Japan’s Sho Inaba has been riding horses since 2017. It was mostly for recreation, but the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games changed his attitude toward the sport.
“Para dressage and horses became irreplaceable in my life,” he said. “Now I can’t imagine my life without them, so I always reiterate, ‘You can take everything from me except these two’.”
Inaba got involved in riding a pony at the age of 8 for rehabilitation in his hip joint; he was born with cerebral palsy that affects his lower limbs. Then, he learned his home country would host the 2020 Games back in 2013, and he thought about the idea of competing.
“It is a once-in-a-life chance to live in a country that will host the Olympics and the Paralympics,” the 25-year-old said. “Despite doubt about my ability, I realised that I had nothing to lose, so I wanted to see how far I would be able to reach.”
Inaba got his chance to test the competition atmosphere when he represented his country at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, USA, where he finished 14th.
“At that time, it meant a lot for me to participate in the biggest equestrian event regardless of the outcome. I’ve never been that nervous before, and I was even shaking my legs during my performance,” he recalled.
“But I was motivated while watching top-class riders, because at the end of the day, they will be the one to beat next year.”
As he chooses to devote himself to Para equestrian, Inaba hopes his Paralympic debut in Tokyo will accelerate his progress.
“Tokyo 2020 will be the beginning of my journey with horses, not a finale,” the grade III rider said. “A good result, particularly a medal, will open up many opportunities including financial support.”
Apart from his own sporting career, he is on a mission to raise awareness of Para dressage in Japan. He has kept himself busy with Games-related promotional events.
“Mitsuhide Miyaji [fellow Japanese Para dressage athlete] told me that there weren’t any events or media coverage when he was preparing for Rio 2016. So, I’m very grateful for this kind of attention.”
“I usually see less than 15 athletes at local competitions. That’s the reality,” the Kanagawa-native explained. “I just wish that Paralympics could attract many people and let them explore the beauty of our sport.”
The postponement of the 2020 Games to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed more time for Inaba to strengthen partnership with his horse Casanova.
“I met him last year, and I trained hard to catch up on his techniques. We are getting closer to each other,” he said. “I walk differently due to a paralysis in my legs, and now he can even recognise my footstep sound.”
In the meantime, his focus is to maintain his horses’ top form. “During the summer, Tokyo’s temperatures usually reach around 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, and it is extremely humid,” he explained. “I’m fortunate as Casanova won’t need to go through adaptation to weather changes. I’ll keep focusing on caring his conditions to impress home crowds together.”