x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

An equestrian tradition that has carried us for centuries

Riding horses is more than just a sport - it's an experience of communication between horse and rider.

Many people think of riding as just mounting a horse and galloping away. In truth, horse riding is an experience of communication between the horse and the rider, and also between the rider and his history.

One of the main reasons this sport means so much to Emiratis is because of its long tradition. In its many forms, horse riding has always given us a sense of pride and nobility.

Arabian horses mainly originate from the Arab Gulf countries and they represent the oldest, purebred lines in the world. In past times, Arabians were most valuable on the battlefield, but in the modern era their bloodlines have been used to improve other breeds by adding speed, endurance and strength.

There is a deep emotional connection as well. These horses have always been strongly linked to people - in nomadic times, horse were brought into the tents for protection and shelter alongside humans.

Arabs today still believe that these purebreds are smart, quick learners and faithful. Those traits have been spread because, nowadays, most bloodlines have some Arabian in them.

This bond between people and horses stretches back into antiquity. Horse drawings have been discovered in caves dating from 3,000 BC during the Bronze Age. Indeed, during the Ice Age more than 12,000 years ago, horses roamed every continent except Antarctica.

As in the Middle East, most cases of early domestication are associated with transport and, quite often, the fearsome use of cavalry in war.

There are still elements of this warlike tradition. In present-day equine sports, to be a victorious rider you have to have a warrior's spirit. This aspect in particular means a lot to many Emiratis. Horse riding might lead to pain or danger, but a rider should never show his fear. Courage counts as one of the main attributes of the sport.

But of course, the main purpose of horse riding in no longer to knock your enemy on the head. Equine sports have expanded into a great range of disciplines from show jumping, endurance, dressage, vaulting, driving, cross country and reining. While each of these different sports has its own specialised skills and characteristics for both horses and riders, as well as different techniques and ways of riding, they all share similar principles.

Training a horse takes a lot of time. In that sense, horse riding in any form is about patience, although some disciplines do require more training time. That training period is a great challenge for both the trainer and the horse.

As people differ, horses do as well. Each and every horse has its own personality and character; they can also be very moody, which makes it very difficult for the trainer. In these cases, trainers have to bring their full scope of experience to bear.

People process their thoughts and feelings by talking to one another, whereas for horses, it's all about actions. It is of the utmost importance that, as sensitive and bright animals, they are treated well.

For example, if a rider wants to steer his mount, he does so by pulling the reins which are attached to a bit in the horse's mouth. Imagine someone yanking roughly at a piece of metal in your mouth. In respectful dealings with horses, a gentle hand is necessary or else the horse will either resist or misunderstand the intention. It is a question of empathy, of the rider training himself to understand what his mount is thinking.

That aspect of personal development is interrelated with national development. Equine sports are a symbol of how the UAE is moving forward and proving itself - not only as a competitor on the world stage, but to demonstrate heritage and traditions to the rest of the world. In the most prestigious competitions around the world, Emiratis are found participating and winning.

It shows how the world is getting smaller and bound together by these worldwide events. By participating, Emiratis are expanding their connections to the rest of the world.

Participating in world-class tournaments means a lot for any rider, no matter if they are at the top or a lower level of the sport. It is a great experience to compete against world-class competition - just looking at them can be inspiration to improve. You watch how they ride and say to yourself, one day I will do the same or even better.

For the first time last year, the UAE was represented at the World Equestrian Games held in Kentucky. It is a new chapter in a tradition of riding.

Generations of poets have given voice to this special relationship with Arabian horses, praising their strength, speed and appearance. Equestrian traditions may have changed over the centuries, but at its heart our relationship with the horse remains the same.


Shakhboot bin Nahayan is a student at Abu Dhabi Men's College