ABU DHABI// At 16-metre long, two metres wide and four metres deep it is no ordinary swimming pool. But then, its patrons are no ordinary swimmers. This channel of water is at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club. Flanked on both sides by safety railings, it is an essential training aid for some of the country's top athletes - Arabian and thoroughbred race horses. Because it is too hot and humid to ride during summer, the horses take to the water to maintain their fitness for the racing season. One by one they are taken from their stables and to the water's edge, where two trainers attach a long rein to either side of the harness. Gently they are led down the slope into the water, with the trainers keeping their hands on the reins as they swim the distance. They exit up another ramp, and are led round for a second, third and fourth length.
Eric Lemartinel, a trainer at the club, supervises the 32 animals' exercise programme. He said swimming was excellent for their health. "At no point is the horse allowed to swim alone and if they were to get into trouble in the water we would easily be able to get them out," he said. "But this has never happened. The horses are very capable of swimming and actually it is very good for their cardiovascular care and respiration.
"Also it is good for their minds. An early morning swim is relaxing; it calms the horses down and helps them focus on their work." Mr Lemartinel, 45, has been working with horses since he was 14. He began as an apprentice groom in his native France and went on to be a successful jockey, winning more than 150 races. He has been in Abu Dhabi for three years and is solely responsible for the performance of the horses at the Equestrian Club, which are owned mostly by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed and Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, as well as some private owners.
He said a comfortable living atmosphere and good staff to take care of the animals were as important as the physical training. "All horses, but particularly the Arabian breed, are very sensitive creatures. They understand many things and have excellent memories. "When we take them out of the stables they look around and react to changes in their surroundings and if we work them too hard they get stressed and become defensive. That's why we do our best to give them the best life possible."
As well as the customised swimming pool, the horses have air-conditioned stables, sunlit and shaded meadows, a specialised vet and a farrier who has a room full of horseshoes made of different materials and in varying shapes and sizes. "It is my job to make sure they have the best stride possible," said Vincent Bouquain, the farrier, gesturing to his shelves of horseshoes. "Straight is best so we have orthopaedic models to help those with slightly turned-out or turned-in hooves.
"There are also lightweight aluminium shoes for racehorses and sturdier, steel ones for the endurance horses." As well as fitting the shoes, Mr Bouquain also trims the hooves in the same way as humans cut their hair or nails. "It needs doing every five weeks," he said. "Here in the UAE the sun makes their hooves grow quickly so we have to make sure they are kept short. In Europe the trimming is done only every two or three months."
This is just a small part of a precisely-managed routine for the horses, which are worth anything between Dh100,000 (US$27,000) and Dh500,000 each, depending on their success in races. The day starts at 4am, when the horses are fed and groomed. During the racing season, they are taken out to the track for intensive physical training in groups of seven or eight. Mr Lemartinel assesses their performance and places the weaker horses with the stronger ones to encourage them to work harder.
"It is essential they work together," he said. "They are like any sport team, a football team for example, where some are stronger than others but there is mutual support throughout the whole team. On race day, if one goes wrong then the others are affected." The horses under Mr Lemartinel's care are all national racers. They compete every year between November and March on tracks in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and occasionally in Qatar. Some of the thoroughbreds come from France to compete but then remain in the UAE for training.
The daily training, which is replaced by a 30-minute walk and a 70-metre swim between May and July, finishes at 10am, when the horses are fed again before retiring to the stables during the midday heat. At 4pm, they are washed and groomed and their stables are cleaned. They take another half-hour walk and have a final feed at around 5.30pm. Twice a week they are let into the paddocks for a free run.
"They have a nice life," said Mr Lemartinel. "They are fed well, their facilities are well kept and the people who look after them are well trained." firstname.lastname@example.org