Andrew Stevenson in Dubai
May 9, 2009
THEIR names are Luca, Marran and Paraku. Born in the Kimberley and captured in Western Australia last year, the three brumbies are starting a new life in the stables of the deputy ruler of Dubai, Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
They and 11 other brumbies including a young colt have left life as wild bush horses far behind. In the sheik's stables they are training for the demanding sport of endurance racing.
Their arrival in Dubai completes a circle of sorts. Born wild, their pedigree traces back to the Arab horses taken to Europe over many centuries, the stock from which the modern thoroughbred was made.
The horse, once the most important animal in Australia, still stands at the heart of Bedouin culture - and when Ali Mohammed Al Mohairi, Sheik Hamdan's racing manager, heard tales of the brumbies in Australia, he wanted to know more.
Two years ago he went bush in the Northern Territory to see brumbies up close. But wild horses stop for no man.
"There was a mare and foal and they were galloping from behind and I yelled to go, I was screaming at the driver," he recalled. "It was something amazing. Then they crossed in front of us and the sparks were coming off the road. When they came to a lake, they jumped straight in and swam across.
"There was a rocky hill on the other side and I said: 'Impossible, they will not climb that'. And they did.
"My imagination cannot go as far as this. I was amazed. And [then] they were gone and we never saw them again."
But the story, worthy of an Arab Paterson in Mr Al Mohairi's retelling, took root. Sheik Hamdan, a leading racehorse owner and winner of two Melbourne Cups, was intrigued by the animals' capability in the wild but also concerned the brumbies - there are an estimated 400,000 in Australia - were being culled.
"I felt I wanted to do something to help this animal. I told him people shoot them, five or six hundred at a time, and I said we [can] get some to try," Mr Al Mohairi said.
The next step was to send a team into Lake Gregory, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, and to catch a dozen or so brumbies which were then trucked to Glen Innes, NSW, where they were broken in before being flown to Dubai.
One mare, Marran, dropped a skewbald colt after capture. Marjii might have grown up in Arabia but he can't hide his past.
"He's happy, friendly and playing but you can tell he's a brumby, with his face, big and ugly," Mr Mohairi said.
The horses arrived last year and since then several have been prepared for endurance racing, which is conducted under the enthusiastic patronage of Dubai's royal family, notably Sheik Hamdan's brother, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the country's ruler, who also competes in the events.
On the track the brumbies' results have not been a complete success. The horses have speed, and can rapidly recover after running one stage of the race, but they don't want to run again.
"They're not tired but they take care of themselves," said Mr Al Mohairi, who believes their wild instincts lead them to to preserve their energy for whenever it might be needed in the future.
But the experiment at Seeh Al Salam stables will be given at least another year. "People here are waiting to see what this stable will do. If we do well with them, they will go there and do the same as we did," Mr Al Mohairi said.
"To be honest, we spent money on them and I hope it will work. It will help me to look good in front of my boss because I asked him to do it, plus it will help the horses."