Accra, GhanaIt is only 10 a.m., but the jockeys of the Korle Gonno stables have already been up for seven hours. They sit in a semi-circle behind the Korle Bu district outpost of the Electricity Company of Ghana talking, occasionally chuckling, one of them eating waakye—a Ghanaian street food classic of rice and beans—from the large, waxy leaf in which it is served.
“We’re up at the break of dawn to take the horses to the beach,” explains Michael Allotey, a trainer. “We use the main roads to get to the shore, but it’s very early, the streets are quiet. Some days we canter the horses, sometimes we do gallop training, but we’re back here by 5 to 5:30 a.m.”
I have lived in Accra most of my life but have never seen the jockeys of the Korle Gonno stables riding their steeds through the city’s streets before dawn. Yet the decades-old establishment is an integral part of a horse culture that has endured for centuries. West Africa’s history with horses dates back at least to the Malian Empire, which was founded in the 13th century by Sundiata, a West African monarch. Artifacts such as an armed terracotta figure on horseback, currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, confirm the long-standing relationship, as do oral histories passed down through generations and the stories of the jockeys and handlers themselves.
On this early morning, Allotey takes me around to several wooden shacks leaning against cement walls. These unassuming structures house some of Ghana’s most competitive racing horses, including Skylight, an emerging star, and Lucky Boy, a serial race winner at the Accra Turf Club, the capital city’s only racetrack. In front of the shacks, mares and foals graze.
I notice two cows looking out of place. As Allotey leads me to the shade of a squat tree to join the seated men, he explains that one of the jockeys raises cattle as a source of income. Despite their families’ long history with horses, none of the men associated with Korle Gonno make a living wage from their equestrian exploits. (At this Texas horse auction, traders and rescuers face off over the fate of hundreds of horses.)
Twin jockeys Dennis and Davis Ahinakwa tell me that their grandfather was a jockey; Allotey’s great-grandfather was one, too. Mohammed Jara, who oversees the stables, comes from a family that migrated from Mali many generations ago: His father, Baba Jara, was a famous horse trainer and rider; his uncle, Kantara Kamara, was one of Ghana’s most successful jockeys.
At the stables, wisps of sand eddy in gusts of morning breeze. The men speak a sonorous, humor-inflected Ga, my mother tongue, but they are truly fluent in equestrian language. They lament, for instance, what they see as the Ghana Army’s misuse of thoroughbreds—horses that they covet but can’t afford to bring in to breed. And they reminisce with obvious pride about local horses like Sandring, a two-time victor at the National Derby and the only Ghana-bred horse to ever win the race.
As the morning leans into afternoon, it is evident that love and appreciation for horses runs deep in each of these men. Their accounts are full of poetry, never more so than when they describe their early morning rides along the shore, where they can gallop for miles and the fishermen pulling their catch onto the beach lower their nets to grant the horsemen passage. (Beloved Chincoteague ponies’ mythical origins may be real.)
They have been bound to horses since they were young boys, sometimes running errands for free just so they’d be given the opportunity to ride. Jara says he’s never known a home without horses. “By the time I was a few months old, I was crawling between the hooves of unbroken horses. Because they never harmed me, everyone in the family said I had the gift.”
The stable’s horses are never put down, Allotey says. As the animals age, they are shifted to lighter work, such as taking tourists on gentle beach rides, acting as props for wedding photos, and helping calm younger horses. Injured horses are nurtured back to full health using long-tested methods.
“We know how to take care of horses, we make their feed ourselves,” says Jara. “We only need a bit of investment, and we could breed champions here.”
I believe him because I know that generations of expertise fuel his conviction. The history of horse-riding in West Africa lives through each of these men; it is the future that is fuzzy.
As I leave, a motorbike pulls up. It is a customer who has come to negotiate the fee for a horse to appear at a neighborhood celebration. Life, it would appear, canters on.