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The horse-mad Austrian competed in able-bodied eventing from 1987-2008, including an appearance at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. After breaking his back in 2008, when his air-bag safety jacket exploded on him, Puch switched his sights to Para Dressage.
In the nine years since, he has won six FEI European Championship gold medals, including the individual Grade II title he picked up in Gothenburg on the opening day of the 2017 edition.
Amid all this varied sporting excellence, there has remained one constant.
“My profession is chimney sweeping,” Puch explained. “I started the business when I was 15, my friends said don’t be a professional (horse rider), look for a serious job. In Austria we have quite a lot of snow and chimney sweeping is a winter business and I was looking for a winter business so I could have time for riding in summer.
“I still own the company, with my disability I can’t do the work in the houses but I am behind the scenes and in the office.”
In the aftermath of his accident, the prospect of running any kind of company, let alone one that goes up through people’s chimneys, looked a long way off. Up stepped his horses.
“For six months I was completely paralysed in the bed, if you looked at the X-rays, they said it was not possible to walk,” Puch said.
His friends did not listen to the doctors’ prognosis and put Puch back on one of his eventers, an Irish thoroughbred. The Austrian did not have the muscle strength to sit in the saddle, so one friend rode one side and one the other and held him up. With a third friend leading, they took Puch out three times per day.
“I can’t feel my arms and my legs but I can walk here thanks to this hypnotherapy of being on a horse. I can also drive a car. So I would say the horse gave me back a quality of life.”
A Grade II competitor, which involves walking and trotting, Puch leans heavily on his horses to do the heavy work.
“I am absolutely a passenger, I cannot do a lot of things,” he explained. “For instance my mare really doesn’t like rain, three drops and she walks home and I have no chance to hold her, I am too weak.”
Given this, Puch naturally places huge importance on the relationship with his equine saviours.
“For me it is very important I live together with my horses, I need to feel my horses, it is a really good partnership. I am not a good rider, so I need the horses to fight for me,” he explained. “I really like to produce horses and find a good relationship with them, that is my way of life.”
That, and being a chimney sweep.
Text by Luke Norman
Images by FEI/Liz Gregg