With the new stables on Sir Bani Yas Island, Selina Denman revels in nature and makes a four-legged friend.
Explore the natural wonders of Sir Bani Yas Island on horseback
The early morning silence is broken by the sound of hooves thundering along soft, white sand. The sun is already making steady progress across an unblemished sky. Birds call out from the trees to my left, while, to my right, the sea is lapping gently on the shore. It's just after 8am and I'm cantering along the beach here on Sir Bani Yas Island, west of Abu Dhabi, off the coast near Ruwais. Bouncing around in my saddle, reins flapping wildly, I'm a blot on this beautiful landscape, but I couldn't care less. What an exhilarating ride that's over all too soon. If it weren't such a cliché, I might whoop with joy.
We reach the end of the bay and slow to a walk. I pat Bogus, my mount, on the neck and thank him for his patience. Across the water, I spot the ferry station where both daytrippers keen to see the island's nature reserve and would-be guests booked into the five-star Desert Islands Resort & Spa first arrive; a white ferry is moored nearby waiting to whisk people away. A single wind turbine stands at the far end of the cove, a symbol of the island's environmentally friendly ethos. Underfoot, hoof marks in the sand reveal that this is a path well trodden by the resident deer population, just one of the many species that run wild here.
My first meeting with Bogus the day before had been less than auspicious. Sir Bani Yas Stables, which was recently opened by the resort as the latest lure for visitors, was thrumming with activity. The stables are housed in a series of cheery yellow buildings surrounded by enormous grass paddocks, a grass training ring and a shaded, sand-based riding arena. For horses that have spent much of their lives on the polo field or racetrack, this is a top-class retirement home.
The equestrian co-ordinator Laura MacLucas introduced me and the other riders to the horses. There are 10 in total - a mix of purebred and part-bred Arabians, thoroughbred racehorses and Irish sport horses. They were all bought in the UAE, so are used to the warmer climes, and seem delighted with their swanky new home on Sir Bani Yas. We met Sweety, a 13-year-old Arabian ex-endurance horse who was as mild-tempered as her name would suggest; TJ, a proud-looking ex-racehorse and "real gent"; and Cachy, an ex-Gold Cup polo pony. They all seemed happy to see us, hanging their heads over their stable doors and gently nuzzling up to me as I scratched behind their ears. "This is who you'll be riding tomorrow," MacLucas said as we approached Bogus. He responded by moving to the far side of his stable and turning his back, glancing over with a forlorn look on his funny white face. He seemed distinctly unimpressed by news of our date.
"There are too many people," MacLucas explained. "He was a bit of an emotional wreck when we got him. We think he may have been mistreated. But he's the quietest riding horse. You can put anyone on him and you know they'll be fine."
We reconvene in the lobby of the Desert Islands Resort & Spa at 6.45 the following morning. Three of us are going out on a two-hour Royal Bay Ride, touted as a "fascinating" ride along a sandy beach for intermediate and experienced riders only. We are greeted by Ted Greenland, one of the stable's cheery South African guides, who bundles us into an enormous, sand-coloured Land Cruiser for the 15-minute drive to the stables.
As he drives, Greenland gives us an introduction to life on the island. At 87 square kilometres, Sir Bani Yas is one of the largest natural islands in the UAE and was converted into a wildlife reserve by Sheikh Zayed in 1971. Today, the Arabian Wildlife Park, which covers almost 50 per cent of the island, is home to more than 10,000 animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, Arabian oryx, blackbuck antelope and Urial and Barbary sheep.
Along the way, we spot two gazelles powering through the bushes, a hyena in hot pursuit. Farther on, another hyena is skulking in the bushes. Herds of adult spotted deer graze by the roadside with their Bambi-like fawns. Peacocks show off their plumage, their guttural calls echoing through the bush. I'm captivated by these scenes, which are straight out of the African Savannah but a mere four-hour drive from my home in Dubai.
Our first stop at the stables is the locker room, where rows of barely used, British-standard hard hats, riding boots and half chaps await. One member of our group has brought her own hat, but it doesn't have a chinstrap, so MacLucas requests that she uses one of the stables' regulation ones. "I'm a stickler," she admits. We walk through the tack room, where shiny saddles by Italian brand Setzi line the wall. Each horse has its own bridle, which hangs, sparkling, on an adjacent wall. Everything is spotless and smells brand new.
Our horses are ready and waiting. Thankfully, Bogus seems slightly more amenable this morning; he pricks up his ears as I approach, leans into me as I stroke his nose and stands quietly as I mount.
We ride out of the stables and on to a wide dirt track. We're surrounded on either side by thick vegetation - the same gnarled ghaf, samar, miswak and sider trees that cover much of Sir Bani Yas Island. Arabian Rock Hyrax scuttle into the undergrowth as we approach, their stumpy tails bobbing comically in their wake. These oversized guinea pig lookalikes may count the elephant as their closest living relative, but there's little bravado in the face of five huge horses.
MacLucas points to an expanse of land to our left, where giant mounds of vegetation stand ready to be converted into mulch, which will then be used as compost on the island. We pass an enclosure filled with breeding gazelles and another that is home to five ostriches.
As promised, Bogus is as good as gold. He is quiet, steady and responsive, if a little prone to dawdling. We turn off the track and make our way into the bushland, where we are told to watch out for irrigation pipes and stray branches. Luckily, Bogus seems preconditioned to give both a wide berth. He picks his way through the bushes at a leisurely walk, as Haleem, the stables' head groom, points out the difference between sand gazelles and mountain gazelles. Both types flit among the vegetation, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Bogus's sturdy back gives me an ideal vantage point from which to admire the island's intricate ecosystems.
We come out on to an expanse of green grass, where lapwings gather overhead, squawking loudly and flying around in defensive circles. We've clearly strayed too close to their nests. Across one of the island's few tarmac roads and suddenly, we're on the beach. We break into a trot, and then a canter.
After the thrill of bombing along the beach at full pelt, the ride back to the stables is decidedly sedate. We loop round, following a tarmac road back onto the grassy expanse, much to the dismay of the lapwings. It is just starting to heat up, and the prospect of a dip in the hotel pool is becoming ever more alluring.
Back at the stables, a lone peacock is strutting across the shaded riding arena. Two wild hares emerge from the undergrowth, chasing each other across a dusty track, a last reminder that the Sir Bani Yas Stables offer an entirely unique riding experience. I dismount and say my goodbyes to Bogus; I tell him that his name does not do him justice and that I plan to return to the island to ride him again. But for his part, he's back to looking unimpressed.
If you go
The tour A two-hour Royal Bay Ride for intermediate to advanced riders over 10 years of age costs Dh406. There is a 30-minute introductory ride with tuition for novice and beginner riders over five years of age for Dh290. Private and group riding lessons are also available from Dh232 for 45 minutes. Riding hats, boots and chaps are provided. A tour of the stables costs Dh93 for adults and Dh46 for children
The trip A day trip to Sir Bani Yas Island costs Dh463 per person and includes lunch, an activity (wildlife drive, kayaking, archery or wadi walk) and return boat transfers
The stay A double room at Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara costs from Dh1,218 per night, including breakfast, boat transfers to and from the island and taxes (www.anantara.com; 02 801 5400)