a cowboy. What an experience. We went out for shows and camping; it was just awesome. I love going to the shows. It’s an awesome feeling and the atmosphere.

GM: And you are a horse trainer as well?
RP: I have been National Champion here in India and I don't know how it came to me to educate people about horses. I never went to any school or training to be a clinician.  When I was in vet school it started as I use to train horses and my fellow team members. Much later I was called to help a team for the National and International show and I did very well, maybe one of the best performances by a team. When I was with Monty Roberts at his farm in California, we would discuss horses. I spent a month with Monty, his trainers and students. It was getting clear that I could teach and educate riders or people involved with horses…it’s been a journey. Now I am setting up an equestrian center along with an equine rescue rehabilitation and equine hospital in India. I think I can contribute a little to the community by education besides making champion. Also to try and do something for the handicapped people; horses can do wonders. I have been to one such facility in Ohio and quite a few in the Netherlands. I still need to do some more homework and funding. We don’t have such centers here in India to my knowledge.

GM: Do you have any other horse anecdotes to share?
RP: In 2000, I was called by a school (Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty), a beautiful hill station in South India, to check their horses. It was then the leading show jumping stables of India. They didn’t want me to go back to the States, and I ended up working there. It is just a wonderful place; perfect for horses and with awesome riding school and cross country. They also had a small set of Veterinary Hospitals. I was very happy with all the horses. They were all just great, but, Dancing Lord, a seven year old dark bay gelding Thoroughbred, was the greatest. This horse was gifted to the school. He had come straight from the Pune race track. He wouldn’t let anyone come near him, always ready to bite and kick. When saddled he was rearing to go as two grooms would hold him. When you did get a leg up, he was gone with the wind. After a few days, I had a meeting with the School Board and they asked me about him. I told the Board it would take a long time; he’s just a race horse. It was decided to load him and send him back to the track before he gets hurts or hurts someone real bad. The same night as I was in bed, I was thinking about him and thinking he is such a beautiful horse and what a waste if he can’t be in the team. I went to the barn and was just talking to him like we talk to all the horses and he seemed least interested as if telling me to go away, as he stood in his corner. He would charge at me from time to time. I did spend a few hours standing there and talking to him.  He was not a bad horse. I guess he was just a racetrack horse. I wondered how he must have been trained and handled. I decided to work on him and asked the school to give me four weeks on my responsibility. And all I did was spend as much time as I could to be with him; took him out for grazing every morning at 11am with two grooms with me. It took a while to get his confidence. I later took him out for walks on the trails and talked to him during our rides and mixing our trail rides with some trotting at the school. At times you have to read the horses mind and to divert his attention it may take a bit of extra time in making the horse ready for training. I had to change his mind set to what he thought was running - and maybe not enjoying. I made him just enjoy the time under saddle; that’s what we say a happy horse under saddle.

It was then time. I would saddle him and just walk off from him.  Dancing Lord would walk behind me to the riding school, which is about a ten minute walk. That was what I was hoping for, that he would not only calm down but get eager to become a horse to ride. I had never thought he would become a show jumper. I was looking for a Dressage horse in him. He would take off even seeing a single ground pole. The more I was working with him just for Dressage, the better he was becoming. I knew he had a big heart. Never once I remember him being scared or shy away from water, rain, or ditches, but I never made him face any form of jump.

In few months’ time as I was coaching the team for Cross Country, I made a new water jump. I was trying to teach them about the strides. I was on Dancing Lord and not even making him face the jump. Dancing Lord had enough watching the other four horses doing all the Cross Country jumps. As a rider you feel it so strong - it’s like getting some kind of vibration and at times they are so strong. That afternoon I got Dancing Lord to face his first brush jump and he was so delighted after doing it; he was like a kid getting a treat he had been waiting for. Maybe it was the same concept what Monty Roberts had taught me in 2006 at his farm about loading of horses in the show them the trailer and as soon as they reach you stop and back them off till they are so curious or not bothered as they walk in the trailer. 

The next morning it was time for Dancing Lord to learn show jumping; it was a treat to teach him just the concept. He would drop the fences but never refuse. As the National Equestrian Championships were getting close and I had to make the team, the first horse I picked up was him. No one including me ever thought he would even be around. He was getting better and better. It was time for me to let the team start riding him. In all the events, he was just a champion, never mind the medal. Everyone wanted him for their events.  I had 11 horses and 14 team members and Dancing Lord was in a lot of entries from Dressage, Hacks, Show Jumping every division, one day event…this horse was doing it all. I had other horses as well all champions. I was very confident that with my team of riders and every horse would perform very well and a lot of chances of winning medals. I was hoping for about ten medals at least. It was Dancing Lord’s first championship. When I recall the show now, I was more like a vet and a manager running around. Dancing Lord was the busiest horse for days. He would finish his dressage and he was going for show jumping. He was so happy and so fit. I remember on the second day riders were already talking about him. He won almost everything he was entered except the one day event which was his best shot; my rider took the fence at an extreme bad angle when she had all the time to get him straight. He had a refused as there was no way he would have jumped that drop fence.

Dancing Lord won over thirty medals; my team won over 30 medals with a medal in every event Dancing Lord entered, including the International Show Jumping Championships. He made us so proud when he was picked up by the Equestrian Federation of India for the International show jumping Championships. During the draws, a rider from the UK team got him. He didn’t let her down. Dancing Lord, the horse not even a year back was almost been rejected, was standing tall winning Gold medal for the UK team. 

GM: Do you work with India’s indigenous Marwari?
RP: I do love the Marwari. They are very loyal and intelligent.  When you read the history of the Mugal invasion and you read about all the wars the states have fought, there are stories of the Marwari that makes them such a back bone of our inheritance.

GM: What about your current facility. What programs do you offer there?
The NGO facility where I am working is in Udaipur. The Equestrian Center is a place called Sela Qui near Dehradun about 250 km up North of New Delhi. I am working on this project for equine rescue rehab with an Equine hospital and another Equestrian center. I teach natural horsemanship, team development and leadership, Equine assistant education, join ups, show jumping dressage, and polo clinics. I am training young veterinarians and veterinarian students. Also, from race track, I will be training the upcoming riding boys who are working on becoming jockeys. So, a lot on my plate at this moment. I already have one project going on wellness program for working equines.

GM: What training methods do you recommend?
RP: To get to know your horse, ground work is very important. It’s a start to a bond between you and the horse. Even taking your horse for grazing, you get to know your horse. When you see him in the barn alone, you see his personality. When you train a horse for any event or even pleasure ride it makes all the difference since every horse, like us, has its own personality. To know your horse before you put him in any form of training helps to a great deal, both for the rider and the horse.

I have always told my students that every horse is a champion and when you come to the barn get blinkers on your eyes; think about your horse. Don’t waste your time and your horse’s time. You can be a champion rider but to be a champion horseman you have to learn your horse before you set a goal. Remember Sea Biscuit. That movie had a few scenes which are so touching to see how this jockey knows his horse…when he tells the other jockey as he lay in the hospital ''let my horse have a good look in the other horses eyes.'' He can’t be beaten. It’s a very fine example of horsemanship.  How a rider knows about his horse. He could even tell when to break his stride, when to push him, when to let him do it for you. Another one from the same movie is when the horse had injured his leg. The vet almost said to put Sea Biscuit to sleep. The rider took Sea Biscuit out for grazing and then decides to put the saddle on, and then he was talking to the horse. Then Sea Biscuit won the race. It’s all so perfect. It works very well. That’s the relationship between a rider and a horse we should be looking for.

Training with a happy horse makes the advanced training easy, simple and fun. It’s long hard work with a lot of patience and there all your work in starting a horse comes in hand. I have trained many horses and have started a lot, but I have always taken it day-by-day. On many occasions we have to start all over again you see its the connection and many times we feel the disconnection and instead of pushing your horse its time to release the pressure and go back to the basics .   

GM: What are your thoughts on therapeutic riding?
RP: Horses heal. They healed me from stress, anxiety attacks, and a broken back way back in 2008. It’s all about the training and finding a horse with a heart. When we are looking for a horse, we ride and check the horse. I am sure every rider has their own liking or to some extent it’s the connection. Once you sit on a horse you can feel’s the vibes you get straight away.
Every horse is different and so is the starting of a horse. I personally feel and think one has to understand his or her horse. I have seen many riders training their horses in almost the same way; it’s like when we go to school, it depends a lot on the teachers. If my English teacher is good and understands me, and gives me all the comfort in the class, I am bound to fall in love with English. It’s just a very simple concept. Same is with the horse. It can be a show jumper, dressage, polo or a racehorse. Making your horse fall in love with the event you want to train him for is important. It makes the two happy in the training and competing. Of course the blood line matters, but that’s the difference between a well-trained and schooled horse. I would call them a happy horse when we see a horse and rider enjoying what they are doing. 

GM: What does horsemanship mean to you?
RP: Horsemanship is the connection you have with a horse; it comes with time and learning horses. I don’t know how really to put it in words, but I would say it’s an art. Horsemanship is a passion to learn about horses. It’s the quality time one spends with a horse no matter what we are doing around them and or with them. I always tell my students not to waste your time or a horse’s time even if someone else is riding, lounging, and even grazing.  Observe horses and they teach you. A lot of trainers do say to build up a relationship with your horse, it’s the connection we call “Equus language.” Horsemanship is to go with the horse, make your horse comfortable and having you around. 

For example, my mare was injured bad many weeks back and I had no clue when she will be ready so can start working on her. A few guys asked me when she would be ready, and I told them I didn’t know. Last night I had dinner at the barn. My grooms cooked for me and I went to her. I was getting ready to leave she was happy, excited it was very clear to me she wanted me to take her out. It’s not the language or signs a horse would show you like wanting to go out for grazing, it was a different look in her eyes, her face was very clear to me. She was ready. I got her out on the halter asked my groom to give me a leg up and we went for a walk in the Dressage arena…it was just moonlight and all dark. We walked and talked. My champion gal is back.  That’s horsemanship in one way, to be connected to know a horse; to go with the horse and it will never come without love and passion.

Gina McKnight is an author, freelance writer, Ohio USA.

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