Horseback riding is one of the most secluded sporting events in the world where the most elite and the well-to-do partake in the activity. The world of horseracing is even worst. With most expensive racehorses being sold for millions of dollars, equestrian activities are truly for the rich. However, for Ethiopians, horses are part of the cultural fabric and claim a major part in main societal celebrations and rituals. However, Tibebesilassie Tigabu of The Reporter observes that Urban Ethiopia is increasingly getting detached from horses.
His name, Fusaichi, a.k.a Fusaichi Pegasus, is a combination of his owner’s name, Fusao, and the Japanese word for one, ichi. This amazing horse is considered by some as the best racehorse in history earning USD 1,994,000 throughout his career. Fusaichi won prestigious competitions in the world of horseracing, including the Kentucky Derby in 2000 and stood second at the Preakness stakes (an American flat thoroughbred horserace). This fine stallion was sold to Coolmore stud, a breeder from Ireland, for a mind-blowing 70 million dollars, making him the most expensive racehorse ever. The most expensive horses list puts Fusaichi Pegasus at the number one spot followed by Shareef Dancer, which is sold for 40 million dollars, and Totilas at 21 million dollars. This makes equestrian sport one of the most expensive of its kind in the world. The average price of running a racehorse is expensive and the cost incurred in maintenance and boarding fees, vet bills, farrier bills, monthly food and related cost makes owning a racehorse an expensive venture; and makes this sport a recreation for the elite class. Going back in history, apart from war, horses were used for transport, a trend that completely declined in today’s urban settings; replaced with automotive vehicles and other means of transportation.
Yetekel ashker (Tekel’s servant), a common catch-phrase among Ethiopians of the 40’s and 50’s, who are loyal to Emperor Haile-selassie I, refers to a famous royal steed that the emperor rode to battles and other landmark occasions.
It is not only the emperor, rather other notable warriors, patriots and members of the royal family assumed the name of their horses with a pre-fix of Abba as name of prestige and distinction. Some of the renowned warhorses include Ras Mekonnen’s Abba Kagnew, Emperor Tewodros II’s Abba Tatek, Emperor Yohannes IV’s Abba Bezbiz, Alula Aba Nega‘s Abba Nega and King Sahleselassie’s Abba Dina.
According to Tsegahun Tesema, board member of the Ethiopian Equestrian Association and owner of Beka Ferda ranch, located around Sullulta, Ethiopians are the only people who are named after their horses. “This shows how they were sentimental to their horses and how they honor their horses,” says Tsegahun.
This was not only exclusive to the royal family, according to Tsregahun, but horse riding is part and parcel of the rural Ethiopia for years. In addition to the transportation purposes, horses have been used in historical reenactment; rituals such as weddings, funerals and various holidays. Still in rural parts of Ethiopia with their colorful apparel, horses add flavors to many of the local rituals.
Coming to the urban areas, it appears that many urban dwellers are detached from horseback riding these days. One can witness this in the communal horse riding space in Jan Meda or in privately owned equestrian spaces in Addis Ababa and Sulllta town which is dominated by foreigners.
Why are the urban dwellers of Addis detached from this sport? According to Tsegahun this is not only special to Ethiopia rather to the rest of the world. Horseback riding has become one of the top recreational and expensive sports all over the world.
Looking at Addis Ababa, the green area and open spaces are becoming non-existent. And a number of locations which were previously earmarked for equestrian actives such as Balderas were transformed to condominium housing. Due to this change, many of the neighboring communities have lost an ancient establishment, one of the first Equestrian clubs in Ethiopia that dates back to seven decades. People from that generation are reminiscent of the communal space. Now relocated around ayat area, the old Balderas Equestrian club has become inaccessible to the community.
According to Tsegahun, equestrian activitie requires huge space, a stable with its own compartment of stalls for individual horses; standardized field for horse training, something hard to come by for the inner city of Addis Ababa.
“These spaces are becoming non-existent. Addis Ababa is becoming congested. We support the infrastructural development but it should go hand in hand with the quality of life. There needs to be a recreational space, green area and open space, Tsregahun argued. “Even the existing communal spaces like the Janmeda, traditional sports venues is not well kept,” he added.
In addition to shortage of access, for Tsegahun, the existing Equestrian spaces are not well known. One of the reasons is the perception towards horse riding and its being unaffordable for Addis Ababa dwellers. According to Tsegahun, not only in his ranch but also in most of the equestrian spaces, horse training and trailing is fairly affordable. Trailing in the forest with the help of a professional guide could cost 300-500 birr/hour.
Though the majority of the urban dwellers are not interested to take horse riding lessons, trails or horse shows, Tsegahun says, the sentiment for horse is really deep. In the past, he used to walk around the city with a horse and encountered people with a mesmerized look nodding and waving towards him. In addition affordability, the other issue associated with equestrian sports is the risk of injury or death. on many occasions, the risk associated with horseback riding is unfairly equated with the risk of motorcycling or other extreme sports. That is one of the reasons that increased the unpopularity of the sport among many people, Tsegahun argued.
“Any sport is associated with a certain level of danger,” he explained. But, the training that the horses take and the involvement of professional trainers in the sports decreases the risk considerably, for Tsegahun. He, however, admits that any sport is not 100% safe; rather the risk is minimized and can be avoided by putting in place risk management mechanisms.
Born and raised around Harar, Tsegahun grew up closely with animals in their farm. He pursued his childhood passion even though it was interrupted when he moved to Harar city.
During his university days, an opportunity presented itself where he heard news of horseback riding in Balderas. Unfortunately, this re-connection was interrupted when he went to America where he witnessed how expensive the world of horseback riding can get.
According to Tsegahun, two hours of riding could cost as high as five hundred dollars. In addition, most of the ranches put a restriction on the riding process thereby reduce pleasure horse trailing.
“The restriction takes the fun and the adventure out of horseback riding,” says Tsegahun. Though it was expensive, he talked passionately about the sport with two his children and his wife. His two children also picked up his adoration for the sport and they started training and riding when they get a chance. Coming back to Ethiopia, he gave them a chance to pursue what they loved and bought 20 horses and established their own ranch. Though it is not like the international horse, the Ethiopian horse prices are also showing a steady increase from time to time. According to Tsegahun, when they bought their first horse four years ago, it was seven thousand birr. But now, untrained Ethiopian horse cost as much as 20 thousand birr; and the trained one could go as high as 60 thousand birr. According to Tsegahun, this price is only for local breed. He says foreign breeds cannot be found even at a price of hundred thousand birr. Although the local breed is fairly affordable the cost associated with training the local horses is quite high. “Since there is no supply in the market, it is very difficult to put the right price on the horse in Ethiopia. Besides, the local breed needs a very hard training to transform them into a race horse,” says Tsegahun.
According to Tsegahun, there are around seven types of Ethiopian horse breeds, which are characterized as drought and disease resistant, high endurance and also consume less food compared to the other breed.
For Tsegahun the basic challenge with keeping a good horse stable is associated with horse care which is essential to horse. Enriched food with adequate nutrient, constant water supply, clean stalls, follow up of the health conditions, grooming and hoof care, understanding the needs of older horses and keeping their surrounding clean and well maintained are among the essential of keeping good horse stable.
One of the challenges he faced with Ethiopian horses are they are malnourished; beaten up; and in a worse condition. This is one of the challenges of many of the ranches especially related to trainings of horses. “They beat the horses to make them stronger and this creates a problem in behavior of horse in the long run. These horses shiver when humans approach them and this makes it difficult to ride them,” says Tsegahun.
After a hard and long training, Tsegahun was able to have a local breed of 20 fit horses that are suitable for riding including his favorite Orion and his brother Ras. When he talks about horses, it is easy to perceive his sentiment towards horses; it is deeply engraved in his psyche. Since his work stresses him, he rides everyday; sometimes he might even skip lunch riding.
“For me, it has therapeutic effect. Honestly speaking, if I skip one day, I get sick. When I arrive at the ranch, they just surround me. They understand love and they give me unconditional love,” says Tsegahun.
The ranch is still in a construction phase and it was opened just a month ago on trail basis; and Tsegahun has many plans to incorporate recreational facilities.
In Timket (Epiphany), apart from the fascinating holiday parade, the horses which are part of the traditional ceremony highlight the day. In this holiday, many of the police horsess troll around Timket area.
Inspector Girma Gebre, 52, has been the champion of the race for the last five consecutive years and also the spotlight of this holiday. He was renowned with his special skill of jumping.
Reminiscing the glorious days of horseback riding, he says famous personalities such as Bekele Merga who competed in the international competitions held in Djibouti and Saudi Arabia representing Ethiopia. When he talks about horses it sounds like he talks about a close family or a best friend. “Horses are intuitive they are very caring and loving,” he says, “The feel of a horse’s power beneath you, the feel of supple connection, the feel of balance is unique to horseback riding”. Some of the horses namely Tikury Abay and Ogaden are like a family to me, he says. Most of the horses in the police academy came from England, Australia and other countries and their descendants are still alive.
His found his passion, when he was working for national defense where he met his mentors such as Bekele Mergia and Abayneh Belete. He served there for years so that he can be close to the horses. His fascination with the horse made him to walk long distance just to see the competitions and to receive training in horseback riding.
The training was not easy; they used to get whipped if they make mistakes. According to Girma, this helped him to master the sport and actually paved the way for him to be a winner. He also got a chance to work for the police force because of the discipline he acquired through the trainings.
According to Girma, during the Imperial regime, it was a must to have horseback riding or swimming skills, something he appreciates deeply. Though his love for the sport is very deep, he stopped competing after a car accident and fall he encountered back the days. And now he focuses on training; currently he has around 16 students under his wing.
Though this is an urban reality, for Tewodros Tesfaye putting his six-year-old daughter on a bouncy horse in one of the playgrounds in Addis Ababa is not exciting him.
Rather he wanted to give her real adventure and a hobby that she can treasure. As young as three years of age he took her to the Equestrian club around old airport. According to Tewodros, she was a bit scared of the pony after at first but a couple of ride later horseback become her favorite pastime. Talking ten rounds around the compound, he said he paid only 111 birr that surprised him. He was even surprised not to see any Ethiopians in the club. “The place is filled with only foreigners. I am usually the only black / Ethiopian individual there,” says Tewodros.
He still takes his daughter to the club, but Tewodros does not get learn to ride himself; rather his introduction to sport came after he went to support his friend who competes in the tournament. It has been three years since he is taking his daughter every other Sunday. Her cousin who is at the same age also accompanies her. For him, it is very important for kids to have a hobby. “I want her to have hobby and to know many things. This is also part of her memory creation,” says Tewodros.
The Ethiopian Equestrian Association is one of the earliest sport associations to be established. It was established during Emperor Haileselassie’s period with a name of Racing Club. Now, in the process of restructuring the association, the association held a meeting recently and chose a new board.
Though most Addis Ababans are not part of the equestrian scene, there are 12 clubs in the capital and the Oromia Regional State.
These clubs include Major General Hayelom Araaya Club, under the ministry of Defense, the Addis Ababa Police Commission Club, Beka Ferda ranch, Italian Embassy, British Embassy and French Embassy.