By Kirstin Stocker » Three young riders of extraordinary talent lead the Royal Endurance Team of Bahrain; they ride for the love of the sport, for their country and for their father, His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
The three brothers - with enough world-class talent for a dozen – have made a grand impression on the world of endurance riding. Shaikh Nasser, the eldest of the three at the age of 17, is a natural leader and the perfect choice for team captain.
He’s phenomenally talented and has proved his ability during rides throughout the Middle East and Europe. However, whether he’s riding or not, the whole team feels his presence and support. On the inevitable occasions when he’s retired from a race - it happens to every rider in this punishing sport where the conscientious vets retire horses who simply look like they’re not enjoying themselves – Shaikh Nasser doesn’t sulk or ponder his predicament, as do many of his fellow top-class athletes. Instead, he gets right on with the business of supporting his team, offering upbeat advice and moral support for the duration of the race.
The youngest of the three brothers, Shaikh Faisal, is still only just 12, but is riding with skill and courage far beyond his tender years. His performances and results are testament to the fact that he is a rider to watch – now and in the future.
And, for pure talent and determination, 15-year-old Shaikh Khalid is virtually untouchable. His record of finishes and wins is extraordinary and is shadowed only by his natural horsemanship, according to Greg Lucas, director of the Royal Stables, who has watched Shaikh Khalid train and race over the last nine months.
"As a horseman, Shaikh Khalid will go a long way. He’s got natural talent, sheer determination and guts and he makes it all look effortless," says Lucas. "Shaikh Khalid will be able to turn his hand to almost any aspect of riding: he’d be very suitable for the Olympic sports of eventing and showjumping and his future will be very bright in any discipline within the sport.
"In addition, for his age, Shaikh Khalid demonstrates a maturity far beyond his years in terms of
riding. He observes, takes mental notes and learns from almost every situation."
Encouraged by their father, the young princes started riding when they were six years old. Unlike most children, the boys didn’t learn on ponies. Instead, they were taught to ride on the powerful, yet gentle, Bahraini-bred Arabian horses who would become so important to their sporting endeavours later in life.
The boys learned to ride and – more importantly – they learned to love both the art of riding and their horses. Now, as international athletes, they train every day of the year and all three are passionate about their mounts. Despite their busy schedule of riding, competing, training and schoolwork, one still gets the impression that they are in this sport for the sheer joy of it.
"Our father loves racing and is an excellent horseman," says Shaikh Khalid. "He has been instrumental in building endurance racing as a viable and successful sport here in Bahrain and he’s been a huge support to us as competitors. Most important, however, he taught us to love horses. This passion has become a defining part of each of us."
King Hamad had long dreamed of bringing the sport of endurance racing to Bahrain and he closely followed the UAE’s efforts to establish the sport there during the 1990s.
Then, in January 2000, Bahrain’s Royal Endurance Team was established. Fifteen horses were selected together with a group of experienced horsemen and women, and a gruelling schedule was initiated in order to prepare the team for Bahrain’s first International Endurance Horse Riding Championship just three months later.
History was made at dawn on April 7, 2001 when riders from around the world competed in the country’s first Championship race. A glittering array of royalty and dignitaries from around the globe watched as the event was won by HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai.
The day was a resounding success. The race was followed by a breathtaking parade into the arena, led by King Hamad and a group of riders in traditional Arab costume. Prizes were awarded to the winners and King Hamad declared the birth of endurance racing on the Island.
There, alongside their father for the parade into the arena, were two little boys –Nasser, 13, and Khalid, 10, – dressed in traditional costume and performing perfectly on their horses. The boys had experienced the thrill of endurance riding by completing one loop of the race with the Royal Team earlier in the day, and both were completely ‘hooked’ on the sport.
Endurance riding is no easy task for adult riders with years of training, fitness and experience. That the princes are able to compete in this sport is a phenomenal testament to their strength, talent, dedication and spirit.
For both horse and rider, endurance racing is recognised by many as they toughest discipline in riding. The races are set to distances – for example 60km, 80km, 120km, 160km, and so forth – and both horse and rider must complete the course in order to finish the race. The course is split into loops of smaller distances, which all start and finish at the same line. Riders must pace their horses to ensure they will be fit enough to finish the race healthy and with more left in them. Fitness is judged by a panel of veterinarians at so-called vet-gates between each loop.
In this way, although it is a tough sport for horse and rider, endurance racing is one of the most humane of equestrian sports. The endurance rider’s first concern is for the safety of his teammates and horses. Vets will retire any horse that is injured, tired or just looks like it’s not enjoying the race. There is disappointment, but never argument, from the riders when a horse is dismissed.
Race days begin in the wee hours of the morning when riders, grooms, drivers and race officials start preparing for the day’s efforts. Blankets, bandages, ice, water and tack must all be readied. The horses are transported to the race venue and riders prepare both mentally and physically for the start.
Once the race begins, riders and their horses must negotiate and complete the loop and then return to their grooms and the vet gates. Endurance racing grooms are like the mechanics in Formula One racing – they must remove the saddle, cool horse and rider, replenish their water, check shoes and tack and prepare the horse for the vet checks, all as quickly as possible.
If the horse passes the vet checks and is deemed fit, horse and rider dash out to complete the next loop. And, so it continues until the race is completed.
Behind the glory, success, heartbreak and exhaustion of race day, there are months of training and thousands of hours of riding, planning strategy, preparing the horses and making sure riders are fit enough to stay the course.
Royalty or not, for Shaikh Khalid and his brothers, there is no exception. They are at the top of their sport because they’re not afraid of the hard work it takes to get there.
They train themselves and their horses every day of the year. Then, most nights – once the horses have been exercised – the boys play football for a couple of hours in order to keep fit and strong.
It pays off. Shaikh Khalid has more than a dozen Top 15 finishes at international level – and nine of those were first or seconds. Equally important is his record of race completions – he has proved himself to be an intelligent and naturally instinctive rider at both junior and senior level and has held his own among men three times his age. In fact, when looking at Shaikh Khalid’s record, it’s easy to forget that this is a schoolboy of just 15 years old.
In person, Shaikh Khalid is charming mixture of boy and man. Years of competing and hard work – together with his naturally serious demeanour – give him a maturity that most boys his age can’t touch. However, ask him about his favourite football team (West Riffa) or his favourite horses (Al Asayee, Vondik, A’aiz) and his face lights up like any enthusiastic teenager.
He loves playing soccer; he does well in school – where, unusually, he likes all of his subjects; he enjoys camel riding and falconry and he runs to keep fit. But, Shaikh Khalid’s biggest passion is his horses and – like his brothers – he’s not in it for the glory, races, press coverage or trophies. The boys simply love their sport and the fact that they’re champions almost seems like a mere ‘added bonus’.
Indeed, Shaikh Khalid and his brothers are modest about their talents and matter-of-fact about their achievements. All are team players and fiercely loyal to each other and the rest of the team.
Layal Hussain, one of the team’s youngest new recruits, met Shaikh Khalid in art class at school, where he persuaded her to give endurance riding a go. She now trains three times a week and says that he always has time to help out others in the team.
"This is a tough sport and Shaikh Khalid is very good at it," says Layal. "He’s inspiring because if he wants to do something, he just does it without worrying about whether he can or whether it’s possible.
"Around the stable, Shaikh Khalid is very funny and helpful. It’s great to be a part of this team of people."
In addition to riding, competing and a busy schedule of exams at school, Shaikh Khalid has also started training horses. "It’s my first year of working with ‘green’ horses, but I’m really enjoying it," says Shaikh Khalid. "In all aspects, this is a great sport. It’s time-consuming, but it’s all time very well spent.
"Riding helps life," continues Shaikh Khalid. "It relieves stress and keeps a person fit and healthy. I find it interesting that one can look at old men and tell which ones rode: their backs are straight and proud no matter what their age. It is riding that helped them keep straight backs."
Time will tell how the training and hard work pay off for the Royal Bahrain Endurance Riding Team and its young stars during the years ahead. For the longer-term future…who knows? Both Shaikh Nasser and Shaikh Khalid are keen to follow in their father’s footsteps and attend Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, followed by a career in the military.
In the meantime, though, there is a lot of endurance riding to be done: races to win, horses to train and fun to be had. For Shaikh Khalid, the ambition is huge: to be part of the best team in the world.
"On our day, we are already the best team in the Gulf," says Shaikh Khalid. "In five years, we’ll be the best in the world."
The drive and talent are certainly there…and, if Greg Lucas’ judgement proves accurate – and Shaikh Khalid turns his hand to three day eventing – Bahrain might just have its first Olympic gold medal not long after that!
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