Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Tea Ride

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Every so often a wonderful horse comes into your life, but there are usually rough spots that need to be taken care of. Stella, the bay mare standing patiently behind me, is one of those horses. Her race track background taught her that every time a saddle was put on her she was supposed to run as fast as possible, not the best training for a saddle horse but it is one that most people who try horses off the race tracks have to deal with. We gave her a month in the paddock to get to know her herd mates, eat and relax a bit and then began working with her.

Last weekend was my first ride with her after a training period with my neighbour, the rider sitting across from me and being overseen by the big grey gelding, Doobie. She worked well on our ride to Giza and shows incredible promise as an all-round traveling horse, so the next day we decided that she and Doobie could use a quiet ride doing errands and visiting neighbours.

The ride, called by my visitor Merri a tea ride, was the result. Stella found it a bit confusing that the only thing she was being asked to do was to walk peacefully along a series of dirt roads, stop for a few moments to chat with someone, and then at one stable to stand for half an hour or so while we drank a cup of tea. Not exactly the race track. She did this very well, however. Seems to have standing still without a rider down pat.

Now I think that she has about a year of walking in the desert to learn that this can be done as well, in combination with relaxed canters in the countryside. Some classic ground work with another dressage trainer neighbour shouting abuse at me from the ground will do wonders for her balance and my fitness as well.

Abu Sir is a fascinating place to be working horses because of all of the resources available to us. We have a group that set limited distance (25 miles/40 km) rides in the desert. There is one this weekend that Merri will ride in, while I work the vet check. We have a neighbour that hosts polo games on his own ridiculously green field next to the desert just under the pyramids of Abu Sir. Other stables specialise more in jumping or dressage, while my specialty is countryside trips. Something for everyone.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

From Abu Sir to Giza

145.GizaPyramids 3.26.JPG
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
For us the pyramids of Egypt are landmarks rather than monuments. They are so huge, so old, so 'there', that they are almost like local mountains. We identify where we live by them. For example, I live just north of Abu Sir and across the canal from the Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab. On Saturday a group of us decided to make the journey from Abu Sir to the pyramids of Giza, a trip of approximately 35 km or about 20 miles round trip. We left at 10:30 am and arrived back at the paddocks at 2:30 pm, a four hour ride.

There was a time when you could ride easily from Abu Sir to Giza in the desert, but it has gotten more difficult in later years. The city of Giza decided to place it's rubbish dump in the desert west of the pyramids of Abu Sir and the authorities have either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the mining of sand for building and roadbeds in the area. Now there is a noisy, dusty road surrounded by a no man's land moonscape of piles of dirt and rubble that block the track just north of the Sakkara Country Club. You can still ride to Giza through the desert, but once you make your way through the first obstacle, you still have to be sure to go around the army camp that is slightly farther north.

A much more pleasant route lies through the countryside. We left the village by the paddocks and made our way north through two or three small villages and along farmland tracks until we reached the village of Zawya. Here we had to cross a relatively busy road and ride down the main street of the village for about 200 meters. The traffic along the main street isn't that much of a problem since the road is dirt and filled with potholes. No one goes very fast through Zawya. The cars and minibuses that might be in the road usually are going no faster than walking horses anyway.

Zawya is a large village, probably 10 to 20 thousand people, but they are not used to seeing four women riding down the main road. Nevertheless, aside from some of the more energetic and single minded children who felt that running alongside us asking why we didn't have a pen to give them, our welcome was cordial. Somehow it never seems to occure to these kids that taking a pen on a riding trip from Abu Sir to Giza really doesn't make much sense. I always ask them "What am I going to do, write a letter on horseback?" and their faces go blank. I've ridden through Zawya before and know what alleys to take through the buildings to reach a broad dirt road that continues north. The alleys are so narrow that there is room for a horse, or a couple of people, or maybe a donkey cart, but not much else. Balconies shade the street from above and for many families Saturday was washing day, so there were brilliantly coloured blankets, sheets, galabeyas, pants and shirts flapping in the wind. The horses, thank heaven, took no notice.

Once out of Zawya, we cantered down a broad dirt road that meandered along a canal with old country houses and farmland on either side. Huge eucalyptus and casuarina trees shaded the road on either side. I'm sure that the road has been used in Egyptian movies because it is so totally typical of the country roads. When traveling in the countryside it is important to greet the people that you encounter, since your are more or less trespassing on their turf. I would call out "Salaam aleikum" to the farmers, the girls cutting berseem, or the boys watching the water buffalo in the canal. The usual response is to welcome us and invite us for tea. My answer is always"God keep you. Next time." This is plenty of conversation to be having while cantering by.

The horses have been working in the countryside for years now and they know to automatically slow down for the other livestock that we may encounter. It's been many animal generations since horsemen have been seen in the farmlands, and the donkeys, cows and water buffalo are often frightened of horses with people on top of them. The horses pulling carts are familiar but not ridden horses. The looks of horror on the faces of the water buffalo, or gamoosa, are comical. When you consider that an adult water buffalo is about the size of a midsize SUV and that they are lead about on a thin rope halter, my insistence on this slowing of pace near livestock makes sense. The person holding the rope of a terrified water buffalo might be a child or woman who has no hope of holding an animal of this size still if it decides to run away. As long as the horses slow to a walk, most of the time the worst reaction we've gotten has been hard looks and slight spooks.

A few kilometers north of Zawya lies the Moneeb, a section of highway that connects the pyramids area with the Cairo Ring Road and the areas of Maadi and Giza along the Nile. Turning east along the base of the raised area of the highway we entered the desert at the point where the Antiquities Department stopped the construction of the highway. A high metal fence was constructed along the line of the proposed highway to keep people out of the antiquities areas, but in true Egyptian fashion an impromptu gate has been fashioned in the fence so that riders from the stables just south of the Moneeb can get into the desert. We entered behind a couple of groups of tourists and foreigners who were ambling along on horses behind a guide. But then we were also foreigners since there was myself (Canadian), Merri (American) and Nathalie and her daughter Pauline (Belgian). Once they had a wide open wadi in front of them, however, our horses weren't much interested in ambling. They tore off at a gallop across the sand with us whooping and laughing in the wind.

We crossed a few kilometers of desert in this fashion before we had to slow down to pick through the rubble of what had once been VIP villas and a notorious nightclub, Sahara City, that had stood on the plateau behind the Pyramids until the government ordered them pulled down. They were pulled down, but typically the job was left just not quite finished and there are still bits of wall and road lying about in the sand. There was also another metal fence in the desert with, of course, another gate in it through which we entered the main area of the pyramids of Giza. The fence is at least two or three kilometers from the actual pyramids and this time we didn't try to ride right up to the base of them due to time constraints. Have to do that next time. We took a few more photos, ran a few more wadis and then cruised back through another gate in the fence towards the Moneeb again. The area is large enough that there are a number of routes in and out so that the same path need not be taken twice.

Once we left the desert we turned south through the farms along the Mansureya Road, the road that leads to my home and paddocks. Unfortunately the northern part of this road is very busy with the garbage trucks hauling trash to the dump in the desert and the trucks hauling sand out of the desert, making it an undesirable riding area. We were able to make most of our way south to the army camp on some of the dirt roads that paralleled the Mansureya Road, but eventually we had to ride along the main road for a few hundred meters. The sandy shoulder of the road was wide enough for the horses to have room to be away from traffic, but dump trucks, garbage trucks and truck/trailer combinations make a lot of noise passing along the road. The years of acclimatising the horses to traffic paid off with wonderful behaviour on the part of our mounts, though all of us muttered the odd prayer under our breath at times. We had three bridges to cross with the horses before we could be off the main road and riding through the village of Masaken William on our way south once more. From then on it was back to the countryside dirt roads once more and whatever traffic we encountered there seemed negligible after the main road.

Everyone was glad to get back, have an orange and some cold water and a good stretch. Horses were sound on return and the riders were only slightly stiff. I was riding a recently purchased mare for the first time and was totally delighted in finding that she passed all obstacles without fuss and is a total bomb in the desert. Only problem is that she's part thoroughbred and as such a bit taller than I'm used to. Well, it isn't that much of a problem as long as I don't have to get off and on.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Eighth Generation

The Eighth Generation
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Every country has its living treasures and yesterday I was fortunate to celebrate two of ours. Egypt is the home of the Egyptian Arabian horse, a breed of horses that can trace its lineage back to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. The modern horse traces its heritage back to the desert horse, the Arab, the forest horse that was the ancestor of the heavier European horses, and the steppe horse exemplified by the Przewalski's horse that is being reintroduced to Mongolia now. During the 1800's hundreds of the finest Arabian horses were brought to Egypt during the conquest of the Arabian peninsula by the armies of Mohamed Ali, and these horses formed the basis of much of the breeding of Arabian horses in the world today.

During the monarchy in Egypt most of the Arab horses belonged to members of the royal family with Abbas Pasha being a major breeder. When he died his stud was broken up among other breeders, most notably the Wentworths of England who lived for a while in Egypt and later moved their horses back home to the UK. The Royal Egypian stud became the rather oddly named Egyptian Agricultural Organisation, otherwise known as the EAO, under the revolutionary government of Nasser and during the 50's and 60's some private breeders began establishing breeding facilities. Madame Widgan Barbare was one of them.

Dany Barbare is definitely another one of Egypt's living treasures. In her younger years she was an accomplished show jumper and her stories of shows in Europe years ago are fascinating. I've spent hours over tea with Dany listening to her tales of riding, breeding and horses in general. She set up Shams el Asil stud on the Mansoureya Road in a grove of mango and palm trees, a private heaven for horse lovers. Her main man, a now aging but utterly beautiful stallion called Beltagi, was the start of a line of some of the most stunning Arabian horses on earth. Yesterday was the celebration of eight generations of bewitching equines.

My horses are not purebred Egyptian Arabs. They are the countrybred baladi Arabs that are the workhorses of Egypt. This is not to say that I wouldn't have one of Dany's wonderful horses if I could afford one. National treasures must be treasured.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Hummer

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Almost six years ago, my chestnut mare Dorika bucked in an outburst of good spirits and took off in a race against a much larger horse in deep sand. Unfortunately the buck snapped a sesamoid and she was sentenced to 6 months of rest. With Dory's son Nazeer too young to ride and her buddy Nimbus pregnant with Nayzak, my husband took pity on me and offered to buy me a horse. After much searching for another mare, I found Bunduq, a gelding with a sense of humour.

'Bunduq'means 'hazelnut' in Arabic and is a fairly common name for any small, brown, rather round horse, dog, or cat. In this case my Bunduq is definitely small, round and brown. He barely makes the official measurement for a horse, but his powerful little body is a match for almost any task. He is broad enough for a good size man not to feel that he is on a pony. Trying him out was hysterical because he had been working as a schoolmaster at a friend's stable/riding school for years. He tried every school horse trick in the book on me, trying to scare me into letting him just sit around his box eating, which is his favourite occupation. Unfortunately or fortunately for Bunduq, I found his efforts to be most entertaining, since they were not malicious in intent. I brought him back to Abu Sir where he made the aquaintance of such extraordinary individuals as donkeys, camels, and water buffalo.

Bunduq carried me in our first efforts at FEI endurance, a 20 km dash from the Sakkara Country Club to the Fayoum railway crossing and back on my 51st birthday. This ride was enjoyed by a wide variety of participants, all of us terribly impressed by how far we had ridden. Later rides let us know that this was truly just a beginning and that 20 km was just a short jog. But he wasn't a lucky fellow and during a trot out for a vet he slipped and suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the cannon bone.

So now I had another horse on at least a six month layoff. On consulting a vet in the US with a scanned x-ray, he told me that what Bunduq needed was a nice bolt to stabilise the bone, but as there was no one to do this surgery, he suggested putting him in a small box to keep him still and praying a lot. If the bone slipped, I would have to put him down. In this respect he was lucky. It never slipped.

A few months down the line brought June 10 and my husband's death, so the fact that I had two horses on rehab didn't really matter. When the time came for Bunduq to be let out of the box, his bad fairy attacked once more and we found him with a nail in his hoof, making a wound deep enough to affect the coffin bone. Osteomyolitis set in and a deep incision had to be made in the sole of the hoof. Another 6 months of rest.

This poor guy became the most patient, accommodating creature on the face of the earth. He spent hours every day standing on three legs to dress the hoof wound, and when he was allowed to come out became the Napoleon of the paddock. He may be small but he is mighty and all of the other horses learned to fear his hooves. Even now he has a separate paddock to maintain the peace.

These days Bunduq is everyone's favourite first riding experience.He saves his bad temper for times when he isn't working and is a cuddly and willing companion under saddle, especially cuddly during the winter when he has a coat rather like a bear. He knows everything and has forgotten nothing of his past as a schoolmaster. He has no fear of anything and seems to know when he has an inexperienced rider. A year or two ago he was diagnosed with a vague lameness that was called navicular syndrome. We pulled his shoes, let him rest on some medication and gradually brought him back to work on hard surfaces rather than the deep sand of the desert. These days he can do some desert work and is pretty much back to normal.

He is the absolute packer of the herd.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Aging Gracefully

Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Fares el Gebel means Mountain Horse or Desert Horse in Arabic. Fares has seen them all at this point. Christina bought him roughly six or seven years ago, and at the time she was told that he was only about nine or ten. According to the people who sell horses here in Egypt, they are all about nine or ten years old, if they aren't four. My Nimbus who died last year at about 30 was supposedly only nine when Betty bought her, but she was at least fifteen when I bought her from Betty six months later. Amazing how they age when an honest vet looks at them.

Christina is Italian married to an Egyptian physics professor at the American University in Cairo. She's the mother of two girls and active in charity work in Cairo, so she doesn't have a lot of time to ride, but she wanted a horse that would be reliable and happy for desert rides. Fares was all this and more for her until recently. About a year ago he began limping after only an hour or so in the sand, so she had vets look at him. Their verdict was pretty dismal. He was older than she thought and x-rays showed severe arthritis in his front fetlocks. Some people told her to sell him as he'd never be good for desert riding again, but that was not Christina's way. Some of the veterinary recommendations would have been extremly expensive and no matter where in the world you may live, most physics professors are not millionaires.

Talking Fares' problems over with me, I suggested that she bring him to live with my horses in the paddocks where at least he wouldn't be cooped up in a stall all day. My horses live outdoors 24/7, an arrangement that has been very good for us over the years. Having arthritis myself, I know that movement of the afflicted joints is the best medicine in the world. Living in a box stall, no matter how roomy, simply didn't give Fares enough room to exercise himself to keep the fetlocks moving freely.

She brought him to me and we gave him a four month rest period, took off his horse shoes so that he had more traction in his bare feet, and wonder of wonders..she had a horse who was sound as long as he didn't spend much time in the deep sand of our desert.

At first he was extremely leery of the countryside demons. Mud in the trail? We Arabs don't do mud, lady. Water pumps might eat us. Donkey carts are dubious. Riding for the first few months was an adventure for Christina. But Fares being a cagey old dude, with emphasis on the old now that an honest age estimate put him at roughly 24 years, a venerable age for a horse in Egypt, he caught on quickly and now hops the little irrigation ditches like a pro...even the ones with running water in them. Our horses don't have much experience with running water since the canals really aren't suitable for swimming. They all seem to have the idea that Arabians are made of date sugar and will melt if their feet get wet, although on a hot day every one of them will be grazing right under the water sprinkler in the summer

Kareem Shehata ( took this lovely photo of Fares when he and some friends came riding with me. The young lady on Fares had almost no experience riding, but he took excellent care of her out on the trail. This is one of the characteristics that I so love in the Arabians.