x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Middle East is making rapid strides in showjumping

Saudi Arabia is showing the rest of the region just what can be achieved in the world of showjumping.

Abdullah Sharbatly's individual silver at the World Equestrian Games marks the first time a rider from the Middle East has reached the top four in a world championship.
Abdullah Sharbatly's individual silver at the World Equestrian Games marks the first time a rider from the Middle East has reached the top four in a world championship.

With a top-10 team finish in the World Equestrian Games and a team gold at the Asian Games last year, Saudi Arabia is blazing a trail for Arab nations in international showjumping.

Riders from Saudi have now competed at four Olympics and qualified for a fifth while Abdullah Sharbatly's individual silver at the World Equestrian Games marks the first time a rider from the Middle East has reached the top four in a world championship.

Other Arab nations, including the UAE, the team silver medallists at the Asian Games, are making great leaps in the international arena, but right now the Saudis are the ones to catch. They are said to have a budget of US$100m (Dh367m) to acquire the best horses to carry them to the very top in the sport.

"There are a lot of things that have contributed to our success," Sami al Duhami, the Saudi team manager, said. "Most importantly we have talented riders and good horses but also, after a number of years developing the sport, we now have the experience in managing the team to go to these big competitions.

"Having said that we were surprised to do so well in Kentucky [at the World Equestrian Games]. We came eighth and beat the USA, who are Olympic gold medallists, and Holland, who were the 2006 World Equestrian Games gold medallists."

Showjumping is a relative newcomer to the regions equestrian portfolio and the consensus among the top Arab jumping nations is that the Saudis have been doing it the longest. Back in the 1980s enthusiasts in Saudi were copying European course designs and borrowing race horses to jump them.

In 1994, the Saudis formed a jumping federation and two years ago Saudi Equestrian, an organisation that acquires and owns showjumpers for the country's international riders, was established.

Now Saudi Arabia's equestrian athletes benefit from a slick international operation which sees horses and riders dotted throughout training bases in Europe, with most situated in Belgium.

Stanny Van Paesschen, their Belgian coach, is an Olympic medallist, while grooms, vets and administration staff are from all over the world including Brazil, Germany, Poland, Ireland and Finland.

While rumours sweeping the show jumping circuit are that Saudi Equestrian has a budget of $100m, al Duhami does not talk about the costs but admits that a horse that can take a rider to an Olympics does not come cheap.

"To get a horse that can qualify for major events, yes, you are looking at a large investment," he said. "A horse that can compete, perhaps Dh1-2m."

"A horse that can win … Well, it's not so hard to find them but to find ones that are for sale, that's hard. You would have to pay a lot because the owners don't want to let them go."

Al Duhami says it's not all about money though.

"Of course you need to have good horses in order to compete with the best in the world," he said. "But you also need talented riders. We have not just popped up on the international stage and started doing well, we have been working at this for more than 20 years and we are getting the results."

Cian O'Connor, an Irish international who is competing on the Arab League circuit in the UAE, said Saudi's rise is good news for all Arab jumping nations.

"You have to take riders from the Middle East seriously," said the Olympian, who also trains riders in the region.

"The competitors here have the dedication and the passion. You just have to look at the horses to see that this is a sport that is taken very seriously.

"A rising tide lifts all ships and the other Arab nations will not be slow to make further advances."

Al Duhami agrees. "It's not just Saudi that is striving for better results," he said. "The UAE has excellent riders and they compete in the major competitions, Syria and Qatar are also developing show jumping programmes."

Sharbatly is 16 points clear of Egypt's Yahya Fahmy in the Arab League standings with two events to go, after winning both the Dubai and the Abu Dhabi legs. Ahmed Tolba, the Egyptian rider trained by O'Connor, is third.

"I have won silver at the World Equestrian Games and Inshallah we are now close to gold," Sharbatly said. "That is what we want to achieve in the future. For now I am focused on qualifying for the World Cup." Sharbatly is on 70 World Cup points ahead of Thursday's Sharjah meeting.

"The top two in the league qualify and I hope that I have done enough," he said.

 

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