Throughout history, there’s something quite powerful about a horse and a rider moving as one. And in Oman, this connect runs in the blood of most Omanis. From horse-racing and endurance racing, to show jumping, tent-pegging or simply riding a stallion, Oman is certainly an ideal place for horse lovers. Do you remember that scene from the Lord of the Rings? That scene, where King Theoden and the Rohirrim break the siege of Gondor by routing the orcs at Minas Tirith? It’s a scene that is often heralded as one of the best, not just across the LOTR trilogy, but across movie folklore in general.
The story of the horse and the rider, one that has been passed down from one generation to the next since times immemorial, may have recurred during different times across history, but the values are the same. It is of courage, bravery, trust, and of a sacred bond between man and animal that simply cannot be expressed in words.
Omanis have always maintained a strong connection with their equine companions, a tradition that goes back thousands of years in the Arab world.
And to know why horses formed such an integral part of Arab culture, T weekly spoke to Wendy Hofstee, managing director of Unicorn Trails, a UK-based travel agency that specialises in organising horse-riding holidays for adventurous and outdoorsy tourists from across the world.
“Oman has a very strong horse culture and the horses are of superb quality which is a strong attraction for experienced riders,” said Hofstee, whose company has been organising tours in Oman for four years.
“In addition the country is very hospitable and safe. As riders, especially women, often travel alone it is particularly important that they feel comfortable, and in this respect, Oman is outstanding in the Middle East. Lastly the desert environment is beautiful and the wadis are impressive.
“Horses are inextricably linked to the progress of mankind and civilisation throughout the ages from the first domestication through Genghis Khan, up to World War I,” she added.
“The strength and noble nature of horses have been the backbone of progress, there is an enduring fascination with an animal so powerful and beautiful that is yours to command, loyal and gentle.”
To Wendy, riding a horse was not just a hobby, but a passion. To her, it was all about perspective. Travelling with a couple of friends through Ecuador on horseback over six months gave her fresh insights into experiencing the little South American country, and she wanted to share that perspective with other like-minded people, as well as encourage others to experience what she had. Unicorn Trails today offers 303 different programmes in 62 nations, and what sets Oman apart for her is understanding how horses fit into modern-day culture, and how the role of the famed Arabian steed has evolved over millennia.
When Unicorn Trails were looking to make their first foray into Oman, they announced the setting up of three expeditionary trips. So keen were the riders to experience what the Sultanate had to offer. The eight visitors who went on each expedition were enamoured by what the country had to offer.
“They are looking to see the real Oman and understand how horses fit into the culture, they are also looking for good safe riding in beautiful landscapes, to experience the desert in comfort,” said Hofstee. “So far the groups have greatly appreciated the quality of the horses, hospitality and scenery. To outsiders, it appears that horses are very much valued and close to the hearts of all Omanis, not just a minority of riders. They are the representative of history and success of Oman, as well as strength and loyalty.”
But while visitors from abroad continue to experience the unbreakable bond between horse and rider, stables within the Sultanate also encourage horse-riding at community level.
From their stables in Barka, Creo Equestrian organises horseriding classes for people living in Oman, from children as young as five, all the way to adults. Lynn Greenwood, the centre’s general manager, says the courses they have are tailor made to suit the experience of the riders they get, ranging from the intrepid to the immensely experienced ones.
“We plan on developing Creo not just as an equestrian riding club, but also as a country club,” she said. “We’ve got people from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe who come here for horse riding holidays, and because we are an equestrian school, we are also the only school in Oman accredited by the Oman Equestrian Federation. We have got quite a busy riding school, for anyone from four or five year olds, to adults and have got about 80 people registered at the moment, irrespective of their nationality. We have Europeans, Indians, Omanis, and people from everywhere across the world.
“When a child sees a horse for the first time they usually get very excited. Some people really haven’t had the chance for tactile interactions with a horse, so we do allow some time for grooming as well so that people can get used to them,” added Lynn.
One of the main attractions at Creo Equestrian for children are the presence of Shetland ponies. Officially recognised as the world’s smallest ponies, these incredibly cute animals are often a favourite among families with small children, and are often used to introduce beginners to interact with a horse. Visitors to Creo often seek permission to pet these adorable ponies.
Under supervision, visitors are in fact encouraged to interact with the horses. The watchful eye exercised by those who run Creo is not to deter these docile ponies from harming people – not that they would – but to ensure that they aren’t fed anything that does not agree with their diet, even if people do so out of the goodness of their hearts.
“Horses are fed different things based on their discipline,” she explained. “We get special mixed food from the shops in our area, so they eat high protein, barley, wheat and a lot of grass. The farms are literally next door, so we get all of our supplies from local businesses. It is quite difficult to gauge the temperament of a horse. When a horse’s ears are back, that’s when they are angry. When a horse’s ears are forward and they are physically leaning towards you that is when they are quite comfortable.
“There are many things you can do to calm a horse down, such as taking away what it is that is making them agitated. You can give them carrots, you can take them for a walk, you can do certain exercises with them, or you can just leave them and wait for them to calm down,” added Lynn.
To encourage more tourists, Creo is currently expanding its facilities and is building 12 new chalets, in addition to a swimming pool and events hall that was already present. Three large family-sized chalets were previously open, and given the lush green surroundings and the ambience of the equestrian grounds, the area is also famed for the multitude of weddings it hosts. Over the last 18 months, more than 100 guests have come to Creo for riding holidays, and Lynn only expects this number to go up further, as people come to Oman to discover their love of horses.
“The most common question we get when it comes to people and horses, I think, would be about people wanting to know if they are safe on the horse. People want to know what happens if they get on the horse and the horse runs away with them,” she said. “The horses are well-trained to be in a school environment, and the coaches here are highly qualified and they are on hand, teaching the students how to handle the horse. I think that is the main concern for people because some of them have never been on a horse before.”
“I think this is to do with lack of education in some parts, though it is getting better. We get a lot of schoolchildren coming here in school groups, so they are shown how to handle the horse and how to treat it properly. I think education is key here. Taking care of animals is really important here. If the horse gets the opportunity to attack you after you’ve punched it on the nose for example, it might bite you, and we will not tolerate people ill-treating our horses either. We will ask them to stop, and if they continue, we will ask them to leave, because these are sensitive and caring and expensive animals so you need to treat them the right way.
For the love of horses
Ahmed Al Harrasi, professor at Sultan Qaboos University’s College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences, who specialises in horse-rearing shares his experiences and insight on Arabian horses and their behaviour.
Having personally trained around 48 horses and 540 students in the art of horse-riding, and specialising in the treatment of horses that come from Arabia, especially the Nejd and Hejaz, (Saudi Arabia), Egyptian, Shams (the Levant) and Marib Dam (Yemen) breeds, Al Harrasi was uniquely prepared to talk about equine behaviour.
“The horses are sensitive and beautiful,” he said. “They have feeling, they could love and hate humans and it depends on how you deal with them and how you treat them. They love you when you groom them, feed them and train them. You speak to them through your body language and eye contact, and you can then feel the love of horses and their loyalty. But if you deal with the horses rudely, you could face an angry horse, so I advise you to run away because you don’t know what the horse will do then and it is something you can never imagine.”
“You must groom the horse by yourself and explore your horse’s emotions,” added Al Harrasi.
“Feed him and try to be closer to him.Read about horse feeding and horse behaviour and discuss about the cases you have faced with experienced trainers, because they may have the key to treat horses better. You can see some people abusing the horses, because they know the horses cannot complain. Do not pity such people, because they are selfish and they do not respect others.”
Hamed Al Amri, a horse trainer in the Sultanate, added, “In general, horses should be well taken care of. It is essential to provide medicines, IV fluids, and needles in emergency situations such as colic and infections. Horses may suffer from colic as a result of extreme heat, change of food type, increase in food intake, change of meal times or unclean water which may lead to the death of horses. Even rotten fodder may cause poisoning of the horse.”
Given the culture and traditions around horse-riding in Oman, T weekly found it hardly surprising that the Sultanate had received a number of positive reviews in this matter.
“We got some amazing rides with beautiful scenery,” said Ahmed, a visitor from Dubai. “The horses are very well taken care of and the trainers offer great advice for the riders. This is highly recommended for riders seeking fun or coming to learn riding skills. All the animals were so cute in the horse farm I went to,” added Manee from Thailand. “They really made my holiday special and relaxing.”
“I spent a few days riding in Oman, and oh boy, it was among the best days of my life,” added another tourist, who had fond memories of the Sultanate. “If I tell you that all I learnt was how to ride a horse, I’d be lying. I learnt a lot more about life This is an experience I will never forget. It makes you realise how beautiful this life is, and makes you accept the fact that you and your problems are just a speck of dust in this existence.”
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