Army bias forces India's top eventing rider to retire at 19
Chirag Khandal had been the youngest equestrian to qualify for the Asian Games. But having been frozen out by his own federation, the 19-year-old civilian is giving up on his sports dreams. The crores his family had spent will not return, but he hopes his love for animals do.
Chirag Khandal, the youngest equestrian in the continent to have qualified for the upcoming 19th Asian Games, has announced a shock retirement from the sport at the age of 19.
His dreams having been killed by hostility by the Indian Army-dominated Equestrian Federation of India (EFI), the civilian said he is returning to his hometown because his family has no money left to carry on the fight.
"Equestrian is a very expensive sport, my family has spent around 2 crore INR over the last two years to fund my dream of representing India at the Asian Games. There's no way back for me into this sport as the two people in charge of the federation will do everything in their power to destroy my career and my family's money," Chirag told The Bridge a day after the shock announcement.
"It is not possible to think of preparing for the Olympics. We are shifting back to our hometown Jaipur, where we will be starting a new life in rented accommodation. Since I started my career seven years ago, my father has sold his ancestral property in Jaipur, my elder brother has sold his car and my family has taken a gold loan - all to fund my career," he said.
Chirag, who burst into the news last year as the youngest equestrian at the Asian Games, has found himself in an unenviable position in a sport where the Army holds sway. Allegedly because of his civilian background, Chirag has always been discriminated against by his own federation.
His name was mysteriously omitted from the list of names sent by the EFI to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) earlier this year. Chirag's family moved Supreme Court, following which the SC ruled that his name had to be included. However, on deadline day on May 20, the EFI allegedly sent an email after midnight to inform him that his horse 'Veni Vidi Vici' had been given to others and that Chirag had to find another horse instead.
"We have even received threatening calls from the Army. EFI's Harish Khokhar has been recorded to say he will not allow Chirag into the Indian team at any cost. We have been running from pillar to post, my wife tried speaking with the Union sports minister, but no one seems to have time for us," Chirag's father Sandeep Sharma said.
"The Army sponsors their riders, Ashish Limaye is sponsored by embassies, we have nothing. We cannot spend 1.5 crore INR again. The coach in charge of Chirag's horse stopped taking our calls in May. His wife sent us a message, asking who will pay for the horse," he said.
The horse whisperer
Chirag's father has been scarred by the administrative issues he has faced in Indian sports over the last two years, but he is heartbroken at the fact that his son's love for animals is now under threat.
"Since he was a little boy, Chirag always loved animals. Once he met a dog in Shimla and was inconsolable because he was not allowed to bring that dog into the car. When he was in Class 7, one of my friends opened a stud farm in Jaipur, and he would spend hours with the horses there. But now, he doesn't even want to see horses. I wanted to take him to the Chinkara horse show to cheer him up, he said seeing those horses would only make him sadder," Chirag's father said.
Chirag's bond with his equine friends led him to leave home in Class 8 and live in a camp run by former equestrian national champion Gulab Singh in Delhi's Chattarpur. There were a lot of sacrifices involved in staying at a camp, often having parathas with water as meals.
Within one year, he had won 13 medals and named as the best rider in the Junior National Equestrian Championships (JNEC) in Bhopal. When in Class 9, he went on his first international trip to China and Thailand, winning junior medals for the country.
In 2021, things became serious as Chirag achieved the MER required to go to the Asian Games.
"He did Eventing for the first time in France. Despite the lack of experience, he was the top rider in all of the country. The horse with which he achieved the MER was given to an Army rider called Colonel Ashish Malik, who couldn't even finish his event with the same horse," Chirag's father said.
Apathy, dangerous attention from the Indian Army and a blatant disregard for the expenses the family has incurred in taking Chirag to the top echelons of the sport have all contributed to one of the brightest sporting talents in the country walking away to fresher pastures. Perhaps one day, Chirag can rediscover his love for horses, even if there is no competition to win.