Despite my best efforts, a few times I couldn’t find places to ride in the countries I visited: in Moscow in the Olympic Equestrian complex Bitsa, I was told that I had to book at least 6 lessons in advance and they are not open on weekends; in Kuwait none of the phone numbers I found on the internet actually worked; in Algeria… Well, my French is simply not good enough to book a lesson or a hack. (Maybe next time :-))
But today I want to tell you about a place I hadn’t even dreamed of riding in. Yes, Erbil, Northern Kurdistan, is the safest city in Iraq so far, but it is surrounded by places where bomb blasts and terrorist attacks are part of daily life. In a country where every working day starts with the news of how many people were killed and injured last night, it seemed highly unlikely that I could find any horse riding activities.
But as it said in the Bible: Seek and you shall find.
Although I had tried to Google any equestrian activities prior to my business trip, and although my colleagues, knowing about my weird hobby, tried to help me, unsurprisingly there was nothing available according to the Mighty-All-Knowing Google.
But on the last day of the visit I saw a newspaper with a picture of horse racing. Unfortunately, I don’t read Arabic, let alone Kurdish, so I asked my colleagues what the picture was related to and they told me that it was an ad for the Mam Center – a small zoo and stables. Would you believe it? In five minutes an appointment was made and we agreed to go there right after we finished work.
So 2 hours later, outside of Erbil on the way to Kirkuk, we found a really nice place with well-equipped and perfectly-maintained stables, racing track and arenas for show jumping and flat work. And there were a lot of people with kids. It looked like the owner’s business was booming.
Recalling all my previous rides, I think that every horse I’ve ridden was special in some way: Aramis in Casablanca was the most stubborn one, while Al Masa from Muscat was the most tractable; Joy from Brno was the biggest and Baursak from Almaty – the fluffiest one. My ride in Iraq was also special – he had the weirdest name a horse can get: Autobus. He got this nickname due to his long body and short legs – a kind of a horse dachshund.
There in Iraq it was the second time I promised myself to try to ride alone next time; riding in front of colleagues is like taking part in a very important competition. You keep thinking that somebody is assessing your performance, and the fact that you are riding a completely unfamiliar horse in an unknown environment doesn’t help you to get the highest marks. All in all, Autobus’ “test drive” was quite good, and as my colleague told me: now I had something to be truly proud of. “I don’t think any of your friends can say that they’ve ridden a horse in Iraq”.
The owner of the stables, a long haired, cowboy-like, 50-year-old gentleman, was very kind to promise me to ride a beautiful Arabian mare from the Saddam Hussein stables the next time I come. Well, looking forward.
On the way back, passing through the checkpoints, I couldn’t stop thinking that whatever political, cultural and environmental difficulties nations are experiencing, there will always be horses and there will always be people that cannot imagine their lives without them.
P.S. I wrote this text 2 years ago on the plane on my way back from Erbil. Now, with the ISIS attacks, the situation in Iraq has worsened ten-fold. I really hope that the owner and the horses are safe and will be able to go back to their normal lives soon.