Horses feature prominently at this year’s Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which begins on Thursday. Asmaa Al Hameli meets horse lovers across the UAE and finds that equine interest runs deep in Emirati culture.
The stable outlook of the UAE’s horse lovers
With his bright orange T-shirt and jeans, the group of visitors to the Baniyas Equestrian Centre have no trouble picking out Obaid Ghedayer Al Dhaheri. With a broad smile, Al Dhaheri escorts his guests through the stable. “This is Reemas,” he calls out, beginning his lecture on the history of the Arabian horse.
The stables, which opened in 2004, are the result of Al Dhaheri’s passion for horses. Young and old alike come here to ride. Al Dhaheri likes to call it his “fitness centre.” Exercising didn’t do much for him, he says; horse riding “is the best way” to keep fit and healthy. That also applies to the 45 horses and their daily care and feeding.
”This is Shaqra, a pure Arabian,” he says, gently running his hands over one of the horses, all the while keeping a steady eye on the animal.
His first experience with horses was at the age of eight. “Our school encouraged horse riding. When I first rode, the feeling was indescribable. I love horses. They are wondrous creatures,” the 35-year-old Emirati says with his voice full of passion.
At a quick glance, he can distinguish the characteristic of each horse. The Arabian horses of Iraq, he explains, are different than the Arabian horses in Yemen or Syria.
“How do we differentiate between pure Arabian horses and impure?” asks one guest. Arabian horses have short backs, well-sloping shoulders, small ears and legs, he explains, as well as large noses, fine, silky manes and tails and a refined head.
Arabian horses have unique qualities, he adds. They can endure hot weather and eat little compared to horses in other countries. These qualities have forged a deep link between the peoples of the Arabian peninsula and their steeds, one that is celebrated this month in the Cavalia horse show, which is set to be one of the highlights of the 2014 Qasr Al Hosn Festival.
His guests are surprised to learn that each horse has its own passport, which includes information about the animal, including its family tree. “When I take a horse to the competition, I have to be meticulous about its appearance. I even apply eyeliner to mine,” he admits with a smile.
Twenty years ago, Al Dhaheri was a rider for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the first President of the UAE.
“My favourite horse is of Arabian origin called Laheq, whose owner was Sheikh Zayed. I won a number of endurance races with Laheq,” he says, nostalgically.
For Al Dhaheri, horse riding brings tranquillity to the heart and soul. Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed, the Deputy Prime Minister, also understands the healing power of horses, he says. He has organised several horse races for people with disabilities. Being around horses for 27 years, Al Dhaheri agrees that horse riding indeed has the ability to help with disabilities.
The importance of riding can be found in the advice of Umar bin Al Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, who encouraged it as an activity for children, along with swimming and archery. Through these sports, it was felt that Arabs could build the character of their children, improving concentration and teaching leadership.
That love of horses is also seen in the country’s leaders. Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, have always encouraged participation in horse riding. Their love for the horse has inspired many people to follow in their footsteps.
For Mohammed Al Falasi, horse riding is his escape. What started as a hobby has turned into a passion, and now, through perseverance and determination, he has become one of the main riders at the Dubai World Stables.
Al Falasi says that he is greatly inspired by Sheikh Mohammed’s love for horses. His own journey into the equestrian world started at the age of 13. His dream was to be a rider and, as he puts it, he achieved it “deservedly”.
The more he rode, the more he became attached to the strong, fast and graceful creatures. “Arabs’ passions for horses stems from the history of the Arab world, where horses were the main source of transportation,” he says.
“I have an Australian horse, Alexander. The best horses for endurance races are Australian and Arabian horses,” he explains.
Al Falasi has participated in several 80-kilometre to 120-kilometre endurance races. “I obtained the first place in Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum in Seih Al Salam district,” he says. “I am in the top 20 lists of competitors since the last race seasons.”
Not only do the majestic creatures lift his spirit, but they have taught him life lessons, he says. “I learnt true patience from horses.”
To the 26-year-old from Dubai, horses are the most loyal creatures in the world.
“When horses love you, they do anything for the rider,” he says. “Also, they do not forget who hit or harm them.”
Sheikh Mohammed frequently makes time to visit the stables. “He is a paragon of virtue. He is always there to educate riders about horses or advise them with any concerns. He makes no distinction between Emirati or non-Emirati,” says Al Falasi.
Al Falasi is proud that during the past two years the number of riders in the UAE has grown. “I am truly delighted and proud that the number of Emiratis partaking in this sport is increasing season after season.”
Exams mean that for two weeks he has not been able to get on a horse. “Do you know, I have a severe headache. I am thirsty to ride a horse,” he says.
For some people, horses are soul mates. Dana Al Mutawa says that the powerful relationship of trust and understanding that she has with her horse could never be matched by a person. “Why do I love horses? It would be unfair if I express it in words. It is more telepathic and emotional then verbal,” she says.
After a hectic day at work, riding and the feeling of the fresh air on her face and the wind blowing over her body relaxes Al Mutawa’s mood. “Sometimes, I wake up early and ride my horse. My productivity and energy on that day is beyond me,” she says.
She always felt passionate about horses, so she immersed herself in learning about them. “I started riding at the age of 14. I enrolled in Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club and switched to Reef Stables, where I stayed for five years,” she says. “My first participation in an endurance race was in 2009.”
Her cousins are also riders. Recently, she bought a grey horse called Abrileno. “He is Spanish. He has long hair, a curly neck and a long mane,” she says.
Last year, she participated in the Nordic-Baltic Cup in Estonia, along with her favourite rider, Fatma Al Marri. “It doesn’t matter whether I win or lose. It is all about learning and gaining experiences.”
In every race, she makes it a point to learn something and take that knowledge in the following race.
“Not everything reaches our expectation. You have to have that steadfastness to reach your goal,” she says. “One day, I will participate in a world championship.
“I can sense my horse’s mood,” says Al Mutawa. “If you are nervous, your horse won’t cooperate much. Good attitude leads to a positive response.”
She has witnessed many accidents, but her fellow riders, she says, are rarely fazed. “Some people fell off their horse and got severely injured. That did not kill their passion. They got back on to ride, but this time, even stronger.”
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