Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Taste of Dubai

Thursday February 26 2009

It was just a quickie trip into Dubai while Jan Worthington, Grace Ramsey and her daughter Wendy were here, the object being a visit to the Emirta "Horse Requirements Centre", (tack shop), where the ladies shopped for one of those fancy Arabian halters. They were quite lovely, but I didn't think Stormy would wear it more than once before he tossed it in the back of his closet. (He's not vain, and I know he'd appreciate it, but he's more of a Bohemian kind of horse.)

I got a taste of Dubai - construction, detours, concrete barriers narrowing lanes, more construction, construction cranes on every third skyscraper, a monorail, and more construction and detours. The Burj Dubai - going to be the tallest building in the world - is one of those still under construction. I don't think I'll be lining up to go up to the top floor when it's completed.

We had lunch at a terrific Lebanese restaurant, then made a quick visit to the Dubai Equine Hospital, one of the top, state of the art horse hospitals in the world, I'm told. Madiya visited two of her horses, one who just had ankle surgery, and another pony who's mysteriously losing weight despite all blood tests coming back normal.

On the way home, we detoured by the Nad Al Sheba racecourse - with a bigger new grandstand under construction - where the Dubai World Cup is held in March - it's the richest Thoroughbred flat race in the world now. Curlin, 2008 Horse of the Year, won the Dubai World Cup last year; Dubai Millenium, one of Shaikh Mohammed's greatest racehorses (who tragically died suddenly from grass sickness a year after he retired to stud) won it in 2000.

We stopped at a camel souk (no camels around) near there for another tack shop. Jan's favorite tack shop was closed, and at a couple of the others, the same Arabian halters were more expensive the Emirta store, and they were uninterested in bargaining.

Madiya took us by the new house her family is building. The workers are saying they will be finished in four months. We thought it would be more like 4 years. It will be a beautiful place when it is finished.

One evening Madiya took Tim (her personal trainer) and me to the Global Village - a carnival/fair with exhibits from countries around the world. Want to buy native dress from Kenya? Step inside the souk. Pakistan? Walk through the doors of the 16th century fortress. Covet a drum from Nepal or a bag from Thailand, or Indian food? Come on in. How about a slice of durian (that spikey, stinky fruit)? How about a carpet? Tim and Madiya bargained with a man, and Tim left with two lovely carpets.

Things have been too busy to visit anything else, but for now, that was a good sample of Dubai.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Get Tuff Or Die

Wednesday February 25 2009

Just ask about Horses, and her eyes immediately grow large with the Horse Sparkle - the same Horse Sparkle that I have, the same Horse Sparkle that any girl has - little or grown up - who's obsessed with horses. It may not always be a practical obsession, but it is a disease, and when you have it, you can't get rid of it.

Nestled in the middle of a long row of endurance stables in the desert 45 minutes from Dubai, is a barn of horses belonging to Shaikha Madiya Hasher Mana al Maktoum, the UAE's first female Arab endurance trainer, and the first UAE woman ever to compete in endurance races here.

Endurance racing on horses is not something most Arab women are expected to do, and competing in such a men-dominated sport is itself a huge obstacle. It's a tough world to break into in the UAE. What does an Arab woman do, and where does she go to learn about endurance racing?

She first started riding in her uncle's stable when she was 16. Her uncle is Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, and emir of Dubai, an owner of top flat racing Thoroughbreds around the world and a competitor in endurance racing around the world. "I was only walking and trotting, but then I used to sneak horses out and go gallop in the desert." She didn't know what she was doing, though - she was just copying what she saw others do - and it wasn't until she met Grace Ramsey of Illinois, who was over here training endurance horses, that started her on the path to where she is now.

One of Madiya's horses colicked when she didn't have a trailer to use, and in desperation, she asked for help from Grace, who hauled her horse to a vet clinic. "And then she couldn't get rid of me," laughs Madiya.

She stuck around Grace enough, showing that she was determined to learn everything she could, that eventually Grace invited her to come to the US to learn about endurance riding. In the US at Grace's farm, Madiya learned a different aspect of endurance: endurance riding. She learned to do everything herself, (here, the grooms do everything for you), tacking her own horse, learning to rate and not push a horse too fast too soon, "getting tough" - learning to do a ride by herself and not rely on a crew every step of the way, like it's done here in the UAE. A 20 mile loop without assistance? Preposterous (and simply not done) in the UAE! But normal in America.
She learned about saddle fit, electrolytes, leg care, and what to look for in an endurance horse. She learned the value of not overdoing it in one season with a horse - she'd rather have a horse that can go for years, instead of having a horse than might win one race.

Under Grace's tutelage and encouragement, Madiya got serious about weight loss, fitness, and eating right - one could say she's now also obsessed about working out. She has a personal trainer Tim, who has now also caught the riding bug - he's started taking riding lessons at Madiya's stables on one of her old endurance ponies.

In the US in 2004, after completing a couple of LDs and a couple of 50's, Madiya rode in her first 100-mile ride, in Oreana, Idaho, in the Arabian Nights ride. It was a tough ride: "My God it was so hot!" she recalls. "But I wasn't going to quit - Grace would have kicked my butt!" Not to mention Madiya is not a quitter. When she puts her mind to something, she WILL accomplish it. You might get that idea from her "Get Tuff or Die" stable motto.

She returned to the US in 2005, 2006, and 2008, and has completed over 1280 AERC endurance miles. The knowledge that she has gained over all those miles and has brought back home with her has been incalculable. "Now I can go and ride anywhere in the world and compete, because I know I can do it myself." The friendships she has made in the US and around the world are also immeasurable: she calls Grace "Mom", and she keeps in close contact with many of her friends in the US, calling or texting them before and after her rides here, always talking horses, what they have done and what's on their schedule.

Madiya has about 35 horses in her stables, including veteran endurance horses, youngsters, and some ponies. The compassion for her horses is evident in the way she talks to her horses (“Hey Buddy,” “That’s my baby!”), in how she closely observes them, in how she runs her hands down a leg to check for abnormalities. During one endurance race in Dubai, we followed Molly’s Valiant Heart around an entire loop. Now owned by Al Aasfa stables, Madiya had ridden “Sponge Bob” in two 100-mile races in the US. She drove beside him the whole loop, watching and calling out the window to him.

She has ridden in the President's Cup, one of the premiere endurance races, and the National Day cup, among other high profile UAE races. Her assistant trainer Ali Khan, from near Jaipur, India, has worked for Madiya coming 5 years, and he supervises some 24 employees, including his younger brother, the stable foreman, and various riders, grooms, a shoer, a driver.

Madiya's already planning her summer visit to the US again, when the racing season here in the UAE is shut down. Keep your eyes open there: if you see one determined, endurance-obsessed young lady with that Horse Sparkle in her eye coming down the trail at you, it just might be Shaikha Madiya. Say hi and fall in beside her for a while. Besides having a fun ride, you just might learn something from her, and you'll certainly catch a bit of her Endurance Horse Obsession Disease. And who couldn't use a little more of that?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Arabian Sands

23 February 2009

(Or, Raven Rides UAE!)

When you leave the property of Madiya's stables outside of Dubai, if you head straight south, you'll eventually end up in Oman or Saudi Arabia.

That's what we did yesterday, headed south into the Arabian Sands (I've been reading this book by Wilfred Thesiger while I'm here), although we only went out for a 3 hour ride.

The Raven and I rode Laila, with Madiya on Opie, and Ali Khan on the gorgeous stallion Solid. It was just an easy walk - although you couldn't say that walking in this sand is easy. Most of it is a fine-grained soft sand that feet sink down in, but Laila seemed to glide over it as if she had snowshoes on, or as if she had padded camel's feet.

The desert here is like a magnet to me - I see the horizon and I want to go there, and I see the next low row of sand hills and I want to go there. All those mysterious names and places out there just waiting to be visited, seen with my own eyes, inhaled and felt with my own being. It MUST have something to do with Thesiger's book - if I were really travelling through the desert on horseback or camelback or on foot, I'd be complaining as soon as the temperature hit 80*, and it was very close to that today.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating place. Here there is a fair amount of tough scrub grasses (Opie liked to eat them), and which must be plenty of sustenance for camels, because we saw a sizeable herd out grazing. Eventually we saw a man sitting in the slim shade of one of the rare trees out here; he was their herder. The camels apparently don't wander too far and don't run away.

Besides the unmistakeable padded tracks of the camel, there were plenty of other mysterious tracks under our feet, which indicate this is a very populated desert. I saw one thing - which must have been a mouse - zip to and dive into a little hole, but it was so fast I didn't see what it actually was. A few times something tiny buried itself in the sand as we approached it. We did see a herd of 2 dozen little deer, and I saw 3 tiny lizards. On the way back we saw two of the larger 18 inch lizards that hole up underground. One used to could hunt them but now they are protected, and people leave hay by their holes.

After an hour and a half, we turned back from the horizon, and headed back to the stables.

Maybe in another life (in one where I don't melt in the heat) I'll come back to cross the Arabian Sands.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

An Endurance Race in Dubai

Saturday February 21 2009

Still no power cord for my computer, and really, no time to sit around and write or catalog photos anyway!

Skaikha Madiya's stable maganer Ali Khan rode Cindy, one of Madiya's mares, today in a 120 km race at the Dubai Equestrian Club. I rode with Madiya and hung out of her car roof and shot photos.

Here's a just few from the day.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Dog Ate My Homework

Friday February 20 2009
Well anyway, he ate my Macbook powercord, he really did! So I'm borrowing another computer until I can get mine replaced.

The 160-km President's Cup in Abu Dhabi was... Something Else. It's a different kind of endurance sport over here. It's endurance Racing, not endurance Riding.

If you want the full story, including gory details on the absolutely insane driving with the riders, on how I got the truck stuck in the sand and how we got pulled out, how the Aussies (Meg Wade finished) and the 2 Americans, 68-year-old Jan Worthington, and John Crandell, did (they both finished!), you can get it on 2009 Presidents Cup on Also if you really want to look through hundreds of photos, you can find the link on that page also.

Here are a few photos from the ride:

Frontrunners on Loop 3

Aussie Meg Wade on Loop 3

Aussie Penny Toft on Loop 3

Crewing in the Vet Gate

Much dust

Jan and Leon going out on Loop 5

John and Melika going out on Loop 5

John being interviewed before going out on a loop

A front runner on loop 5

No time to stop for water

The winners - 2nd fastest 160 km ever, 6:30:53

Friday, February 13, 2009

Desert Gold

Thursday February 12 2009

All is Golden in Abu Dhabi... the earth and the sky. Sand on the ground, in the air, between your toes, in your eyeballs. My plane landed in the wee hours of Thursday morning in what looked like a fog, but what turned out to be a sandstorm, which blew steadily all day.

Three different people said the weather is supposed to clear tomorrow, but those were foreigners. The locals say this will stick around for a while, which could help to make Saturday's 10th running of the 160-km President's Cup interesting. Another important item that could make things interesting is the new set of FEI qualification rules that may possibly keep a good number of UAE horses in the stables.

Lots of familiar faces popped up in the morning at the Hotel Mafraq, at breakfast, at the Press Conference in Dubai, at the hotel lunch buffet, at the evening dinner party.

It's great to see Penny and Peter Toft here. Having come off a wonderful ride on her beloved horse Don in Malaysia, Penny's having her first ride on the mare Kitt. Penny's ridden in the President's Cup 4 times, finishing twice, her best finish in 2004 where she was 7th on Al Reef Stable's Phantasm DJ, a horse they had previously owned in Australia. Penny noticed the track has become harder - they've removed some sand, or it looks like they water and plow, water and plow parts of the track, until it looks like pavement and is quite compacted. Peter suggested the Raven might have to take a training ride with Penny tomorrow : )

Jan Worthington is feeling under the weather, but her horse Golden Lightning is feeling terrific, even better than he did before the World Championships in Malaysia in November. And that is wonderful to hear, since, many of you will remember, he and Jan were knocked over by a bolt of lightning on the second loop there, went on to finish the ride, and then vetted out at the finish, a crushing blow after all they went through. "Leon" just got a shave job yesterday, and he looks terrific. I rode in the car with Grace Ramsey, as we followed her daughter Wendy and Leon on a little leg-stretching outing in the dust storm this afternoon. "He's the best horse we've ever had," Grace said. "Nothing bothers him."

He really looks good, as does John Crandell's mare LR Jasuur Melika. She's a beautiful white mare, nicely built, nice mover. John took her out for a walk with Wendy and Leon - he wasn't sure he wanted to ride her in this dust, and he wanted to walk with her and see what she'd be breathing. Of course, he wrapped a handkerchief around his face so he wouldn't get the FULL effect. Melika is a homebred, his mom's favorite. This will be her first 160 km ride, and not because she's not capable. John's mom just prefers riding shorter distances.

John hopped on her and rode bareback for a bit, until both she and Leon started picking up the pace when they saw a herd of camels they thought they could beat. They slowed back to a walk, and had a good 45 minute outing.

Aussies Kristie McGaffin and her twin sister Naomi were out handwalking the two Castlebar horses, Castlebar Kalahari, who Meg Wade will ride, and Castlebar Darthvader, Kristie's ride, a stallion by one of Australia's best sires, Chip Chase Sadaqa. Both those horses were looking quite fit also.

2008 Polish Champion Kamila Kart of Poland is here to ride in her first President's Cup with her Polish champion and Best Conditioned horse, Cert. They have been here since February 1, and he is training well. Another Polish rider, Beata Dzikowska is here with Cyryl, who finished 14th in the dismal weather at the 2008 Italian Championships in Assisi.

French chef d'equipe Jean Louis Leclerc is here with 3 French riders, Phillippe Benoit, Caroline Denayer, and Pascale Dietsch. "It is a small world!" Jean Louis said when he saw me. Both Phillippe and Pascale are riding the same horses on which they completed the World Championships in Malaysia in November.

Dinner party was an extravagant food affair at the Emirates International Endurance Village. It was impossible to even sample everything. For entertainment there were camels to ride and falcons to hold (yes, I did : ) .

Tomorrow are the vet inspections, the national horses will be moving onto the grounds, and hopefully I'll get some photos of some more of the riders on course. And hopefully some of the dust will abate.

I did get a rental car to drive, but so far have avoided using it to get to the venue. It's a bit of a meandering path to get there (and you go a different way, coming and going), and since you can't really see any landmarks what with the dust storm, I've gotten a ride there twice today. I didn't have a chance to pick up a SIM card to call anybody if I do get lost, I don't have any maps, and not one dinar in my pocket to pay someone for directions if I need them.

I think tomorrow if I follow somebody, I'll remember the way next time on my own. Insha'allah. : )

Lots more coverage on at 2009 Presidents Cup.