Country #2 – UAE: A Fully Automated Horse or a Sport of Kings

I worked in Dubai for a year, so I love the city and know it pretty well. And it’s always a pleasure to go back there. This time, I went to Dubai for a week-long training. After the training, I decided to stay at my friend’s place for the weekend. For entertainment, I had a choice between going shopping or visiting Dubai Polo Club for some lesson (both are equally expensive). To no one’s surprise, horses won again. :-)

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For those who have ridden before but have done mostly show jumping and dressage, polo will feel like being in another planet. Here are a few differences:

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  • In polo, you should keep all four (!!!) reins and a whip in the left hand and a mallet in the right. If you are left-handed, sorry—life is unfair.
  • Nobody is looking for a straight line between your ear, hip, and anklebone—finally! :-)
  • Your legs are way more forward than in dressage.
  • To turn your horse left or right, you have to completely turn in the saddle so you can see the tail.
  • You do not squeeze your horse to go forward; rather, you kick her.
  • You can and should bend much more forward while riding.
  • You pull the rein to stop the horse.
  • To stay in the saddle, you squeeze the horse with your knees instead of your lower legs.
  • And more importantly, you don’t have to be a good rider to play polo.

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And you know what? Polo ponies are the most honest and accepting horses I’ve ever ridden. They are like automated cars—but better. If you want your polo pony to go forward, you just move your left hand slightly forward. To stop, pull your hand to your face. If you pull your left hand to the stomach, the horse will step back. That’s it! It’s like they have buttons!

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But that is not all. Not only do they react to your commands immediately and implicitly, but they actually help you play. For example, my mount, Jasmine, was always chasing the ball for me. And even if I wasn’t quick enough to see where it went after a hit, she would trace it herself and, even before I asked for it, would canter to the direction of the ball.

OK, enough for the pros—let’s talk about the cons now. Of course the worst part of polo is the mallet. It’s not only very heavy (believe me, after 10 minutes with a stretched arm, 4 pounds would feel like at least 4 stones) but also impossible to manage—at least for the first 10 tries.

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Thankfully, Steven, my instructor, was very patient and not only told me what to do but also explained why it should be done. He was also constantly cheering for me, which made the lesson way more fun. After a good turn, he would say, “Wait, I need to call Hello! magazine right now! They need to come and take your picture! It’s so nice to have here a person who can actually ride!”

The first time I managed to touch the ball with the mallet (which happened like on the seventh attempt, and “touch” is not an exaggeration as the ball moved only 6 inches forward :-(, he was like, good girl! Now you’re in my team!

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Later, I realised that the statement “Now you are in my team” is the greatest compliment a trainee could earn. Of course I was curious which team I was now in:

–       “So what is your team?”

–       “Argentina, of course!” he said in surprise like it was a very weird question to ask.

–       “And when I’m not doing good, which team I’m playing in?”

–       “You were playing for Poland. Now you are playing for Argentina.”

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The whole experience was a blast! Forty-five minutes of polo lesson went really fast, but boy, there are no words to describe how my muscles sore the next day—all 640 of them. :-)

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Country #3 – Ukraine: Visiting Motherland or a Skittish Candy Bar

My life started in the small Ukrainian town of Belaya Tserkov’ on a rainy August day in 1979. By a strange coincidence, 1979 was the year the last horse owned by my extended family was sold. I was an ultimate urban kid, and so were my parents. That’s why they couldn’t understand my love for horses. The closest relative who kept and raised horses was my great-grandfather Vasily, who used to earn his living as a horsebreaker when he was young. All my grandparents, despite growing up in farms and rural areas, left for the cities as soon as they were able to. And as far as I know, since my great-grandfather Vasily, none had any connection to horses.

Although I was born in Ukraine and spent every summer there until the age of 12, I’d never ridden a horse there until that April, when I went to Kiev for a business trip. Luckily, I managed to organise my travel in such a way that I could not only meet with my relatives but also do some riding.

With the help of a friend and colleague, I found a pretty nice place—Bolivar Ranch. Although it was called a ranch, it was actually a small hotel with a restaurant located along the way from Belaya Tserkov’ to Kiev. The cost of renting a horse was surprisingly low—20 USD per hour. I booked 2 hours, hoping to ride in the nearest forest. But my plans were ruined by the fact that I was busy all day and all the horses except one were booked, so the instructor couldn’t go to the forest with me. On the other hand, she couldn’t allow a stranger to ride a horse to the forest alone.

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Instead, I was offered to ride beautiful mixed-breed skewbald Twix in a huge arena. I was told that Twix was a new horse, which was recently presented to one of the customers, and in order to reduce the livery payment, she allowed the stables to rent him. In fact, I was the first guest to ride him.

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Twix was gorgeous: thick copper-red and snow-white mane, massive neck, cunning eyes and even some kind of a smile on his face. But although he had a delicious name and looks, his personality wasn’t that sweet.

He loved to suddenly stop and pull his head down, or shake his massive neck, or sharply turn at the gate corner in an attempt to unbalance the rider. For the first 20 minutes, we were a perfect example of what one of my riding instructors used to describe as a battle between two nervous systems.

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I still don’t think that my nervous system overtook Twix’s. It was more like I bored him to submission with endless large and small circles. Nevertheless, in the next hour, Twix was trotting, cantering, turning on the forehands, legs yielding and so on—implicitly, but to be honest, without any enthusiasm.

Later on, Elena, the instructor, said, “I see that he cannot be ridden by kids and first-timers, but looks like you can control him well enough to go to the forest, not too far though.” So she walked with us and took some more pictures of this funny little skewbald monster called Twix.

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If you want to visit the place, check their website: http://www.ranchobolivar.com.ua/en/index.html. Besides riding, there are many other activities for all family members.

Country #4 – Kazakhstan: A Horse Called Donut or Our Small Wedding Tradition

Although Kazakhstan has centuries if not thousands of years of nomad history and riding traditions (it’s a proven fact that horses were first domesticated in the territory of central Kazakhstan about 5500–6000 years ago), currently, there are not many places for rides and you would never see Kazakhstan riders in Olympic Games or any big international competitions.

Anyway, even with the limited choices, you can still find something in almost every country. And my favourite place for a ride is at the Uzhet stables, which are located at the outskirts of Kazakhstan’s former capital and biggest city, Almaty.

The stables have about 100 horses. The owners also raise different kinds of domestic animals, so the place also serves as a farm zoo.

We went to Uzhet with my best friend, who is also a horse lover. Actually, this was some kind of a continuation of a tradition I started a year ago—the day before my wedding, we also went to Uzhet. This time around, I came to the wedding of my friend, and we went to Uzhet the next day

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And as in the previous year, I got my favourite Altai horse, Baursak. “Baursak” is a traditional Kazakh dish made of dough pieces fried in oil, somewhat similar to donut, but without a hole in the middle. This word is also sometimes used to describe shabby people and animals. Needless to say, Baursak’s name fits him perfectly—he is round, soft and very sweet. He also has the thickest mane I’ve ever seen. It’s not common to cut or pull the mane of local breeds, so at times this could be a bit uncomfortable for horses. So Baursak would shake his head regularly to remove his forelock off his eyes. To make him feel better, I plaited it, and the braid was wrist thick.

To get to the fields where we were allowed to canter, we had to cross a river. Surprisingly, ice-cold water didn’t bother our horses much, and Baursak was seriously thinking about taking a bath right there. Only a few kicks in the ribs (sorry for this, buddy) prevented him from rolling off.

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My friend and I spent about an hour riding up and down the hills, cantering next to each other and enjoying one of the first warm days that year. Middle of spring is certainly the best time to visit Uzhet. The colours are bright, the wind is fresh and everything is busy blooming and growing.

All went as usual apart from the small rescue party in the end. Don’t worry—everyone is alive and well. It was just Baursak, whose tail, which was never cut or trimmed like his mane, got a huge ball of tumbleweed stuck to it. Dismounting to help him was not an option as we heard far too many stories about Uzhet horses running away from fallen or dismounted riders to the warmth of the stables. So we came up with a plan. My friend was supposed to make her horse step on the tumbleweed in order to free Baursak’s tail. It took us a while. Baursak couldn’t understand why the other horse was getting close to his rear end. And as a polite horse, he would step aside every time my friend stirred her horse closer to Baursak’s tail. On the other hand, her horse didn’t like the idea of stepping on the tumbleweed, so we continued our weird dances for quite a while. A few minutes later, when we were very close to giving up, the right combination of flora and fauna was found, and the whole thing worked out and Baursak’s tail was released from the foreign object. :-)

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Meanwhile, we forgot to check the time, and since we paid for a one-hour ride only, we had to canter back to the stables. The horses were just happy to do so. We all know that it’s never a problem to make a horse move faster in the direction of the stables.

Every time I go back to this day in my memory, I usually picture this: a perfect April day, blue skies above us, fresh new grass beneath, birds singing their lungs out, Baursak’s copper-red mane flowing to my face and majestic mountains, still covered with snow, seen in the distance.

Useful link: http://ksk-ajar.kz/contact/