An unlikely but thrilling ride

An unlikely but thrilling ride
Aung Thu Tun (left) and Than Naing Aung bathing their horses after morning training at the National Equestrian Centre. After three silvers on home ground in 2013, the team are aiming for gold at the 28th SEA Games next month.

He was just 11 when the chance of a lifetime came his way.

Someone noticed the stable boy, who was tasked with looking after the horses at the Yangon riding club, and offered him the chance to become a professional rider.

Two decades later, Aung Thu Tun, now 32, is a SEA Games silver medallist and here in Singapore to contest his third Games.

"It felt good," he said, smiling at the memory, as he and his team-mates Than Naing Aung, Htun Aung Phyo and Saw Maung spoke to The Straits Times during one of their training sessions at the National Equestrian Centre off Thomson Road.

The Myanmar team are aiming to better their haul of three silvers from the Naypyitaw Games.

For the other three riders, they were village boys who grew up with the traditional Myanmar horse - a shorter, but dependable breed.

Securing a position as a club rider on probation was their first step into the profession. They then turned pro around the age of 16 and were talent-spotted by the Myanmar Equestrian Federation about four years ago.

Tun's break came in late 2010, when the federation was looking to form a team to compete in the 2011 SEA Games.

Horse riding had been a natural choice for Tun although he also dabbled in football and pencak silat. He relished the physical and mental challenge, and found an intelligent, faithful companion.

"They may be animals, but when you communicate with a horse and understand each other... it's like dancing."

Not only did he get to work with horses, but it also opened up opportunities for him to travel out of the country too.

In 1994, at 12, just a year after he decided to take up riding, he journeyed to Indonesia for a friendly competition between several clubs.

He returned again when Myanmar made their maiden equestrian appearance at the 2011 SEA Games, and left with two team bronzes in dressage and eventing - a first for his country.

With his love for horses, every aspect of his job - he now works at a riding club in the ancient city of Bagan - is a joy. He not only rides for club owners, but is involved in grooming, feeding and cleaning - chores that some riders might find undesirable.

His team-mates are equally devoted to their mounts. Each rider may be hungry after hours of training, but filling their bellies comes only after they have bathed their horses and cleaned up.

Coach Husref Malek Jeremiah, 41, noted that this close contact with horses from young makes them good riders.

"It may be unorthodox, but they have solid, basic riding skills and knowledge that have been passed down to them," he said.

The current training stint will be spent polishing their riding skills and familiarising themselves with the horses who have been loaned by Singapore.

The riders have their eyes set on gold, but coach Husref and team manager Htay Kyaw are not laying on the pressure.

The tension was high at the 2013 SEA Games, with high hopes that the host team would perform.

This time, coach Husref simply hopes they will score well.

"Horses reflect the rider's confidence. When a rider is excited or stressed, the horse becomes unstable," said Htay Kyaw.

The riders, however, have shrugged off the pressure.

"Now that I have experience from the previous Games, I am confident that we will do well," said Aung, 22, who made his Games debut in 2013.

More importantly, they do not see the event as stressful.

"We release the pressure while riding the horses. Everything is cool now," said Tun.

This article was first published on May 18, 2015.
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