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The Enchanted Horse
The Arabian bolted at the moment I least expected and, now as I think about it, that’s exactly how the djinns must have plotted it out.
He was muscular and chalk white, with a head that curved slightly upward like a scimitar, giving way to wide, flaring nostrils that seemed to inhale me, reading my odors as I stood before him in the paddock. He neighed and nervously shifted his stance as a groom cinched a saddle around his sleek belly.
“From Amreeka, like you,” said the trainer, Qaboos. His name was Scarzo, a former racehorse that the stable had imported to Oman from the U.S. some years back to boost its Arabian bloodstock.Or so I gathered. It had taken me a while to grasp all of this information, which Qaboos had delivered in broken English.
Qaboos and I had met through a daisy-chain of connections and acquaintances after I’d told a friend that one of my lifelong desires was to ride Arabian horses in the birthplace of the breed. That morning, before dawn, an aging pickup rumbled up to my guesthouse in Muscat, Oman’s capital city, and out stepped a handsome young man in his 20s wearing riding pants and tall black boots, his hair freshly cut, his mustache neatly trimmed. “I am Qaboos,” he said and off we went through the darkened streets.
As we drove to his stable in Barka, about an hour up the coast, I discovered that Qaboos often mixed up words. Certainly, his English was better than my Arabic, which consisted of 20 or so words, only six of which I could properly pronounce. But as we talked, I realized that when he said here, he sometimes meant there, right could mean left, near was more like very far.
Our communication was further confused by his insistence on playing loud music as we drove. “You like Justin Bieber?” he asked.
“This Arab Justin Bieber.”
He turned up the volume, filling the truck with an Arabic version of “Despacito,” and we sped along the main road, past the moonlit silhouettes of the jagged mountains that define this part of the Omani coastline. Our conversations veered wildly. Qaboos steadily drummed the steering wheel, as I guessed what he meant by phrases such as “You fly in water?” After a long interrogation and some pantomiming, it turned out that he was asking if I could swim. “Yes,” I finally answered.
“Yes,” he nodded emphatically, but offered no explanation for why he was asking.
I pondered the meaning of this. Was swimming somehow analogous to riding an Arabian horse? Were the same muscles engaged? But I was afraid of another wearisome back and forth, so I just leaned back in the seat and listened to the Arab Bieber, who was growing on me.
I relate all this so you can grasp my tentative state of mind when, just as we prepared to mount the horses, Qaboos announced: “Horse little crazy.” He said this nonchalantly, as if he were saying this horse is white. Then he added, “Arabians little crazy.”
Crazy. What was Qaboos’s definition of crazy? Crazy as in dangerous crazy? Or crazy as in crazy fun? Or was it a word that rhymes with crazy. Lazy?
Maybe Scarzo detected my confusion. He turned his scimitar head andregarded me with one ebony eye. Or perhaps he was considering the scents I exuded—Old Spice deodorant and breath mints, ibuprofen and middle-age angst.
Perhaps these smells reminded him of his life on American racetracks. I pictured sweaty men in fedoras stuffing drugged cotton balls up his nose or sticking large syringes into the rope-like veins that pulsed along his neck. Or jockeys whipping him mercilessly toward a never-ending parade of finish lines.
Or maybe the horse discerned something more profound— the real reason that I was sitting atop him now—that I hoped to resolve a patchwork of personal mysteries that revolved around horses, Arabia, and magic, the origins of which lie buried in the deep folds of my childhood memories.
Whatever the case, several hours later—as I dangled off Scarzo’s rump, one foot tangled in a stirrup, vainly trying to regain my balance as he rampaged across the beach toward a family that had just spread out a picnic blanket—I understood exactly what Qaboos had meant by crazy.
But let’s freeze here in the midst of this peril and return to the origin of this calamity, and you will clearly see how the djinns had been plotting this moment from long ago.
My Grandfather’s Missing Thumb
Growing up in Georgia, I’d learned to ride horses, though none of them had been Arabians. Far from them. Rather they had all been trail-weary horses—“more ass than horse” as one codger had put it.
I’d seen an Arabian only once. My two little brothers and I had visited our grandfather’s farm one summer when I was about 12, and he’d taken us to a neighbor’s ranch where we stood before a coal black stallion kept separate from the other horses. It was as majestic a creature as I’d ever encountered, with a long narrow head, wide-set glistening eyes and flaring nostrils. It threw its wild mane, stamped its hooves and produced a deep, vibrating neigh that seemed to go right through my chest. My brothers and I scampered back from the fence.
“You boys want to ride him,” the rancher had joked. “He ain’t too friendly. That’s an Arabian for you. Hot-blooded horses.”
In the years to come, I would learn, as I immersed myself in the literature of Arabians, that breeders regard their potent blood as some sort of equine nitroglycerin, infusing Arabians with agility, speed, endurance and a spirit that has beguiled humans the world over for millennia.
Historians believe that horses were first domesticated in Eurasia, but it can be argued that they were perfected in Arabia. Forged in the brutal conditions of the Arabian desert, these horses could withstand extreme heat, cold and thirst and were prized by Bedouins. Camels were reliable for carrying loads across the desert, but on a raid or in battle, a Bedouin would trust his life only to an Arabian horse.
As such, Bedouin breeders began noting lineages of mares and stallions thousands of years ago. They ruthlessly selected for stamina, speed, soundness and courage, allowing only the very best horses to breed. When possible, they fed them dates and camel milk. During birth, foals weren’t allowed to touch the ground, were lovingly bathed and sheltered with the mares in the family tent.
Over the centuries, this process produced a super breed, defined by its oversized nostrils and large lungs, which allowed Arabians to run farther and longer than other breeds. Arab poets dubbed them “drinkers of the wind” and “swallowers of the ground.” The Prophet Muhammad declared them sacred.
Initially, Arabs recognized the military advantage their fast, light horses gave them, especially compared to the large, slow horses ridden by heavily armored European knights during the Crusades, and they were reluctant to trade them to potential enemies. But eventually Arabian blood would course through the veins of the cavalries of the Far East, the Ottoman Empire, Europe and the New World. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, the Spanish conquistadors, George Washington—all rode Arabians, which effectively means that Arabian horses conquered the world.
Though no longer relevant to militaries, Arabian blood today completely dominates the world of racing. The entire Thoroughbred breed derives from three pureblood Arabian stallions imported to England, which means the winner of every Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes owes it winnings, in some measure, to the inspired toil of ancient desert nomads.
But I didn’t know any of that then.
As my brothers and I stared in awe while keeping our distance, my grandfather remained at the fence, implacable under his ever-present straw hat, his hands folded into the bib of his tattered overalls. He had been born to a hardscrabble farming family in 1901, and to him horses were strictly beasts of burden, the precursors to cars and tractors, intended to pull plows and wagons and carry folks into town.
“Looks like more trouble than he’s worth,” was all he said.
“Probably so,” said the rancher.
That same summer I’d excavated a moldering copy of Tales From the Thousand and One Nights from my grandparents’ basement and became immersed in the world of Ali Baba, flying carpets, and mischievous spirits called djinns, which sometimes took great pleasure in exploiting the hubris of unsuspecting mortals, seducing them with visions of beauty and pleasure and luring them into elaborate traps.
But it was the tale The Enchanted Horse that ever since has remained firmly lodged in my imagination. In it a young prince jumps onto the back of an enchanted horse, knowing only how to make it fly but not how to make it land. The horse carries him to far kingdoms where he has many adventures and meets a powerful princess.
During those summer afternoons, I would climb as high as I could into the cottonwood tree behind my grandparents’ house and among its swaying branches pretend to ride the flying horse. In the evenings when my grandfather came in from the fields, I’d ask him to take me to see the Arabian again. But he said once was enough.
I seem to remember blurting out that I wanted to ride the horse. But that’s probably a wishful memory. I wasn’t really that bold around my grandfather, a taciturn man who held no romantic notions about animals, except his dog Lou. He’d lost the tip of his right thumb in a roping accident and knew all too well the power of large animals.
Every summer when he picked us up from the bus station, my brothers and I in the backseat would stare at the nub of thumb as he steered the Chevy back to the farm. My mother told us it wasn’t polite to ask people questions about scars or missing pieces of their body, which as a kid seemed illogical. Shouldn’t those be the very first questions?
My grandfather seemed to endorse our view when one night he told us the story about how when he was a boy he had met a Civil War veteran who had lost his leg at the first battle of Bull Run. But somehow, the only information about the missing thumb I could coax out of anyone was that it had been a roping accident.
So, absent any details and imbued with the encounter of the Arabian and the Thousand and One Nights, I spooled together my own tale in which my grandfather lassoed an Arabian and set off on a gallop only to fall off with the rope wound around his thumb. The horse had fled, taking the tip of his thumb, which was why he didn’t love horses and why he wouldn’t take me back to the Arabian, fearing I would come under the spell of djinns, and they would use my ardor for the beautiful stallion to entrap me someday. Or something like that.
Really, that’s what had brought me to Oman: A chance encounter on a ranch, a missing piece of thumb, a fertile imagination and a germinating story—those ingredients had created a lifelong desire to ride Arabian horses in Arabia.
And here I was, on the back of Scarzo, following Qaboos through the streets of Barka.
I Almost Trample a Boy
Many places in the Middle East are known as hotbeds for Arabian horses. According to legend, the breed originated from the “south wind,” which some have interpreted as meaning they came from Yemen. Others credit the Bedouin tribes on Saudi Arabia’s Nejd plateau as the nucleus of breeders from which the horses arose. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Syria and Egypt can all point to famous stables that have produced refined and prolific Arabian lineages.
My main reason for coming to Oman had less to do with its horses and more to do with its varied topography, which is nothing short of a geologic wonderland. I imagined taking horses into the Al Hajar Mountains, riding into the gorges of Wadi Nakr, exploring the frankincense groves in the south, and galloping for miles along its Oman Gulf beaches and into the endless red dunes of the Rub al Khali.
But I also chose Oman because of its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, a devoted horse lover. In recent years, he has sought to restore the horse culture that once helped define his kingdom, sanctioning both distance and flat races to revive interest among his people and importing Arabians back into the country to bolster its breeding population.
My guide Qaboos had been named in honor of the beloved sultan, and he certainly seemed to possess the monarch’s affinity for horses. As we rode through the quiet streets of Barka under a pink dawn, he and his mount, a chestnut mare, moved as one, as though, like a centaur, the horse was an extension of his lower anatomy.
Compared to such grace, I felt self-conscious about my rusty horsemanship, awkwardly adjusting to the English-style saddle and cantering clumsily. The horses seemed a bit nervous, but they weren’t crazy horses, as Qaboos had seemed to suggest.
We arrived at the beach and the sea was flat, with only the faintest ripples for waves. Its immense calm seemed to soothe the horses. Qaboos dropped the reins and let his mare clop along the packed sand. Leaning back in the saddle, he pulled out a pouch of snuff and tucked a large pinch into his upper lip. I asked to him to let me have some, too. He hesitated. “Very strong,” he said. “Not for Amreeka.” At which point, the Georgia native in me took umbrage, and if I’d known the Arabic words for “Son, I was dippin’ Copenhagen before you were born,” I would have told him so. Instead, I just held out my hand and he passed me the pouch.
Snuff was a habit I’d given up long ago, but with several hours of riding ahead, the idea of a dip was tantalizing. Besides, maybe it would take the edge off my nervousness. I took a pinch and put it into my lower lip, and my mouth filled with the familiar spicy saltiness. Qaboos watched me skeptically, and shook his head, pointing to his upper lip. “No,” he said, “there.”
“In Amreeka, we do it like this,” I said, pointing at my bottom lip. “Cowboy style.”
His eyes lit up. “Cowboy?” I nodded. And before I knew it he had launched into a long, garbled soliloquy of which I understand only the word “cowboy,” which he used several times. But the warm sun, the slow lap of the sea, and the spicy tobacco relaxed me, and Scarzo and I found a reassuring cadence.
For the first several miles, we had the empty beach to ourselves, but Qaboos kept us at a slow trot. I could feel him watching how I handled my horse. I seemed to win slight approval when a cast of crabs scuttled out of the surf and startled Scarzo. He started to rear up, but I firmly reined him in, and Qaboos nodded approvingly, “Pete, you good cowboy.”
After that, we galloped the horses for long stretches and it became very clear this was Scarzo’s preferred mode. The run seemed to release all the horses’ pent-up nervous energy. His powerful muscles seemed to uncoil, and his shoulders, like oversize pistons, drove us forward, springing over the sand as though a 160-pound man weren’t on his back. And then it happened. We found the perfect horse-rider balance and rhythm, where the hooves no longer seem to touch the ground, and we undulated over the terrain like a dolphin skimming the surface of the ocean.
After a glorious while, we slowed to let the horses cool down. Qaboos motioned for me to follow him into the sea. Scarzo needed no persuasion. He entered andwaded to where the bottom dropped away and soon the water was up to his neck. I had to grip the saddle to keep from floating off his back, and it dawned on me then why Qaboos had asked whether I could swim. But there really wasn’t any need. Scarzo chugged alonglike a diesel submarine, his white head nodding rhythmically, and I found myself humming the Arab Despacito in his ear.
We swam the horses for a few hundred yards, emerging slick and wet. Scarzo’s dazzling white coat shimmered in the midday sun. That’s when we stopped to rest and eat lunch at small park. We tied the horses and fetched a bucket of water from the park attendant. A few Omani families spread blankets on the beach and their children chased the surf.
If the day had ended there, it might have been perfect.
An outside observer might say that what happened next was due to the heavy lunch of grilled lamb kabobs and homemade yogurt, which made me a bit sleepy and less vigilant. Or reason that I had succumbed to the vanity that I was a better horseman than I really was. Or point to Qaboos’s penchant for mixing up words, in this case using the word “loosely” when he meant “tightly.” But the 12-year-old boy in me knows beyond any shadow of doubt that it was the djinns.
It was late afternoon and we had just mounted our horses to ride back to Barka. My clothes had dried, leaving them stiff with salt and smelling like the sea. The sun was hot, and we noticed a man nearby selling cold drinks out of a cooler. Qaboos dismounted and bought a few bottles of water for us to carry. As he approached, Scarzo shifted nervously under me. I gripped the reins and murmured reassuringly in his ear.
“Pete, loosely,” Qaboos said. “Loosely.”
I thought he meant I was holding the horse too tightly, and it was making him uncomfortable. I loosened my grip, slightly.
What happened next unfurled in a twinkling: the shriek of the horse, the flash of fright in Qaboos’s eyes, the sudden ignition of nitro-infused horsepower as Scarzo reared up. I was thrown back on the saddle. My left foot came out of the stirrup, but the right one was somehow twisted in the other. I grabbed the edge of the saddle with my left hand to keep from falling off and snatched the rein hard with my right hand. But by nowthe horse had wheeled about and was flying down the beach. And like the prince on the enchanted horse, I couldn’t make him stop.
That’s when I saw the picnicking family. I frantically tried to right myself and yanked desperately on the one rein I held, trying to pull the horse’s head down, but I was so off balanceit had little effect. The women screamed and abandoned the blanket. The children ran into the sea. Except for one little boy. To my horror, he stood there wide-eyed, staring as the frightened horse and its spastic rider bore down on him. His expression was the same I’d seen on my brothers’ faces that day at the rancher’s fence, a mix of pure wonder, absolute astonishment and primal fear.
I’ll never be sure how the horse missed him. Maybe spirits more powerful than the djinns intervened.
The Magic Carpet Ride
The old Bedouin horse breeder listened to my story with amusement. He didn’t speak English and a friend was translating, so I was able to carefully watch his reaction as she described the moment Scarzo had thrown me and disappeared down the beach. The old man stroked his white beard as he listened. Finally, he gave a long reply in Arabic. My friend turned to me. “He says there’s no way that was a true Arabian horse.”
My trip pretty much had been a ruin since that moment. Scarzo finally had dumped me in the shallow surf and raced down the beach with Qaboos in hot pursuit on the mare. Covered in wet sand, I walked back up the beach and apologized profusely to the family, who didn’t speak English but seemed to shrug off the incident as the kind of thing that just happened. The terrified little boy, however, clung to his mother, peering at me from behind the folds of her chador.
Qaboos called me the next day, wanting to go riding again, but I declined. I kept rewinding the moment I’d lost control and thinking about the little boy and what could’ve happened.
Instead I hired a car and half-heartedly visited some of the ancient oasis towns in the mountains,hiked among the ruins of a Persian fort, and tried to forget about horses. Then I got a text from a friend who knew a Bedouin breeder in the desert north. “He has the most exquisite horses,” she said. “You have to see them.”
We drove to the man’s home, in a little province called Bidiya, in the Wahiba Sands. It was a place filled with stables. We could hear the whinny of horses from nearly every direction as our taxi navigated the sandy track to the old man’s home.
We arrived just before dusk and he offered us dates and coffee per tradition, and then his grooms had brought out the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen. Among them were elegant mares the color of butterscotch, mahogany and fresh snow; and a smoke gray stallion with a mane, tail, and legs that were jet black, as though he’d been singed in a fire.
These were classic Arabians, said the old Bedouin, not too big. By my description, he said, Scarzo was much too tall to be considered a classic Arabian.
His horses, though on the shorter side, had very wide chests. “That means big lungs,” he said. Their tails were held high and their heads were large and slightly curved. And finally, he pointed to their small ears. “Large ears are bad,” he said, a hint the animal has some donkey blood in its lineage.
The sun set and the glittering Milky Way came into view as we sat outside the old man’s house. For hours, he indulged me with stories about horses—the colts he’d bred for sheiks from all over the Gulf, endurance races deep into the heart of the desert, a favorite mare that was tragically struck by lightning, one thrilling night when as a boy he’d joined his uncles to take horses from a rival tribe.
He had watched sires and dams produce colts, which then produced their own colts, even as he and his wife had produced sons and daughters, who had produced grandsons and granddaughters. One life begat another life; one story begat another story. Alhamdulillah. He could’ve gone on until dawn.
When I told him that I’d come to Oman just to ride an Arabian horse, his eyes seemed to twinkle, and I thought he’d offer to let me ride one of his sublime horses, possibly the smoke gray stallion. But he didn’t. Maybe, there was still an abiding Bedouin caution when it came to letting foreigners get too close to his horses. And after my disaster with Scarzo, I couldn’t really blame him. Instead, his nephew asked for my notebook and wrote down a name.
A few days later I stood in the cool shade of a date plantation outside the oasis town of Al Hamra, west of Muscat. Thanks to the old Bedouin and another daisy-chain of contacts, I met Al Sher, who, as it turned out, was a trainer from stables owned by Sultan Qaboos himself. He’d agreed to take me on a ride while he was visiting his home village.
He arrived on the back of a dark brown mare, riding barefoot and wearing loose cotton trousers, a long white shirt, and an immaculate Omani prayer cap. He led behind him another brown mare, and I noted that both horses fit the old Bedouin’s description of classic Arabians—not too tall, wide chests, short ears.
I also noted each was outfitted with a traditional Omani saddle, which is little more than a blanket and has no stirrups, forcing a rider has to maintain perfect balance and grip the horse with his legs.
I had a bad feeling. Unlike the beach, there were no soft landing spots to be seen. The path through the groves was paved with stones, and laughing children darted in and out of the trees. But Al Sher smiled and motioned me to mount up. I tried to bury my nerves as deeply as I could, remembering the old saying about how a rider’s emotions are transmitted through the reins.
Off we set, with Al Sher leading the way at a brisk trot, and my small brown mare smartly following, head held high. The date palms gave way to groves of mangos and bananas, until we entered the old mudbrick town where we began winding our way up a series of switchbacks.
In the late afternoon, with the air cooling, we finally reached a plateau that overlooked the entire valley. The plantations appeared below us as a brilliant green carpet unfurled at the feet of the arid mountains.
Al Sher pointed to a long, flat stretch. “We come here to race.” He spurred his horse and motioned me to follow, but I kept the mare reined tightly.
I kept remembering the moment when Scarzo had bolted and the queasy feeling of losing control.
“I’m good,” I called. “No racing for me.”
He trotted back. “This horse is good,” he said in a quiet, reassuring voice. “No problems.” Then he leaned over and slapped my mare violently on its flank and barked, “YI!”
The mare flexed, but she didn’t bolt. It was as if she knew to wait for a signal from her rider. That was the unyielding loyalty Bedouin breeders had sought to instill in their horses. I could feel my chest tighten with adrenaline, and in a split-second impulse, I kicked her flanks.
She leaped forward and almost threw me, but I caught myself and forced my weight forward, trying to lean over her neck. It was ugly riding. Without stirrups or a proper saddle, I was bouncing all over her back.
“YI,” Al Sher yelled again, and I felt the mare accelerate. Then suddenly, it happened. We found our rhythm, rider and horse. I wasn’t bouncing on her back; we were gliding together; I was a centaur.
The two Arabian mares raced side by side. I looked over to smile at Al Sher. But he wasn’t sitting in his saddle. As his horse galloped, he stood on her back, his hands raised to the heavens, as though he were riding a magic carpet.
When to go
December through mid-April sees temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
What to know
Though horses are ingrained in Omani culture, horse-riding tourism is still developing. It’s best to enlist an experienced guide, and those can be tricky to find. Check out Oman Horse-Riding Holidays, run by expert equestrian Emmanuelle Jahshan. She requires an intermediate level of riding skill and is adept at matching riders with the proper mounts. oman-horseriding holidays.com
Where to stay
Al Bustan Palace, Ritz-Carlton: About 45 minutes from Muscat’s airport, this palatial hotel recently reopened after an extensive renovation. It sits on 200 acres, with the longest stretch of private beach in Oman.
Chedi Muscat: About 20 minutes outside Old Muscat lies the Asian-Zen Chedi, offering 21 acres of pristine beaches, gardens, and ponds.
Kempinski Hotel Muscat: In Oman’s charming capital, the Kempinski’s lobby takes its inspiration from the sultan of Oman’s ceremonial Al Alam Palace. Also on the property: a PGA-grade golf course and the 1897 Cigar Lounge & Bar.
Six Senses Zighy Bay: On the sleepy Musandam Peninsula, a 2.5-hour drive from Dubai International Airport, this 82-villa hotel is built in the style of a traditional Omani village.
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An edited version of this story appears in the 2019 Best Trips issue of Traveler magazine.