How a 17-year-old Italian made India her home and went on to win 2 derbies
Silva Storai’s life has always revolved around horses. In a chat with YourStory, the accomplished jockey and director of the Embassy International Riding School talks about her journey from Italy to the training grounds of Bengaluru.
“The white horse is never born white!” reveals Silva Storai, graciously overlooking the bewilderment on my face. The pristine white magnificence that we associate with the galloping beasts from various movies and book covers finds its beginning as a grey foal at birth, a foal that, over time, slowly evolves into a white horse.
Earlier that hot Sunday afternoon, soon after walking Afghan, her six-month-old Belgian Malinois, we sat and spoke over lunch. Given Silva’s roots, the lunch was a hearty Italian meal, replete with ravioli, pasta, and a healthy dollop of salad, accompanied by some not-so-healthy potato wedges that Silva and I happily binged on.
Confessing her love for potatoes, Silva shares how, for years, she could not eat them because she had to watch her diet and weight as a jockey. India’s first professional jockey and the only woman jockey in the world to have won two derbies, she is now the Director of the Embassy International Riding School in Bengaluru, a role she has held for over 20 years.
My coffee mug in hand and the lovely surroundings of the Embassy Riding School before me in all its splendour, my mind couldn't help but trace the similarity of Silva's journey with that of the white mare before me. As we enjoyed the coffee, we spoke about travel, culture, opportunities, courage, leadership, spirituality, management, and much more.
It all began at 13!
Silva’s first memory of riding a cavallo (horse in Italian) is from when she was a teenager. On a Sunday afternoon in Italy, in a stable where everyone was preparing to ride. Instead of declaring herself to be a newbie, Silva decided to ride instead. The 13-year-old had no fear and was quite enjoying herself, and would have continued to do so had it not been for a narrow path through which all the horses had to move at a canter to get to the wider open area.
Suddenly, with all the other riders pressing in around her and passing by, Silva realised that she did not know how to spur her horse to move faster! Soon, she lost the stirrups and then the reigns, finally simply holding onto the horse's neck while it cantered by itself, all the time still not scared. A furious, fire-breathing instructor could not dilute the thrill of the experience, and it is that same lack of fear that has made her connect with horses so special. A love that is, and has remained all through her life, unconditional.
From tumbling off horses while breaking them in, to having a part of the skin on her forehead scraped off by a horse hoof, to getting 65 stitches on her face and neck, to being hit on the cheek bone by a flying horseshoe, to multiple fractures and dislocations, most people would have given up, but not Silva. No injury, no pain, absolutely nothing can keep her away from her beloved beasts.
During the course of our conversation, I confess to a childhood fascination with horses, and she promptly ensures that I meet and greet the biggest and sturdiest of them all--General. While the fear on my face is palpable, Silva is a picture of calm, holding the reins and talking to General in a language that only the woman and he understand. Like Robert Redford in the movie The Horse Whisperer, till recently, Silva used to break in two-year-olds. “The technique is called join-up. You allow the horse to come to you by displaying the right body language, and when it comes to you, you put on the bridle and saddle and are ready to take it for a ride. It takes about 25-30 minutes for me to break in a wild horse.”
Breaking all barriers
As a 17-year-old, Silva and her friend had planned to travel to Afghanistan. When her friend ditched her, Silva decided to go ahead on her own. A journey that started from the Naples station eventually took her, via Turkey and Iran, to Afghanistan, where the political uncertainty of the '70s led her to travel further to experience India. She recalls the tough times she had travelling through Pakistan and her arrival at the Wagah border and entry into India. “Suddenly, after a long travel, I felt that I had reached home. That’s just the feeling I had being in India.” Since then, India has been her home. She set down roots in Kodaikanal, her new home. She found love there and married Eddie Joseph, an artist based in the hill station.
For 15 years after that, she lived a wonderful, slow-paced life with her dogs and two horses, and she would go riding into the forests. Till one day, her mentor Patricia Norelli and she went to the annual flower and dog show at Ooty in May 1992. That was a turning point in her life. Patricia, who had gifted Silva her first horse, pushed her to go and train under one of the trainers attending the show in Ooty and explore the possibility of being a jockey. The trainer agreed, and suddenly, Silva had a new role to embrace!
Silva started training, and years of riding in Kodaikanal and her natural flair for horses since she was 13 showed up. Within a few months, she moved with her horses and dogs to Chennai. She was so impressive that she got her license in a few days, and then began a completely new phase of her life. The calm and easy life that she had lived for 15 years was now to be replaced by the adrenaline rush of galloping hooves as she started racing professionally in 1993.
I never bothered with the bets. I love the adrenaline. That’s all I cared about when I got started. The gates opening, the pounding of the hoof, the speed–all of it was overwhelming, and it drove me.
It was not easy, given that she had to undergo a massive lifestyle change–from watching her weight and what she ate to the travelling, the practice, riding, and competing–but she loved every moment of it.
"Life changing moment" is a term used often in the context of sporting achievement. But in 2003, when Silva won the derby, it was a "perception changing moment," a breaking of barriers for other women, because she had, in winning the race, become the first woman to step into this erstwhile boys’ club of winners!
More responsibility, more success
It was in 1996 that Jitu Virwani, Chairman and Managing Director of the Embassy Group, bought some land and made an offer to Silva Storai to set up a riding school, later named the Embassy International Riding School (EIRS). Silva moved to Bengaluru (then Bangalore) in the year 1993 and was appointed the director of the riding school right from its inception. While she directed her energy into building India’s largest riding school, she continued her long stint as an ace jockey until the year 2007. Wanting to retire on a high note and having sustained a massive injury, she decided to hang up her boots that year. Silva says,
Horses have been a constant in my life, and when I came to India, I found myself home. I never had material needs, and have been given more than I needed. A few people have been the pillars of my life. My trainer’s belief in me was always unfaltering, and that has been an incredible source of strength. That apart, the two most influential people in my life have been the people who have impacted me the most in the spiritual and the material realms respectively–my mentor Patricia Norelli, and my boss Jitu Virwani.
From a 17-year-old teenager seeking spirituality, to a successful jockey, to the process-driven administrator she now is, Silva has come a long way. With more than 100 horses, including ponies, and 85 staff members, Silva runs a tight ship that sees close to 250 people coming in for riding at different times. She is particular about how things are done, with a very high degree of attention to detail.
Riding in India
As someone who has witnessed the equestrian sport and people’s love for it, she says, “In the past seven or eight years, how people look at riding has changed. Today, Indian parents make concerted efforts to meet the aspirations of their children. This wasn’t the case a decade ago. Also, the number of people wanting to come and experience riding has increased; the nouveau riche definitely come and give it a try, and many others too come for the experience. Some families really make the sacrifices so their kids can learn and are consistent. The expat community is by far the most regular, and we find them taking this seriously and coming to ride every day.”
Operated according to the standards of the British Horse Society, the Embassy International Riding School offers structured riding lessons to beginner and advanced horse-riders. With Six Bar and Knock Out, the EIRS’s Equestrian Premier League has been designed to develop a rider’s focus for a long-term regular competition and promotes a strong equestrian sports learning in India.
As we continue to talk over a great cup of coffee after lunch, Silva reminisces about one of the most incredible moments of her journey–when she and her team successfully prepared a civilian team that participated in the 2010 Asian Games in China and were very close to winning when China clinched the medal at the end. “We had such a good chance of winning, but the fight was good.”
From her Kodaikanal days to a stable with more than 100 horses, her instinct and her ability to connect with and care for these animals has added to her experience.
While I had learned a good deal from a set of books I had to guide me in Kodaikanal, when it comes to dealing with horses, no amount of training can replace experiential learning; having spent 15 years nurturing, feeding, and riding horses taught me a lot about them. Since moving to the riding school, it has mostly been about different situations that arise with the horses on a day-to-day basis; the more different the situations that pop up, the more we learn how to tackle them. Over the years, it has been these experiences and challenges that I have learnt from the most.
Silva’s love doesn’t extend to just horses. She regales me with multiple stories of animals that have come and stayed with her, including a sheep and a camel! Even at the riding school, I see ducks and monkeys around the place, and of course, her dog Afghan. Before I leave, I pitch one last question–what is the one dream that you still haven't’ lived–and pat comes the response: “I am yet to stay and live with an elephant.”
Somehow, at that point, as I said my goodbyes, I wasn’t too surprised by her response. Given her love for animals and the free-spirited person that Silva is, nothing seems impossible when you look at her, the only woman in India to win a derby! She truly packs a punch.