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As the sun begins to rise, we unzip our jackets and loosen our scarves, leaving them trailing in the wind behind us. The endurance racing saddle being so light and thin, I can feel each movement of the horse rippling up through my legs and into my body. As the horse becomes drenched in her sweat, so do I. My fingers, entwined in mane, and forearms become an extension of the horse's mouth and neck, and they move according to her stride. I can feel her deep inhale and exhalation, and her change in stride when hard sand becomes soft. I can feel her get tired, drop her head and dip into her reserve tank. And as we approach the final stretch, I can feel her instantly perk up beneath me when the stable (her home) becomes visible on the horizon. In the desert, it does not take long for horse and rider to become one.
For me, these are pleasure rides—an escape from the real world happening around me. During these rides, I contemplate the infinite size of the world and how small each one of us is. We are literally like a grain of sand in the desert. The irony is never lost on me. This in turn gets me thinking about the powerful impact we have on the world, as small as each one of us is. I vacillate between the vastness of theearth and the smallness of our individual worlds for hours. The desert is a contradiction in this way. On the one hand, all that the eye can see is sand and sky—the whole world feels open to you. Yet, on the other hand, being that your very survival depends upon your next step (or, in this case your horse’s next step) you have to focus on something as small as the faint sandy track ahead. Hours and hours of contemplating the contradictions of the world become a sort of a meditation—a high velocity mediation.
For those who train the sheikh’s endurance race horses for a living, this is just another day at the office. It's more complicated than a pleasure ride through the desert at dawn: each horse has a specific diet and training regime. Each horse is meticulously checked and rechecked every morning and night for swelling, soreness and weight gain or loss. For security reasons as well, there is a day watch as well as a night watch. Sadly, more worth is often placed on some of these horses than on the stable boys who care for them. The issue of immigrant workers aside, training and caring for endurance race horses is a highly structured and extremely fragile business. Trainers are hired from as far off as the UK, Germany, and the US, as was the case with Fatima, who is half German half American. Like any other competitive high-stakes sport, doping and other forms of corruption exist, though this is never a popular subject to talk about. I find it incredibly sad, but winning is often more important than the horses themselves, who, on average, do not last more than a few racing seasons. This is not to paint an ugly picture of the sport, however; it's just to say that nothing is without its dark side. Due to their exuberant wealth, the Emirates have nothing shy of the top horses, facilities and trainers. A lot of thought and care is put into this sport, and each race that has a turnout of hundreds of riders and spectators is testament to this.
I make this trip to Dubai more than once a year, and every time I'm here, I consider staying on indefinitely. Dubai is not a particularly attractive city:I much prefer cities overflowing with vibrant life, which is precisely why I live in Mumbai, but the desert in Dubai is something else entirely. It speaks its own language: a language of horses, freedom, and Heaven. It speaks to me, and is something I know I will never be able to resist.
Wind-whipped and sun-kissed, we finally return to the stables and collapse onto the only patch of grass within a 50 kilometre radius under a handful of palm trees. Hungry, thirsty, and tired, my hand trembles slightly as I reach for the hot black tea and soft sweet dates that are being passed my way. Very few words are spoken as everybody seems reluctant to break the divine silence of the desert. Leaning back, I watch as the sun rises to its peak and beyond. Soon, the call to prayer will drift faintly in our direction, and it will be time to make our way to afternoon prayer. For those whom I spent the last five hours in the desert with, this is just another day. But for me, this is where I come to feel the closeness of heaven and earth.
A New York City native, Fahrinisa Oswald currently does not have a fixed address, spending most of her time somewhere between NYC, Asia and the Middle East writing, photographing and editing for a living.