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Dubai - looking back

Well, I've been home for two days now, after two long
days of travel. I've been seeking a block of time so I
could sit down and look back ... and try to pull the whole
trip together. It was a very fantastic, very complicated, 
very magical time - and difficult to summarize.

The first thing I need to do is thank Leonard Liesens for
making this trip possible for me. As his official groom I
was entitled to free travel and first class accomodations,
and a closely involved perspective of the event. His family
and Belgian team-mates were absolutely wonderful, and
gave depth - and warmth - to the experience. Thanks Leo!

I must also thank the UAE and General Shaikh Mohammed 
bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai and 
Minister of Defence. His passion for the sport of Endurance
and for the Arabian horses must indeed be terrific for him
to take on the responsibility of hosting this event. The expense
was incredible - but more than that, the time and energy and
commitment were unfathomable. This man is not just an
idle wealthy royal - his position as Minister of Defence is
something that I really hadn't appreciated fully.  I can't even
think of a parallel here in the US - not only is this man
powerful and crucial to the UAE government, he is also
loved and revered by his people - in the way that only a 
Crown Prince can be loved. On the day after the race, the
front page headline in the Gulf News was of Shaikh Mohammed
meeting with other heads of State discussing the impending
oil crisis - and probably the turmoil with Iraq. And this guy just
rode in an Endurance ride!  Unbelievable.... Thank you UAE!

This event was the largest Endurance event ever -and in some
ways it was too large. The horses were spread out in separate
barns for quarantine and health reasons. The riders and officials
were also spread out amongst the various resorts - so it was 
difficult to find people, and difficult to know just what was going 
on. The information 'chain' was long and certainly inadequate
compared with what we're accustomed to. We were always
asking questions, and rarely getting answers. The organizing
committee didn't have the answers either. Delays and postponements
were the norm, and there was just nothing that we - the guests - 
could do about it.  I think the cultural difference was very manifest 
in this respect - the answers were there, and would be divulged to 
the public in good time - "if God is willing".  We must wait. 

The days before the ride were so full of energy - trips to the
barn, excersizing the horses, inspecting the course and the
vetcheck area, strategizing, bonding with team mates, making
friends with the other nations in the barn, bumping into friends
from home - and friends from abroad, exploring the city, gorging
on the exotic cuisine.... it was all fantastic, and for most of us
the good times, and great accomodations made the frustrations
and lack of information tolerable. Though I'm sure that those 
higher up in the organization were gritting their teeth and
wringing their hands on a regular basis!  The magic came to
a climax at the pre-ride party and the wine and anticipation
made us all giddy with good will and excitement.

After the party everybody seemed to withdraw, and focus, and
the concentration and intensity increased. Strategies were
finalized, the course and vetcheck were open for inspection.
Frustration mounted, rigs were stuck in the desert, more questions,
not enough answers... tempers were getting a little short. At the
pre-ride meeting, most of our questions were answered, but there
was still an air of tension. The Shaikh was present - he had the
answers. I was quite impressed with him - his composure, and
wit and ... 'royal-ness'. A very powerful and confident man. And
it was apparent that he was the one in control.

The day before the ride was a blur of preparation. Horses had to
pass inspection, riders and crews finalized plans, packed rigs,
manes were braided, tack was cleaned ... nervous energy in
the air. We went back to our hotels, had dinner and went to bed
knowing we'd be up again in a few hours. The lucky ones actually

I've never crewed before, so this was a new and different experience.
Leo and I had done Tevis and Outlaw Trail together - so I was
pretty confident that I knew how to crew for him - and could provide the 
care that he and his horse would need during the ride. Plus his son,
Luke, and wife Nathalie were there and had crewed at all of Leo's
other rides. I think we made a pretty good team. The Belgians rode
together all day, so it made it very easy to crew. The logistics and
timing were shared, and we were able to help each other when

The vetcheck was a flurry of activity - as would be expected. The design
and layout were perfect, so it never felt crowded or confusing. There
were adequate vets and gates, no waiting. However great difficulties
arose with the timing. The computer system crashed late in the morning
(the army had shut down the power for a split second to do 
maintenance somewhere and the system's disk got trashed.)  - and there 
was chaos for a while. Riders were ready to go out, but couldn't get
an ok from the timers, riders coming in wasted time trying to get
their time - it was pretty ugly. The timers recovered somewhat, and 
went to a strictly manual method of recording time  - but they  never
fully recovered, and the result was that we were all kept in the dark
regarding rider status. The team Chef d'Equips were totally frustrated
since they didn't know how their teams stood at any given time. All
was guesswork, and some mistakes were made in trying to hurry that
last rider, or not hurrying enough when just a few minutes might have
made a difference. The fiasco with the Belgians receiving (and then
losing ) the Bronze team medal was an example of the confusion
and miscalculation that occurred during the day. It wasn't until late
the next day, just prior to departing to the Gala Awards in Abu Dhabi
that the actual results were released... and then only to a few people.
Very frustrating.

The race itself was pretty classic - a large spread between front runners
and finishers. There was a huge tv screen at the vetcheck which had
scenes all day of the front runners, and other competitors at various
points in the ride - scenes filmed by helicopter and ground crews. We
were able to watch Valerie and the Shaikh galloping side by side
for miles across the desert. And yes, they galloped. This was not a
"to finish is to win" ride. In fact, the Arab version of our beloved AERC
motto is "to win, you must finish". Nice subtle difference...

The race to the finish was spectacular. We could see two gray
horses galloping side by side approaching the finish, and then at
some point - about 500 yards from the finish - it was as if Jedi switched
to warp speed - he literally left the Italian horse, Faris Jabar,  in the 
dust. How a horse can find that much power at the end of a very 
fast 100 mile ride is beyond reason. I get chills and a lump in my 
throat just thinking about it. 

There was incredible suspense for the 30 minutes after Valerie's and
Fausto's gallop across the finish - they had to get the horses' pulse 
down to 60, and pray that they were sound. The teams took the
entire 30 minutes - presented the horses - and yes, they passed.
Incredible cheering by all. 

The rest of the day was more crewing - meeting the horses, taking
care of them, preparing the crew area for next time, etc. There were
tents filled with tables and food - coffee, hot soup, etc. Time to visit
with others, time to contemplate this crazy sport...  The Belgians 
finished around 10pm - they galloped the last 12 km loop and finished
with great enthusiasm. The horses looked great, everybody passed
the final inspection and when we were told we took the team Bronze
I'm sure they heard us all the way across the Persian gulf! What
whoops and hollers! (but....that's a sad story).

After the horses had a chance to rest and eat it was time to send
them back to the barns. There were still a lot of horses out on the
course, but the activity had subsided, and mostly it was crews
hunkered down at their vet areas, waiting sleepily for their riders.
Before we could send the horses back, they had to be held in
the large vetting/hospital tent. This took hours... blood was drawn,
and had to be analyzed, and there were several horses being
treated, or under observation so the priorities shifted. The veterinary
staff was superb! I'm sure their care and attentiveness, and thier
policy to pull any horses that were even marginally in distress 
contributed to the overall well-being of the 175 horses that started
the ride. There may have been some problems with the ride
logistics and organization, but the horses always had the very
best of care - always. 

We finally got the horses out of the holding
area, and loaded them in the ambulances for the long (2+ hours)
ride back to the stable. Across the desert - bumping along, 
slogging through the sand - until we hit pavement. Those poor 
horses had to endure a very stressful trailer ride, and on top 
of the tough course they just finished it was a rotten thing to
put them through. One of the vans actually got stuck in the
sand and was stranded in the desert for hours until they
got help. (this is the reason the BC judging was delayed 
for 2 hours).  Room for improvement there I'd say.

The morning was spent resting and caring for the horses, and
more waiting and wondering... the 10AM BC
judging was moved to noon (horses stranded in vans in the
desert) and then seemed cursory and anti-climactic. Immediately
after we 'heard' that the awards in Abu Dhabi were at 7PM but
we had to meet at the Jazirra hotel at 3PM since we had to
be transported to Abu Dhabi by bus. The buses finally arrived
at 4:30 - everybody was a bit disgruntled by then, but we stuck
it out. Not enough buses, so many of us had to drive. Hordes
and hordes of people at the stadium, confusion, crowds, military
guards, it was wild! We were herded here and there, and finally
found our way to the VIP section where we searched for places
to sit - and tried to find friends and team-mates that had
been separated in the arrival chaos.

In spite of the confusion and and hours spent being shuffled
around, I really enjoyed the awards extravaganza. It was a production
of enormous dimension - thousands of costumed dancers, light show,
fireworks, camels, Arabian horses, haunting and frenzied Arabian
music performed by orchestra and singers. It was like nothing else
and I simply enjoyed it for what it was. (An awards ceremony - as we
know it - it was not!). It must have taken most of the year to prepare
for this - the intricacy of the dances, the timing of the lights and music
and projected images, the coordination of the parading animals - and
there were even perdiodic skydivers appearing through the top of
the open-air stadium and landing in the midst of the activity.  Just
amazing. I was totally overwhelmed - engulfed - by the enormity 
of the entire week. 

The stadium was packed with UAE nationals - mostly white robed
men - some children, very few women. It was a bit daunting to be
in the midst of tens of thousands of nationals - whose enthusiasm
was solely for the accomplishments of the Shaikh and the UAE
team. It was sort of like being the visiting team at a huge football
game. The boos and hoots and hollers which erupted when the 
winners were announced were unmistakeable - and almost as
deafening as the cheers that accompanied announcements of the
UAE achievements. This ruffled a lot of feathers, and took all of
us by surprise... but it was apparently not mean spirited - simply
enthusiasm for the home team. 

There was another 'traditional' awards ceremony back at the Jazirra 
afterwards, although a lot of people went back to their hotels 
instead, having not slept for the past two days. The riders were
presented with completion buckles, all participants were named
and credited, and it was more like the awards that we are accustomed
to ... except that it started at midnight!

I can't help but thinking that this was the 'big one'. More than an
Endurance event - this was over 40 nations, coming together in
one fantastic place to participate in a race of 100 miles, across
the desert of Arabia. Could we ever have imagined?? Horses
from Russia, Malaysia, Uruguay, New Zealand, South Africa - what
an incredible thing. And the spirit of Endurance was there in
every way- people helping each other, countries helping each
other. The race was competitive, but the bottom line was caring
for the horses - help was there for anybody and any horse that
needed it. This event may have had more glitz and comfort
than anything before it, but the spirit of caring for each other
was as strong as ever. This comradery is the essence of Endurance -
and what makes this sport unique among Equestrian events.
And it was there - in every language, in every way.


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