Horse race in the desert


With a large picnic basket, visiting family and the dog I drive through the desert looking for a nice spot between the golden sand dunes. In the distance I see galloping horses, people running on a race track, and cars following the horses like a pack of wolves hunting for prey. ‘A horse race in the desert!’ I cheer as I press the accelerator of my car to drive to the top of the very first dune. From there we’ll have a nice view.

desert race arab horse

But before I even get a chance to drive up I am surrounded by large desert trucks. Young Arab man hang out of the windows or sit on the rooftop of their vehicle. Their ghutra’s blow vigorously in the wind. Other men standing on the back bumper of the car wave with their arms or hold cameras and cell phones in their hands. As a modern rap band they outvoice the loud honking of car horns: ‘Yella, yella, go!’
There’s nowhere I can go other than to follow them. With my fully loaded car and tires still filled with air I plough through the loose sand. Meanwhile the picnic basket bounces through the trunk and the dog jumps fearfully on Grandma’s lap.

Horse Race

The horses gallop at a constant speed over the racetrack. Some riders lean back in their saddle with their toes pointing towards the wide-open nose of their horse. Others are in jumping position or stand uncomfortably in the stirrups. ‘How do they keep on galloping so many kilometres?’ I wonder feeling saddle pain already from my car seat.

The men in the following vehicles throw water bottles to the riders. Helpers on the sidelines provide wet sponges. Large containers of cold water are thrown from pickup cars over the steaming backs of the horses. Meanwhile the horses gallop on and on, peacefully and undisturbed like horses in a carousel at the fair.


Behind the entrance of the checkpoint troops of grooms prepared with buckets and sponges are anxiously waiting for their horse to enter (see the video at 4.32s). They shoot feet when the animal finally trots through the port. In a split second the saddle, leg wraps, and other rigging is removed. Tens of litres of cold water and ice are thrown over the horse’s back and neck leading to big clouds of steam blowing off into the hot air. Other grooms cover the legs with special cooling bandages or put the hooves in a bucket of ice water. Meanwhile the horse gets a full body massage, while a groom washes its head or brushes its manes. The tired animal surrenders willingly.

The grooming lasts just a couple of minutes but is carried out thoroughly and efficiently for the horse to get as fit as possible through the ‘vet-gate’, the strict inspection of the veterinarian. Only when the horse’s condition is good enough the rider can proceed into the next round.


Suddenly the sound of cheering, hooting and clapping fills the atmosphere when the first horses cross the finish line of the final round, followed by sheer silence. The atmosphere fills with questions. Which horse came in first? And more important, is it still fit? The riders and caretakers keep a close eye when the horse enters the ‘vet-gate’ for the last check-up. They stand shoulder to shoulder or walk around each other nervously. Is its pulse low enough? How is its breathing? Does it still trot smoothly or is it lame?

Suddenly, the digital board above the ‘vet-gate’ starts blinking. And then, just when the name of the winning combination appears spine-tingling cheering voices sound over the yellow desert sand. Groups of people jump up cheering and yelling, and run towards an exhausted looking man in riding clothes. The tense and tired lines in his face disappear under his big smile of victory.  He is the winner of this long challenge, the yearly prestigious endurance race. And not only that. From now on he is also the owner of a beautiful purple-coloured Bentley.


Still filled with excitement from the horse race I drive back over the track that is covered with discarded water bottles and horse droppings. Like the riders pat their race horses on the neck I tap my car on its steering wheel: ‘Well done 190 Horsepower racer!’


Note: The race described is an endurance race. More information about this challenging race can be read here

The video shown is of Marijke V (2011), a young endurance rider from The Netherlands. I met her when she finished her first 160 kilometers in the President Cup of 2013 in Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi.