Monday, September 6, 2010

Equine Adventures in Iran- Featured in the Straits Times on Tuesday, 13 April

Headline: Equine adventures
Publication: ST
Date: Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Photos courtesy of Karin Lai

We called him Space Mountain. He was a tall bay Arab stallion, long-legged, his neck gracefully arched.

Space Mountain- not for the faint hearted

Of course, Space Mountain was not his real name, but it was an apt description of his personality. He was what riders call a “hot horse”: volatile, sensitive, spirited – and very high-strung.

Riding him was like taking a lesson in applied physics. When he took off, it was in a burst of explosive acceleration. The subsequent velocity was heart-stopping.

Space Mountain’s stable-mate was a white Arab gelding we called Roller Coaster. The name, I think, explains itself.

Roller Coaster

These two equine speed demons live in Nur Ali Beyg stable not far from Saveh city, 100km from Teheran. The ranch is run by Mr Hossein Ali Khani; his stable manager, Mr Saeed, leads groups of would-be adventurers out on day treks in the surrounding desert.

We had learnt of the stable by way of Mr Y. Mousouloo (Mos, in short), a 46-year-old Iranian who runs Amigos Horse Riding in Pasir Gudang, Johor. Eager to introduce riders from this part of the world to Arab horses in his native country, he volunteered to be our guide and resident cowboy.

He had gone to Saveh a week earlier to recce the ranch. His report: The saddles and bridles were in good condition and there were enough horses for our team of five. The price: $35 an hour a horse.

Mos’ plan was to have us go out on three day-treks, lasting three to four hours each time. In between, we stayed with his Iranian relatives.

The stable was done up frontier-style.

White-washed stalls each held one or two horses.

The breeding stallions occupied their own row, stamping and snorting every time a mare was led past.

All the stable-boys were expert riders. We saw one leap onto a pacing, bucking stallion and attempt a series of higher and higher jumps, defying all his horse’s attempts to throw him off.

Just outside the ranch was a long stretch of flat ground where we tested our horses. One of our group soon discovered that her horse had an unbalanced gait; this was the result of a birth defect, Mr Saeed told us.

Another found that his horse – we called him Polo Boy – had a bad habit of tossing his head. The rider compensated for this by adjusting the reins, to avoid being jerked forward.

But no amount of riding “on the flat” would have prepared us for the experience out on the arid kavir, the Iranian word for desert.

Nur Ali Beyg is ringed by a series of steep hills, covered in rocks and tumbleweed. With no trees or buildings to break the skyline, the whole prospect looked like a vast desolate sea. It is almost too much for the eye to take in.

In the distance, Saveh city shimmered like a mirage. I could imagine what it was like centuries ago, mud-brick buildings almost floating on the sands, a welcome sight for Silk Road merchants steering their caravans through Persia.

The fickle early-spring weather added to the drama. It was March. On our first day of riding, the temperature was 18 deg C; on our second trek a week later, it dipped to a chilly 5 deg C.

Above all, the silence. Apart from the occasional snort and tramp of hooves, the stillness was absolute. It was very real, very tranquil isolation.

With nothing but rocks and scrub, with no sounds of civilised life to guide us, it was easy to get lost – which we promptly did, on our second day trek out. By then, dusk had fallen and it was as dark as pitch. We had to pick our way back to the ranch by following the dim outlines of the white horses.

And it was in the desert that the horses really came into their own. Arabs are built for speed and endurance and a four-hour ride up and down steep, rocky slopes did not faze them.

Mos took the two more experienced riders off on canters and gallops. Roller Coaster hurled himself up hillsides like a manic albino, kicking up dust clouds as he ran, grey mane flying.
Space Mountain’s speed made me think of a particle accelerator. I swear, if the Americans ever needed proof of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they had only to look that horse up.

On the second trek he was too much for me and after he spooked and bolted twice, nearly throwing me off, I decided to try another horse in case I got smashed to atoms.

But that was not enough adrenaline for Mos. As we left Saveh to make a loop around the Caspian coast, we made a stop at Langaroud, a seaside town with riding on the beach.

The horses we rode on the beach were Caspian ponies, a small breed native to Iran, more densely built and stolid. They had grown scruffy over the winter and their tack was of the rough-and-ready variety: rope for bridles, blankets for saddles.

It was, essentially, $30-an-hour bareback riding. A somewhat more challenging proposition, since there were no saddles or stirrups to anchor us on the horse.

It was also more perilous for the men, anatomy-wise.

A bomb could have gone off in front of those horses and they would not have noticed, they were so accustomed to human traffic. The Caspian coast is one of the Iranians’ favourite holiday spots and, given that we were there over their New Year vacation, it was packed to the brim with picnickers.

Despite car boom boxes cranked to full volume, gunning motorcycle engines, screaming children and impromptu football games, the horses gamely trotted on up and down the crowded beach. It was, perhaps, less a scenic ride than a chance to make a sociological study of the average Iranian holiday-maker.

I found myself missing Space Mountain, but I knew better. Riding without the ability to control a horse with confidence endangers the lives of all riders on the trip.

It is not as easy as it sounds. Basic lessons in a riding school are definitely not sufficient preparation.

Our last morning in Iran was spent on horseback. I had a new horse this time, a white mare which was, of all things, in heat. She was not as skittish as Space Mountain, but she also loved to run.

As I guided her back in a lively trot, the first of the spring rains started to fall, coaxing some of the desert shrubs into tentative bloom. The silhouette of Nur Ali Beyg mountain was dim in the mist.

Man, I thought, it is for times like these that I would gladly risk my life. Even on a crazy horse.

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