Circles in the Sand by Lynn Al-Redha

I have lived in Dubai for more than a quarter of a century, gosh now I have said it out loud; it brings home the concept of “time flies”. I have seen, over the years, huge changes in a country that has grown from being a relatively small dot on the world map, into one of the most vibrant, modern cities in the Middle East, a vast melting pot of cultures and nationalities, but yet the country has managed to maintain its beliefs and heritage, no mean feat in the 21st century. As I write this article the Imam (Priest) from the local mosque is reminding us that we are living in an Islamic state. With his musical tones he performs the call to prayer, a service he undertakes 5 times a day for the community. Like the tones of Big Ben ringing out over the City of London, the call to prayer, is a marker to all followers that it is time to bow down and give praise to Allah. One of the benefits of living in the United Arab Emirates is the love and compassion the nation has for horses. It is written in the Koran (Holy Book) that amongst other things, like reading, writing and prayer, horse riding is an important skill that should be taught to all children.

And this is where my journey begins: -

With temperatures in the mid to high 30’s and humidity reaching 95%, Dubai seems an unlikely place for the preparation of international dressage horses, but more than 80 riders are putting on breeches instead of bikini’s and heading off in to the desert, rather than down to the beach, as September signals the count down to one of the most prestigious events in the U.A.E. equestrian calendar, the F.E.I. World Dressage Challenge 2009. For those who are unfamiliar with who and what is the F.E.I (Fédération Equestre Internationale), it is the sole controlling authority for all international events in Dressage, Jumping, Eventing, Driving, Endurance, Vaulting, Reining and Para-Equestrian. It establishes the regulations and approves the equestrian program at Championships, Continental and Regional Games as well as the Olympic games.

As part of the F.E.I.’s development program, the World Dressage Challenge brings together more than 50 nations in one single competition, which spans a complete 12-month period. The world is split into zones and within these, we have between 4 and 6 countries grouped together. The F.E.I allocate 2 top international judges to each zone in order to keep consistency of results. With 6 different levels ranging from a children’s preliminary class up to Prix St. Georges, so the whole of the dressage community has something to aim towards. It also gives us an insight into our level of training, horses and riders in comparison with other nations. For those countries that are in remote regions, or have equine travel restrictions placed on them, it is a superb way of bringing top-level dressage to the world as a whole. After the competition, a video session and formal discussion is organized with all competitors. The judges analyze the rider’s performances and point out where improvement can be best made. The judges then round off their visit by providing the top 12 rider and horse combinations with a ridden clinic. It is a fantastic concept, which is thoroughly enjoyed by thousands of riders all over the globe.

So as I have said, the count down has begun, and my preparation has started.

My ride for this year (as in the previous 3 years) is the handsome, multi talented, Scottish Sports Horse, Tartan Special. This 14-year-old, black graded stallion by Dutch Falco out of a Gold Hills mare (a former show jumper), was introduced to dressage 4 ½ years ago (at the age of 9), after I purchased him unseen from a dealing yard in Wigan, UK not a place anyone would usually associate with top level dressage horses. This is not something I would normally do, or recommend to others, but there was a growing hype and excitement surrounding him, so after passing a veterinary examination he was loaded on to a plane and flown to Dubai. I remember my first thoughts on seeing him during his compulsory 6-day quarantine period and to be honest, my first impression was not favourable. “Why am I not being blown away by him, everyone else has been”. As he walked around the exercise ring in the quarantine station, I could not help but think, “his head is too big, his neck is too short, he is barely 16 hands, how am I ever going to get that chunky, short coupled frame to lengthen”. He then let out a series of ear piercing screams, which reminded me that not only that, but he was also a STALLION.

Being based in one of the top equestrian centres in the Middle East has its drawbacks. Being a popular riding facility, catering for everyone and everything equestrian, means we have a large population of children and, as I call them, bored housewives who sit on horses: - definitely not the ideal situation to put a stallion into. I also remembered the word of warning passed on by his previous owner, “Make sure you get a leg up on to him, NEVER mount from the ground or a mounting block and leave your leg off for the first few minutes, as he can bronk 20 in a row without blinking” Have I bitten off more than I can chew. I actually went away from the quarantine that evening with a sick feeling in my stomach.

tartan special 1

How could I have been so wrong! Tartan Special is aptly named; he is one of the sweetest, kindest horses I have ever had the pleasure to be associated with, a genuinely special person. His work ethic is outstanding; his life revolves around pleasing those who work with him. He has taken to his new surroundings like a king overlooking his adored subjects. He greets everyone, both human and equine with a wicker of approval and struts his stuff, with his chest puffed out and his head held high, a true King of Kings. I have never sat on a horse that is as sensitive to ride as he is, every movement of my body is a signal, and every gesture is a cue. His physique has not made training easy for him and with a background of show jumping; counter canter was an unknown and potentially life threatening movement. Extended trot was an excuse to show just how smoothly he could turn into a freight train, with the steam coming out of his nostrils. But within a very short period of time, his dressage vocabulary was growing and in his first season he was U.A.E. Preliminary Champion. He followed this with snatching the Medium Championship the following year, no mean feat in just 12 months.

tartan special 3

Our partnership is now, as they say, written in stone, I know him and thankfully he knows me. There have been no incidents of bronking or difficult behaviour, but to be honest, I don’t push it. I always get a leg up on to him (jockey style) and allow him those first few minutes for himself, after all in return, he gives me the best hours riding a day, I could ever wish for. Tartan Special is now working some Grand Prix movements, he, as his frame would suggest, finds it very easy to collect and has a natural ability to engage his quarters and sit. He is also very active in his paces, so quickening for the piaffe is not a problem for him.

So as the days tick by towards our most important competition of the year, our work at home is being stepped up. He will compete in the Advanced class and the Prix St. Georges. We are hoping that this year he will be placed a little higher up the ladder, he managed in 2008 not only to win our zone, but also to finish 10th in the world at Prix St. George level.

This was an astonishing achievement as his 2008 build up was fraught with enforced breaks due to some health issues on my part, which included a severely damaged shoulder. We in fact had only 10 days to pump ourselves up and practice our moves, which really does show what a trainable attitude he has.

tartan special 2

So for the next 12 weeks, if anyone is looking for me, just take a trip into the desert and you are sure to find me there aboard my horse of a life time, performing our circles in the sand.

tartan special 4

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