Tales from Tokyo: ‘As a young horse he just wanted to party all the time – I was scared and hated him’

  • Poland’s Malgorzata Cybulska and 12-year-old Chenaro 2 are sitting in an impressive 14th position after the first day of eventing dressage at the Tokyo Olympics, having scored 31 on their Olympic debut. The pair competed together at junior and young rider Europeans, and then stepped up to senior Europeans in 2019 while still being eligible for young riders. But their partnership has not always been so strong.

    “When I got him, he was five-and-a-half years old – and I hated him,” says Malgorzata, 23. “He wanted to party all the time and I was not able to work with him. My dressage tests scored about 45% because he saw the centre line and thought, ‘Party time’ and would just freestyle. I hated him, and I was afraid of him.

    “But we’ve been working now for seven years. Now, everybody says that he is an angel, and he is so calm. But what is most important is that I really trust that he will help me. For example the cross-country is a huge deal to me – I only have the one horse, so I don’t get too much practice. Competing at this level, I have to have it in my head that if I make a mistake he will help me out. He has a huge heart, and we are a great couple.”

    Malgorzata Cybulska: back from the brink

    It may sound as though, after a bumpy start, Malgorzata and Chenaro, have enjoyed a smooth ride through the levels to their first Olympics. But in fact, it is quite remarkable that Malgorzata has made it to Tokyo, after undergoing spinal surgery in 2019 for discopathy, a condition she endured since the age of 12.

    “I ended up not able to ride, but also not really able to walk, and there was the possibility I’d lose the feeling in my legs,” she explained. “We had two options: operation or rehabilitation. But with the rehab, if something happened, like I had a fall, that could be it. So having in mind that the Olympics were coming, and prioritising my health and the fact I love horses and riding, we did the operation and it succeeded.

    “But I was not able to ride for four months afterwards. My boyfriend was riding my horse and competing, and when I started riding again I had three months until the European Championships. It was a really hard and stressful time, but we managed. When my trainer, Peter Kulikowski, told me that the plan was European Championships, I thought, ‘What the heck? We should go for young riders, not seniors’. If he hadn’t seen this potential in us, we wouldn’t be here now.

    “Actually before my operation, jumping was my weakest point, but when I saw my boyfriend riding my horse and jumping so well I thought, ‘Gosh, this is possible’,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t that my horse couldn’t do it – it was that I couldn’t do it! So after the break I actually began to ride much better. I still have to see the physiotherapist, and do workouts and take care of myself. But everything is ok.”

    As well as Olympic eventing, Malgorzata is also midway through a five-year psychology degree at the University of Warsaw. Although the pandemic and the moving of university lectures online has been helpful when it comes to juggling her studies and her riding, Malgorzata says she’s keen to get back to university in person.

    “It’s totally exhausting sitting in front of a screen; I like to see people face to face. How can you study human relationships through a screen?”

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