Russia’s Inessa Merkulova, who makes her Olympic debut in Rio, reads to her horse Mister X before every test they do in competition.
“He’s not a horse, he’s a person,” she said. “He likes to read books with me. Every time, before the competition, we go and read books for an hour and a half.
“I read love stories. He listens to my voice, he calms down. He’s tuning in. It’s a ritual for us now; he always knows it will come.”
The racy novel Fifty Shades of Grey is among Mister X’s choices for pre-competition reading.
Despite this unusual approach, Inessa is a serious competitor — she finished 14th in the grand prix with the 12-year-old Egeus son Mister Z with 75.8% and has qualified for the special.
“I liked the test very much,” she said, naming the passage, piaffe and pirouettes as her favourite parts. “I would like to have more energy, but I hope that will happen later.
“We’ve been together since he was very young. I am his first rider. And all the horses that I ride, I take from when they are foals.”
Inessa and her husband Anatoli have a training facility in Russia with some 80 horses and have recently acquired a new centre in Germany. Her daughter, Viktoria, also rides. She says Mister X loves to work in deep snow, but at the centre they keep the temperature at 15ºC in the indoor school, so that even when it’s -30ºC outside, they can still ride in short sleeves.
The rider described the uncertainty over whether she and her younger sister, Marina Aframeeva, would be able to compete at the Games after the Russian doping scandal broke as “an unbelievable stress”.
“During that process, we couldn’t sleep,” she said. “It was very hard. It was a shame. I’ve been in the international sport for 20 years and of course I’ve been tested many times for doping. All the horses are absolutely clean and it would have been a shame if I had not been able to come.
“We didn’t know until the horses needed to travel. My husband is the general secretary for the equestrian federation. So he was in touch with the FEI. And so they kept us both informed and supported us very much morally. We are very grateful to the FEI.”