Every evening at 5, Mohamed Jassim Al Serkal drives from Sharjah to the Desert Palm Equestrian Centre to be with Eroza, his Dutch warmblood mare of 10 years. Together they practise the flatwork – horse and master in tune with each other. They move sideways and backwards, trot and canter in harmony, connecting with each other as they perfect the elegant dressage movements.
Mohamed, 31, is perhaps one of the few male Emirati dressage riders in the UAE above the age of 25. Last year, he won first place at the Dubai Dressage Competition (Preliminary Seniors Champion) at the Emirates Equestrian Centre. But this recognition doesn’t sit easy on him. In a country that places a lot of emphasis on equestrian endurance and showjumping, being a dressage rider is a bit of a ‘let down’, he feels.
‘Dressage is a rich housewife’s hobby,’ he says candidly. ‘There are not many Emirati men in the dressage scene. They would prefer endurance racing or showjumping any day.’
Historically regarded as the most artistic of the equestrian sports, the origin of dressage can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. ‘It’s the ultimate form of riding,’ says Mohamed. But growing up in Sharjah, his experience as a dressage rider has been more about breaking cultural stereotypes than being part of a riding community that would whet his appetite for the sport.
While in showjumping there is a course of jumps that you have to complete – whether it’s a speed round or a jump off, in dressage there are no jumps involved. As a rider, you have to perform certain movements that are advanced expressions in a horse. ‘In dressage, we test everything in a horse – mind, body and fitness... it is the art of teaching the horse to carry you.
‘But no one really understands dressage,’ says Mohamed. ‘When my friends went in for showjumping or for endurance, they were the pride of the community. Not me. The only Emirati who pushed and supported me was UAE dressage rider Reem Alabbar. She told me, “Mohamed don’t stop, keep going and lift your head high.” I did just that,’ he says.
It took a long time for Mohamed to get back the confidence he needed to pursue his passion. ‘I had to slam so many barriers. It’s a huge cultural thing to be a dressage rider, especially when all your friends are showjumpers. I had nothing in common with them. Culturally in our society men are believed to be in positions of power. My parents still don’t understand that I want to be a professional dressage rider. They are fine with me having it as a hobby but not as a profession.’
Mohamed started riding at the age of nine. ‘I was in love with horses from as early as I can remember. I felt a certain connection with them. My parents took me to the Sharjah Equestrian and Racing Club, where I started training for showjumping. There were no other options at that time and I learnt the sport by default. I did what I had to, but somewhere down the line I realised that much as I loved riding horses, I never had an adrenaline rush like my friends did while showjumping. I never wanted to push myself into it. So, while my friends went ahead, I remained where I was and became rather unhappy.’
One day his coach suggested that young Mohamed try dressage. The flatwork was different and he took an instant liking to it. ‘I rode on a big fat horse for the first time. We connected instantly and he made me love something I thought I would be good at. I was 13 at that time and even won a pony jury prize at the Sharjah club. But I didn’t have much support going for me even after that. So when you love what you do but there is no community for it, how can you feel motivated about it?’
Life took a different turn for Mohamed when an accident on horseback in the desert set him back with serious injuries. He recovered in record time, but other things came in the way. He dabbled with university, gained weight, and even published a book on child psychology. ‘I stopped riding when I was 18. I just focused on my studies, and my writing. I attended the Higher Colleges of Technology and studied financial services, focusing on investor relations.’
A late start
It was at age 26 that Mohamed decided to change track. ‘I realised that even though it was quite late in life, dressage was what I actually want to do.’ He found himself a good trainer, invested in a horse and re-started his training at the Desert Palm. ‘In the season of 2017-2018 I competed at the Emirates Equestrian Centre in Dubai and came third in my first ever national show.’
Encouraged by the results Mohamed started looking online for training grounds in Europe and finally zeroed in on the French riding school, Cadre Noir of Saumur, which had a reputation for dressage. ‘But the school was busy for summer and they referred me to trainer Alain Francois. I trained with him for a year and came back in March last year to win the Dubai Dressage Championship. It further validated my belief that this was what I wanted to do.’
Mohamed, who now trains at the Academy Bartels in Holland for a month each in summer and winter, has set his sights on the Asian Games in 2022 and the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. To fund his passion, he continues to work at the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority as a business development manager.
In Dubai, Mohamed trains with Eroza and in Holland he has Eduard, a 10-year dark bay gelding who he describes as a ‘Lamborghini engine in a horse…’
The horse whisperer
Speaking of his horses, Mohamed is filled with love. He talks repeatedly of the deep bond he shares with both, a connection that is almost sublime. ‘Eroza is a part of me and I, of her. We are one team. And despite the fact she can be a bit nervous, Eroza has a strong will to work and does the right thing at the right time. She is an absolute firecracker of a horse, a powerful mare,’ says Mohamed. Eduard, on the other hand, is more advanced in his skills, and he remains at the academy in Holland. What if he had to choose between the two? ‘I would prefer Eduard as you do not usually get an opportunity to train with a horse at that advance level. His technicality is at a much higher level, his movements are elevated and it will help me with the tests we have to do to qualify for the Asian Games,’ says Mohamed.
Asked about the winning combination, Mohamed says it’s a 50-50 partnership that echoes the saying, ‘A horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care.
‘You have to be well trained in the art to take your horse to that winning level,’ says Mohamed. ‘For example, Eroza can be easily distracted with what’s behind the bush while training. While this makes her a more aware animal, she can get crazy in the dark and I need to calm her down. Act as her horse whisperer. So, as the rider, I need to be well trained to understand not just the sport but also my horse.’
What are the things one needs to look for in a horse for this form of riding? Because as they say, dressage is good for every horse, but not every horse is good for dressage? ‘There are several factors,’ says Mohamed. ‘We check the shape of the horse, whether it has a long or a short back, short withers, and neck size. We see if the horse has no tension in its movements, ask does it have self-carriage and does it have the right balance? How do her hind legs move? How elastic are her front legs?’
There are three basic gaits in dressage – walk, trot, and canter. ‘For some people, the walk is the most important, but personally, it depends on each rider and their goals. Some other factors that we consider in a horse is whether it’s sharp or spooky? How is the head? We believe at the end of the day it will also go back to the quality of training, and the experience of the horse. The horse must be happy doing what it does or else it doesn’t work out.’
As Mohamed keeps his eyes on the 2022 Asian Games, he feels there is a lot he needs to deal with at a personal, family and community level to break the stereotypical barriers. ‘There’s no one really pushing you. There is no sponsor, no community. Showjumping has more audience, there is more money in it. Not for dressage. For example, currently in Dubai there aren’t many experienced coaches to train for the Asian Games.’
Has his successes as a pro dressage rider changed his family’s opinion?
Of late, yes, says Mohamed. ‘They understand my ambition now more than before. But they aren’t totally convinced that I will be committing to the sport full-time as an athlete.
‘I think the problem lies with people not perceiving it as a difficult sport. That’s sad because internationally you have male dressage riders who have left a mark. One of the top dressage riders in the world is Patrik Kittel from Sweden. Then there are the Spaniards Severo Jurado Lopez and the young Juan Matute Guimon who has changed the dynamics of the game.’
Mohamed plans to enrol himself at the Tilburg University in the southern part of Netherlands to pursue a master’s in Business Communication and more importantly, to stay close to the Academy to train around the year.
‘My nine-to-five schedule here in Dubai is quite hectic and I need to practise more. I want to take time off from my home and life here to train professionally. Also, going away to Tilburg is my only escape route as my family still doesn’t approve of me being a dressage rider. They are OK if I have it as a hobby. I think I will be more culturally accepted if I am in university in Holland as a student rather than being just into dressage.
‘The men in my family have all been very hard-working. My father and uncle worked in the government… in fact my dad was an ambassador… and the men don’t see financial returns in such a sport.’
But riding is what sets Mohamed free. On Sunday, November 3, Eroza leaves for Holland to focus on training and development, while Mohamed will wait to join her soon.
‘I’m just waiting to hear back from the University. I will now train with both Eroza and Eduard as I settle into my new life. I’ve never felt so focused as I do now. I am confident and in the right place and completely in tune with myself.’