Equestrian sport in Yemen: For the elite?
Mohammad Al-Dalei is only eight years old but has been riding horses at the police academy stables in Sana’a for two years. Because of his father Ali’s work with the police force, Mohammad is given privileged access to horses and a trainer, something far beyond the reach of all but a very select class of Yemenis.
Al-Dalei is one of just 150 participants to have taken part in the annual national horse riding competition, which concluded on Feb. 24 and was organized by the Yemeni Association of Equestrians (YAE). Prior to the 2011 uprising and subsequent instability, the association sponsored up to five competitions per year.
The YAE is viewed by some as an elitist organization closed to all but the wealthiest and most connected of Yemenis. Unless one works in a horse stable, with the police or military, only those able to pay expensive membership fees are granted access.
The YAE was established in 1993 by Abdulghani Al-Wajeeh with nine members headed by Mohsen Al-Bahr. Since 2008 the association has been run by Hashid Al-Ahmar, son of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar, until he fled the country following the Houthis’ takeover of the capital last September.
Yahia Omar, a member of the YAE, says nearly all competitors are the sons and relatives of current members, themselves drawn from the military establishment and other privileged circles. Nonetheless, he says, “it has nothing to do with nepotism, it is just a sport that struggles to gain popularity in a country like Yemen.”
Omar points to the limited number of horse clubs and their “excessive” membership fees, usually around $200, as reason behind the sport’s limited supporters.
Before Yemen’s protracted political crisis erupted in 2011, however, the YAE had seen an increase in clubs between 2000 and 2006.
Opened in 2000, the Capital Horse Club in Sana’a remains the largest in Yemen with 80 horses. Five additional clubs opened in the governorate in the following six years, the largest of which is the Al-Ahmar Horse Stable. Opened by Sheikh Al-Ahmar in 2002, it currently houses 50 horses.
There are now fifteen horse clubs nationwide, including those of the police and war academies. Once the only horse training facilities in existence, exclusive to members of the police and military, the academies opened their doors to relatives of staff in 1994 and began taking part in YAE competitions that year.
Al-Wajeeh suggested opening academy stables to the public in 1994, although the idea has been resisted by their members and competitors in YAE events are almost entirely composed of officers’ relatives like Al-Dalei.
With a long-established tradition and extensive facilities, the academies continue to provide horses—originally imported from Egypt and elsewhere in the region—and expertise to other stables that have opened more recently in the country.
In spite of current difficulties, Moad Al-Khamisi, the executive manager of YAE, is pleased with the sport’s development in recent years. “Competitions have increased year by year, and four new age categories have been added to events once limited to two for children and adults, and now women are competing as well,” he said.
Competitive categories are divided between buds (aged 6 to 10), cubs (10 to 14), juniors (14 to 18) and adults. In this year’s competition, 26 riders from the bud category and 25 cubs took part, with first place for the juniors going to Elias Al-Khamisi, Moad’s eldest son.
Al-Wajeeh, whose son and daughter are also competitors, is adamant that favoritism has nothing to do with who competes or does well in the event. He says children are keen to emulate their fathers, adding that “it is rare to find someone involved in equestrian sport without being oriented by their fathers or relatives.”
Yahya Hussein, 12, was enrolled in the Capital Club at age eight by his uncle, who works there as coach. “I used to accompany him to work and was amazed at how he controls the horses, I wanted to be like him and now I am fulfilling my dream,” he said.
Other young riders, like 14-year-old Mohammad Saad Al-Tawki, who trains at the war academy, feel they have a natural drive. “I’ve always dreamt of being a competitive rider, I think it has more to do with the history behind horse riding and heroic stories I was told,” he said, adding that his parents had been opposed to his “expensive and dangerous” hobby.
This year’s competition was hosted by the Capital Club in Sana’a and involved members from the academies and other private clubs in Sana’a, in addition to the Al-Rad Stable in Hodeida. As of 2008, with funding from Al-Ahmar, first placed winners have received a cash prize of YR400,000 ($2,000), up from YR50,000 ($250) awarded before he took control.