x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Money talks in showjumping

Despite progress being made by the UAE showjumping team in recent years, more investment is wanted in the sport.

Sheikh Ali Al Qassimi riding Tisanto during the Class 2 at the Dubai Show Jumping Champioships. Satish Kumar / The National
Sheikh Ali Al Qassimi riding Tisanto during the Class 2 at the Dubai Show Jumping Champioships. Satish Kumar / The National

The UAE showjumping team has made significant progress in recent years, and last year sent a full side to the World Equestrian Games for the first time.

But to make the next big step in international competition - qualifying for the Olympics - the UAE must make a bigger financial investment in horses, two of the team's top riders say.

"As a team we want to qualify for Olympics and World Equestrian Games, but we don't really have the best horses for that level of competition at the moment," Arif Ahmed said. "The Saudis have spent a lot of money on horses and you can see the results."

Ahmed al Junaibi, his teammate, agreed.

"It is hard because you have to have a very special horse to compete at an Olympics," said al Junaibi, who along with Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum, Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Majid Al Qassimi, was part of the UAE team that won silver at the Asian Games team last year.

"I hope after we won a silver medal at the Asian Games, which shows that we have improved from the bronze medal we won last time, that there will be some more investment in horses for us," al Junaibi said.

Saudi Arabia finished eighth in the 2010 World Equestrian Games, ahead of better-established showjumping nations like the United States, Holland and Great Britain.

Their success on the world stage has been a topic of conversation in the Arab League, a regional competition that includes last weekend's Dubai Showjumping Championship and this week's Abu Dhabi event. And the UAE team believe they can duplicate the success of the Saudis.

"We have made some great advances," said Abdullah al Marri, a member of the UAE team for the last four years who is trained by Alice Debany, the woman who coached Princess Haya bint al Hussein before her participation in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"We are a young showjumping nation. At the World Equestrian Games, Ahmed al Junaibi was our oldest rider and he is only 35. In showjumping terms that is very young - many riders are over 40, even over 50."

Another team member, Abdullah Humaid of Sharjah, said experience has made the difference.

"For a time we didn't have the experienced riders," he said. "Now I feel that we have improved a lot as riders; we are all very dedicated and we have shown that we are making advances in the sport. I think that in the next four years or so, with continued support, we could go even further."

Taleb Dhaher al Muhairi, the secretary general of the Emirates Equestrian Federation, said a development programme was in place.

"We are very proud of the riders who have represented the UAE in international competitions and we are very grateful for the support of Sheikh Sultan [bin Khalifa, the Equestrian Federation chairman]," al Muhairi said.

"These riders have established a great foundation to build on."

Most Emirati showjumpers are affiliated with a local club, and that is who is usually expected to make the investment in horses, al Muhairi said.

"The responsibility of buying horses rests with the clubs. I do not think that any federation in the world buys horses for riders," he said.

Al Marri said the riders' desire for better horses is natural, following their recent success. "I belong to Dubai Equestrian Club and I have had great support," he said.

"I think riders will always ask for more because we are so passionate about this sport, and once you have tasted winning, you can never go back. You want to win everything."

UAE showjumpers have been knocking on the door of regular international participation in recent years; one or two members of the country's small but dedicated team has qualified and competed in the last three World Equestrian Games, which are held every four years.

Other UAE riders have also qualified for the annual World Cup while Sheikha Latifa participated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But last year, six riders qualified for what is considered the zenith of equestrian competition, the World Equestrian Games. For the first time the UAE became one of 26 other competitor nations, fielding a four-strong team and rubbing shoulders with world and Olympic champions.

On a regional level, the riders focus on the World Cup Arab League, which allows them to compete for qualification points for showjumping's World Cup.

The Arab League kicked off in Tripoli in September and travelled throughout the region, stopping in Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.

After this weekend's event in the capital, the series will move on to Sharjah and, finally, Al Ain.

Many of the UAE riders work or attend school, and face a tough balancing act. Al Marri is a police officer who rides in the evenings. He said: "We all want to focus on the continental championships but we also know that we have to be realistic," he said.

"Sometimes your horse is lame, sometimes you can't make it due to work or study, and sometimes you just don't get the results. But we all work very hard because, it is our dream to be doing this sport."