You know it’s going to be a good day when you spy four shooting stars—two with long, fiery tails—within moments of leaving your campsite.
It was 4 a.m. and we were headed across Wadi Rum to Beit Ali to meet up with the Royal Stables of Jordan at their camp ahead of the annual horse endurance race. We had been invited during our visit to them in Amman a week earlier and it was an invitation that we had no intention of missing…even if we did briefly get lost in the darkness.
The Royal Stables had several Arabian horses competing and when we arrived they were gathered by torch light around their temporary stables being prepared for the race ahead. They were skittish and tense and the riders and grooms were busy keeping them calm and warm in the bitter chill. Once saddled they were led into the darkness to the start line.
Assembled at the main base were dozens of horses and a veritable desert-flotilla of 4WDs. Horses were whinnying and stamping their feet: they knew today was the big day and they were chomping at the bit—quite literally—to get going. Once all were assembled, there was a sudden cavalry stampede of horses from all over the Middle East disappearing into the desert, the rising dust made pink by the early light.
The race was born some years ago, replicating contests that the Bedouins have waged for centuries for prestige and pride. It is 120-kilometres long and comprised of five circuits of differing lengths. It is as much more about strategy and pacing than sheer speed.
The health and safety of the horses was paramount and many teams had their own vet who carefully monitored each competitor along the way, as well as the race vets who examined every horse after every circuit and had the authority to disqualify any team whose horses were suffering.
As the horses disappeared into the twilight, we jumped into our open-backed 4WD in hot pursuit. We bounded across the wilderness, the absolutely biting pre-dawn chill sending us shivering as we held on for dear life. As we drew alongside the competitors we could hear the rhythmic breathing and the steady-clomp clomp clomp of the hooves. The horses were engulfed in clouds of steam while the riders scrutinized the route ahead with steely concentration.
The field quickly became spread out. The leading horse was tearing away and heading for the end of the first 32 kilometre circuit at a full gallop. Back at the main camp we watched the horses return. Their teams quickly stripped them of their saddles and sponged them with cool water. They fed them and gave them water to drink. They massaged their haunches, caressed the tips of their ears and covered them with blankets. Other horses had been brought along just to keep them company and calm during the breaks. Some horses looked in fine shape, others were already tired. A few called it a day. Once passed by the race vets, they set off again following a route marked by coloured flags.
We were invited into the tent of Her Royal Highness Princess Alia for breakfast in the company of her team. As each horse returned, accompanied by cavalcades of 4WDs, the team would dash out to care for their every need, to speak with the riders, to examine the horse and decide whether they were fit to continue.
Winning was important, but nothing was taken more seriously than the well-being of the horses. Gradually the field thinned out. Horses returned to the desert in singles rather than in packs. It had become a solitary contest.
As the day wore on the heat rose and with it the dust and flies, but this was drama at its finest. Bedouin families gathered in the scarce shade watching the event. Desert horse and camel races date back to the earliest days and if you ignored the numbered vests, safety helmets and accompanying vehicles, we were witnessing an age-old contest of man/woman-and-beast competing against man/woman-and-beast. The tension grew with the end of each circuit. More horses were retired while others remained strong and fit.
Finally, in the late afternoon there was a cacophony of honking from the distance. Peering across the endless desert from the main camp we could see a dozen vehicles, headlights flashing and one tiny horse and rider in the middle. The noise grew. A shout went up from the Royal Stables and everyone dashed over to greet them.
The horse trotted in and the team set to work. The horse was cooled, fed, watered, massaged and caressed. The rider headed straight to the judges. Only once they were satisfied that the horse was fine was it led over to the race vets. The team waited tensely as it was put through its paces.
Suddenly, there was a shout and the team were backslapping and hugging. One of the horses from the Royal Stables had won. It was their first victory in 3 years and the joy was overwhelming. It was impossible not to get caught up in it, to be consumed in the excitement, the sense of achievement and the genuine respect and love for the magnificent horses.
Being the modest sort that we are, opXpeditions Jordan immediately claimed credit for the win, stating that we had been their good luck charm!
“Well then,” said a euphoric team member as we shook hands. “You’ll just have to come to the next race in Abu Dhabi.”
Well…it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?