n the paddock, it's time for Abdullah Al Sharbatly to saddle up. The stallion Hickstead waits with his groom. Al Sharbatly has watched Hickstead all week, but he has never ridden him. It's not his horse.
When the bell sounds, Al Sharbatly, riding the 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood, will have 60 seconds to clear 10 different jumps over the winding, 400-meter (440-yd) course.
Because of his faults in the opening round, he and Hickstead must clear all jumps perfectly if Al Sharbatly is to win a medal tonight. Then he will have to do the same on two more horses he has never ridden before. Some obstacles stand more than 1 1/2 meters (5') high; one is wider than its height. It's like a hurdle race in which each hurdle is different and the course meanders, designed for surprises.
At 28, Al Sharbatly is the youngest of the four riders who edged out 121 competitors from 27 nations to meet on October 9 in the Rolex Final Four at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, widely regarded as one of the most challenging contests of horsemanship in the world and the jewel in the crown of show jumping. This is also a finish unique in equestrian sport: Each competitor rides the course first on his own horse, and then on the mounts of each of the other three competitors.
Tonight, for Al Sharbatly, the other three are Rodrigo Pessoa, 37, from Brazil, on HH Rebozo; Eric Lamaze, 42, from Canada, on Hickstead; and Philippe Le Jeune, 50, from Belgium, on Vigo d'Arsouilles. All are highly decorated veterans of the circuit. It's the first Rolex Final Four to match four riders from different continents.
Of the four, only Al Sharbatly has come into tonight's Final Four with five flawless rides in the past four days of team and individual jumping.
But in the first round of the Final Four, his own horse, Seldana di Campalto, knocked down two rails. The resulting faults put Al Sharbatly in last place.
"As she came over the first of the triple she got spooked by a shadow right in front of her. She pulled back," Al Sharbatly tells coach Stanny Van Paesschen, who has joined him in the paddock.
"Don't worry. It will be there for them too. Just concentrate now on riding Hickstead. You can do it," Van Paesschen reassures the rider.
Al Sharbatly and Hickstead take their first, almost faltering steps. In the three minutes before the starting bell, he must erase the memory of the last run and bond with an equine stranger. He must do this well enough to clear eight fences made up of 10 elements, the last three of which comprise the hazardous triple.
While Al Sharbatly readies Hickstead, Pessoa picks up faults, too. The other two riders have jumped clear first rounds.
"I thought to myself, 'What has happened, happened, and we can't change it,'" reflected Al Sharbatly, adding that he "just has to get on with it."
As he and Hickstead set up to take the first and lowest fence, the crowd seems to sense the odds now stacked against this youngest and by far least experienced of the Final Four. He clears the first jump, and then four more. In the middle of the course is fence five, designed to resemble a twin-funnelled Ohio River stern-wheeler. Face on, its bright red paddle-wheel on the right flank of the four rails, and the high funnels to their left, create a prospect capable of unnerving a horse and visually confusing a rider.
Hickstead clears the model boat, then the next fence. Al Sharbatly pushes the stallion into a tight, 180-degree turn. Accelerating to a gallop, he sets Hickstead up for the "oxer," 1.6 meters (5'3") wide. To gasps from the crowd, he soars over it. Seven clear. Three to go.
Now, some 20 meters (65') ahead, is the first jump of the triple combination, with that shadow. If just one of the next five top rails falls, with it will go not only Al Sharbatly's own hopes for a medal, but also his country's hopes for what could be the highest world sporting award in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
nlike the millennia-long desert heritage of horse breeding and riding in the Arabian Peninsula, the sport of show jumping there goes back a mere three decades to surprisingly modest, homegrown origins.
"In the early 80's, we were a small group of keen riders who wanted to try jumping," recalls Sami Al Duhami, who serves as manager for the kingdom's show jumping team that, here in Kentucky, fielded four riders plus a reserve. Among the Games' nearly 700 riders, the Saudi team is among the smaller ones, but when al-Duhami narrates its story, here in the heart of bluegrass country, it's redolent of great American dreams.
"We copied designs from equestrian magazines from Europe, and did our best to build fences and lay out simple courses. We used borrowed racing horses from the small flat-racing club in Riyadh, and even some desert-bred Arabian horses from local farms. I know they are not the right horses for jumping, but that's how we began."
At the same time, Ziyad Abduljawad was living on the us west coast, burning rubber on auto-racing circuits. "Car racing requires focus, concentration, commitment, tenacity, coordination, strategic thinking, teamwork and safety. I soon found out it's the same with horse riding and jumping. And when [medical] circumstances made me give up car racing, I made the transition from the driver's seat to the saddle," he explains. Now retired from jumping, Abduljawad is the managing director of Saudi Equestrian, the non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2009 to develop the Saudi show jumping team.
Budding show jumper Khaled Al Eid was also in the us, on a riding scholarship, and together with Abduljawad, the pair embarked on professional training with Bernie Traurig, a top American trainer. By then, two more potential team members had been spotted: Sami al-Duhami's brother Ramzy and Kamal Bahamdan, who was then based in Boston.
"It all rather started from madness," recalls Abduljawad. "We set up an ad hoc committee, made up our rules, borrowed horses as we went along and started competing in small local events at home, and then began to think about international shows."
In 1990, the novice team bagged its first significant international win: a surprise second place (again using borrowed horses) in the Asian championships in Yokohama, Japan. "We owe a lot to the vision and encouragement of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Saud," says Abduljawad. The prince, a Stanford and Menlo College alumnus and now Saudi Arabia's minister of education, has a lifelong passion for equestrian sports and the cultural heritage of the horse.
"He came to Japan to support us, and on the train back to Tokyo he said he wanted our team to qualify for the Olympics. Such a bold statement came as a big surprise to us," says Abduljawad.
The decade leading up to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney brought a steady string of international medals for Al Eid, Bahamdan, Ramzy Al Duhami and a handful of other riders. Then in Sydney, Al Eid won a bronze medal: It was one of the first two Olympic medals ever taken home by Saudi Arabia in any sport.
By 2006, the team needed a dedicated organization to help it focus on the 2012 Olympics. Saudi Equestrian, Abduljawad says, is designed "to build our show jumping team by seeking out and acquiring top horses, develop talented riders, create the right setting and win medals."
"To win medals in show jumping, you need good horses and talented riders and a soupçon of luck," says coach Van Paesschen, a former top Belgian show jumper and Olympic medalist (Montreal, 1976) with 35 years' experience in the sport. "You also need long-range planning, ambition, dedication, training of horsemen and mounts, and management of complex logistics," he says, adding that "show jumping is being taken seriously now. In its first year Saudi Equestrian has already acquired three top horses. The aim is to get results and create enthusiasm for the sport."
outheast of the outskirts of Brussels is the equestrian center of Haras de Wisbecq. Here, three of the Saudi Equestrian
riders, their horses and support team do their training.
(The other, Kamal Bahamdan, trains in the Netherlands, and the reserve rider for the Games, Prince Abdullah bin Miteb bin Abdullah, trains in France.)
Team member Ramzy Al Duhami and his wife, Sara, along with Brazilian groom Rosemir Ferreira Barone, are busy preparing Jalla de Gaverie, a French-born, Belgium-registered mare who has yet to step on Saudi soil. Other grooms are Brazilian, Finnish, Polish and Irish; the trainer is Belgian, the vet is German, the chef d'équipe is Dutch, and, similarly, the horses have origins from around the world. The Belgian base is what Ramzy calls "a perfect staging point" for events throughout Europe and "only a short hop by nearby ferry" from the British circuit. For more far-flung events, nearby Liège airport has recently extended its runway to better accommodate the longer
takeoff and landings preferred by cargo aircraft carrying four-legged passengers. (See "The Pegasus Project," in sidebar above.)
"We all spend long months away from home," he says. "If we are not here preparing, working in the stables, exercising, practicing and training in the arenas, then we are on the road and participating in competitions. There are usually three or more shows every month."
In the days before the horses and equipment drive the two hours to Liège, the atmosphere at the center is relaxed yet purposeful. The schedule centers on the horses. They are exercised by walking in hand and riding several times daily to jaunty piped music. In the countdown to the Games, jumping practice is less frequent. "Experienced horses do not need a lot of jumping before events. They are already in peak condition," says Ramzy. "We exercise them on the flat but only jump about once a week before a major event like this. We want the horses to be fresh and not overworked."
Grooms work 15-hour days in times like these, not only helping to ride and exercise the horses—and groom them—but also in feeding, massaging and packing competition equipment.
"I love working with the horse and rider and being part of the team. I've been to at least 14 countries this year," says Barone as he provides Jalla a 90-minute, head-to-hoof spa session before he turns to the packing list of equipment.
For Jalla, that equipment all goes into a traveling cart: conventional tack (saddles, bridles with varied bits and overreach boots); blankets with the team logo; hoof studs to screw into shoes for differing ground conditions; stainless steel octopus hangers to dangle kit from; protective leg boots, bandages, head collars, ear nets, fly veils, towels, hoof packing, spare shoes, hoof picks, wire brushes, a massage blanket, and ice clay and gel pads for cooling tendons after jumps.
Then there is the equine beauty kit: electric clippers, brushes and rubbing pads; shampoo, moisturizer and conditioner for mane and tail; hoof cream, fly repellent and MudDoc cream to protect against mud fever. Last but not least comes in-flight horse cuisine: hay, carrots and even a crate of apples.
"There are infinite combinations to be taken into account and meticulously thought through. Horses in this competitive environment are out of their natural habitat and we have to ensure their welfare is foremost," says Sara as she prepares sheaves of paperwork. "We have to coordinate for each one of the horses, ensure all the tack is together, check that the vaccinations, paperwork and passports are up-to-date. We have to de-worm the horses every three months, shoe them every three weeks and give them dental checks twice a year. Everything has to be coordinated to meet all the rules and regulations. They just cannot be avoided."
n Kentucky nine days later, it is fence rails that must be avoided. That is topmost in Bahamdan's mind as he prepares Cezanne 30, his Holst gelding, on the opening day of the 2010 fei World
Jumping Championship team and individual competitions.Although Bahamdan has walked today's course carefully, for him there is added pressure: He has been drawn as the very first rider of the competitions, which will carry on over the next three days. That means he has no chance to observe how others handle this course's jumps, or to spot possible traps.
No two show-jumping courses are ever exactly alike. They are designed thematically, and for today's opening leg, the theme is "Nature of Kentucky." Fences include a mock stone farm entrance, a naturalistic arch made of blocks and a four-barred fence flanked by the kind of white columns common to entrance porches of the state's historic homes.
These motifs purposely create visual challenges for both horses and riders. Shapes, colors and shadows can spook horses as they approach jumps, putting them off their stride, risking knock-downs or, worse, refusals. Artistry aside, they are formidable obstacles: The highest are 1.55 meters (more than five feet) and today's long jump—over water!—is four meters (13') wide.
Walking the course allows the rider to mentally map out the circuit and study each jump and the distances between each one.
"Each rider knows the length of his horse's step, and so once he has paced off the distance between fences, he can plan the optimum number of steps," says Marty Bauman, a former director of public relations for the us equestrian team and now director of media services for the Lexington Games. The course that Bahamdan faces has 13 fences; three of them are double combinations, making a total of 16 obstacles to surmount.
He will be scored by "faults," that is, anything that gives him a less-than-perfect run. The time limit for this course is two minutes, with a fault for every four seconds over. Knocking down rails, dislodging blocks or wetting a foot in the water cost four faults each. Deviations from the course or disobedience, where the horse refuses a jump, result in faults, and a second refusal results in elimination, as does exceeding double the allocated time. The team rankings are calculated by totaling the best three scores on the team.
Show-jumping strategy thus presents a conundrum: Pushing the horse too hard for speed increases the risk of knock-downs and refusals. Bahamdan decides to aim for a clear run without pushing his mount too hard. He rides smoothly, but cautiously. Cezanne 30 gracefully springs over each of the obstacles as if in slow motion. He gets faults for exceeding the time, but it's a clear run—no knock-downs.
"This was a tough course. And with the pressure of being the first on the course, Kamal's decision to go for a clear round rather than speed opens the door for his teammates. It will spur them on," says coach Van Paesschen.
He's right. All three of the other Saudi riders follow with clear rounds. This puts all of them among the 22 who, out of 120 competitors, score clear rounds. After the first day, the us team is solidly in the lead. The Saudi team ranks tenth.
Two days later, after all team competitions, after each round over a different course, Germany takes the podium as world champion. France and Belgium take silver and bronze. Home team usa, which took silver in the 2006 Games, slipped to tenth, while the Netherlands, which won gold in 2006, ranks 15th of the 27 teams. The Saudi team takes eighth.
"We're really happy with this result," says Abduljawad. "If we can hold this position, we'll qualify for the Olympics."
In the individual standings, the 41-year old Al Eid is ranked seventh and Al Sharbatly ninth. That puts them in the top 30, and they'll go on into the two-part qualifier that whittles them down to the Final Four.
For the opening round in the qualifier, another locally themed course is laid out with 15 jumps, including a water jump, two combinations and a triple.
The first six riders each pick up faults. America's McLain Ward makes the first clear run. The triple proves to be a bogey even for some of the best. In the end, only five of the 30 have ridden clear rounds. One of them is Al Sharbatly.
The second round presents a 12-element course. It proves easier. Thirteen of the first 25 riders make it clear. Then Al Sharbatly, and then Pessoa, also leave all the rails in place. The Germans pick up faults, as does the Swedish rider. Lamaze aboard Hickstead rides clear; then Le Jeune, the final rider, racks up just a single time fault. With these results tallied against the previous days' standings, the determination of the Final Four has come down to the last five riders of the last round—a cliff-hanger to the end.
That Al Sharbatly is one of the Final Four generates "a combination of amazement and curiosity," says Louise Parks of the fei news service. "He has only been riding the fabulous Seldana di Campalto for six weeks."
For Rogier van Iersel, Saudi Equestrian's chef d'équipe, Al Sharbatly's surprise success provides one final challenge at the Games: Re-book the team's tickets—for riders, staff and Al Sharbatly's horse—as well as hotels and stables for an extra night. A top international judge with 20 years at the National Equestrian Federation of Holland, he joined the Saudi team in 2006 after turning down an fei appointment to head the show jumping jury for the 2008 Olympics. He takes this day's success in stride.
"The way Saudi Arabia is going about developing the sport is special. What makes Saudi Equestrian almost unique is that it's integrated and independent. It has a vet, coach, team manager and, perhaps most important, it owns the horses," says van Iersel. "This is one of the only equestrian bodies in the world to acquire horses to help build a team. Usually riders don't own horses and don't have an organization like Saudi Equestrian to provide them. Elsewhere, riders can get pressure from private horse owners, who can interfere with planning and performance. If there is no quick success from a rider on a horse, the owner will often move to find the next rider," he says. "Such uncertainty can place stress on a rider and team."
Martha Murdoch, a veteran horse owner, breeder and rider from Versailles, Kentucky, admires "a real passion that shines through" on the Saudi and other Arab teams at the Games. She believes the region's spirited growth in the sport may come to resemble Canada's success story: Since 1952, the Canadian equestrians have won eight Olympic medals and dozens of major championships. Riders like Ian Millar on Big Ben, the most successful show jumping horse in history, have provided inspiration and popularized the sport, she maintains. Similarly, "stylish and winning performances like we are seeing here from the Saudis are surprising and delighting fans. This can encourage kids to get interested in the sport. The horse is just such a great equalizer!"
he Final Four is not an equalizer.
At an extended canter, Al Sharbatly and Hickstead approach the last three obstacles. Over the past 50 or so seconds, the initial edgy discord between horse and rider has alchemized into a quicksilver harmony. Hickstead sails over the triple to cheers from the spectators and brings Al Sharbatly home: No faults.
Next, Le Jeune rides clear again, this time on Al Sharbatly's mare. Lamaze takes down a rail on 8b. Al Sharbatly then rides Vigo clear. With Pessoa making a clear round on Hickstead, the final rotation is another cliff-hanger.
Le Jeune is leading with zero faults. Only catastrophe separates him from gold. At the triple, Lemaze, on Al Sharbatly's Seldana, knocks off a rail. Al Sharbatly takes off on his final round, on Rebozo—who jumps the Saudi's third clear round. With that, a medal—which seemed so distant when he first set out on Hickstead—is in reach. Pessoa, on Vigo, hits two fences.
Last to go is Le Jeune, on Hickstead. He rides clear for gold, and Hickstead, the only fault-free horse, wins the ribbon for best horse. Al Sharbatly's three clear rounds, each on horses he has never before ridden, give him second place.
"It's a great moment for me and my country to win the silver medal," says Al Sharbatly. "It's the first time in history that a rider from the Middle East has reached the top four in a world championship. I only had six weeks and two previous shows on my mare. I believe in her. She is amazing."
Ever restless, Abduljawad reflects on his team's journey from simple beginnings to the highest sporting accolade in his country's history. "There's work to be done! We need to concentrate on building our team and horses for 2012 and beyond. And we want to encourage young riders. This is a new era for equestrian sport in our country."
||Peter Harrigan (harrigan@ fastmail.fm), a frequent contributor to this magazine, is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University in the uk and commissioning editor of two books on Arabian horses, including the forthcoming Royal Heritage by Princess Alia Al Hussain. “Watching Al Sharbatly and Saudi Equestrian clinch silver was the thrill of a lifetime,” he says.
||Commercial photographer and lecturer Bob Straus has shot for Rolex, Lexus, Time, Sports Illustrated, leading television networks, usga and usta. With degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, he teaches at the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University and serves as president of the board of trustees of the Houston Police Athletic League.