A hailstorm of hoofbeats kicks up a cloud of red dirt as Juanca, a glorious, glossy chestnut thoroughbred, thunders around the bend of the Cambodian Country Club arena.
The spirited mare tosses her head around a bit, nostrils flared, before her 18-year-old rider, Sim Narith, settles her into a controlled canter.
“Slow her down, ease up,” Kathy Lovatt, the flaxen haired, lively riding coach and stable manager shouts out emphatically.
The horse, ears pricked forward, lean muscles rippling, responds to Narith’s subtle, deep seat and soars over a candy cane-esque red and white oxer jump.
Narith is one to watch, Lovatt enthuses, “a rising star.”
He’s one of seven young Khmers that make up the national equestrian team, who, for the first time, are looking very likely to compete in the South East Asian games in Myanmar this December.
Lovatt, who set up riding centres in Myanmar in the late 90s and has worked in Thailand, Spain and Antigua, is convinced equestrian - in many countries a sport for the blue-blooded – is set to boom in South East Asia.
Although still in its fledgling stages in Cambodia, equine curiosity amongst the young, growing middle class of Cambodia has recently been piqued, she says.
As the only riding centre in Phnom Penh (there are trail riding ranches in both Siem Reap and Kep), the Cambodian Country Club started off with “promenades” for children atop scruffy, local ponies, but soon imported a number of larger and more athletic horses for keen teenage and adult riders.
“I believe Cambodia is moving in leaps and bounds…the more support we have, the more we can bring in animals from overseas and that is the way forward, in terms of creating a professional sport here,” Lovatt says.
Around 70 people now ride regularly at the stables, she says, with about 40 per cent half Cambodian, a further 40 per cent made up of expats (particularly from Singapore and Hong Kong) and 20 per cent locals.
“So we have 60 per cent of riders who are half or full Cambodian, who can represent this country internationally - they are the future of the sport.”
"When they performed well in the SEA games, suddenly all the children wanted to have a go and try it."
When they performed well in the SEA games, suddenly all the children wanted to have a go and try it.”
“When I was first in Myanmar, in 1998, there were only two riding centres in Thailand - there are now 40 in Bangkok alone.
“When they held SEA games in Thailand and the equestrian team did well, suddenly the children wanted to have a go and try it,” she says.
Three young riders, Narith, Loy Sovanchandara, 20, and Lon Sopheaktra, 17, are all graduates with seven years experience from the Cheval-Avenir (or Horse Future) program, which since 2006 has provided lessons for disadvantaged young people, funded by the Maddox Chivan Children’s Centre. They’re now in serious training twice a week for the December competition.
The other four national team members are made up of internal CCC staff - one, 31 year old Hoy Soparith, instructs at CCC and last year in Singapore gained the esteemed FEA (Federation Equestre Internationale) coaching accreditation.
“They’ve really developed a strong love and respect for the horse. (Riding) fosters excellent qualities in them- responsibility, compassion, respect, dedication. They care for the horses and are responsible for the animals. They are very proud to represent their country and could all pursue serious careers in the horse world,” Lovatt says.
On the day we visit, they’re atop Juanca, the onyx-hued Uva Megra, and bay gelding Zoss - recently brought over from a Thai polo club and “still quite green.”
Narith is like a father figure to the group - when Uva Megra balks and shies at the jump, he watches intently, calling out words of encouragement.
A day earlier, as dusk was beginning to fall in the capital, the three same horses gallop and buck skittishly around one of the centre’s roomy yards.
One of the centre’s grooms, Makara - also a Cheval-Avenir student- ambles over to Uva Megra - the animal lets out an affectionate nicker and lets him catch her.
“I never thought I could love animals so much…sometimes my wife tells me I love horses more than her. I work everyday, caring and cleaning for the horses, preparing them for their riders, washing them down, feeding them. Horses are different to other animals, they are very sensitive. Once you have their trust, they are your friend, your companion,” he says.
Porleng Van, treasurer for the Cambodian Equestrian Federation and project manager of the country’s only equine NGO, the Cambodia Pony Welfare Organization, grew up as a pony enthusiast in France, and says although cultural barriers exist in Cambodia that hinder riding’s popularity, such as exposure to sun, Cambodia’s history was infused with equine references.
“You could really say the sport was lost in the Khmer Rouge. Before, it was very present- the Royals were avid riders. It’ll take time for people to regain that I think. We’re a third world country. It’s also not easy because many Khmer people do not want to be out in the sun. ”
Indeed, Angkorian bas reliefs depict warriors atop majestic steeds galloping into battle; an 1875 Parisian made statue of King Norodom atop his steed heralds the stupa containing his ashes at the Royal Palace; the late King Father Sihanouk was an equine enthusiast and rider and in 1956 the Kingdom made its first debut in the summer Olympics in Stockholm.
On the 10th of February, King Sihamoni will present the 9th Cambodian Showjumping Championship at CCC, less than a week after his father was cremated.
At the palm-fringed Happy Ranch in Siem Reap, Cambodian born, California raised cowboy hat-donning Sary Pann has bred Cambodian ponies with Arabian horses since 2002 - resulting in 47 beautiful, silky maned creatures.
“We are cross breeding the Cambodian horses with bigger horses from Vietnam to create bigger horses that can accommodate more weight. The physique of the Cambodian pony is fragile for the western sized riders,” stable manager Lucy King says.
While a small number of Khmer riders rode regularly at the stables and on trail rides through temples and lotus ponds, “most would prefer to drive a Lexus,” she says.
“I cannot predict anything in regards to the future of horse riding in Cambodia, but we try day after day to encourage and educate the locals…our staff understand that a horse is a partner, not a slave.”
By the Mekong’s marshy edges in Kampong Cham province, the rice fields have shifted from an emerald green to muted tones of chartreuse and gold, and farmers are beginning to ‘cut the rice’.
In the dusty Srey San Thor district village number 10, a stream of locals are leading lithe working ponies to a group of travelling vets, there to provide a workshop on equine care and provide medical and farrier work.
Royal University of Phnom Penh educated vets Hang Piseth, Nop Rinda and Chav Yoky work long hours- weekends and nights on call- for the Cambodia Pony Welfare Organization, providing the only real medical care for cart pulling ponies around Cambodia. Although around 100 students filtered through the University’s vet course last year, they were the only dedicated equine vets they knew of.
All in their late twenties, the three became close during vet school and say they’ve made “great strides” in the villages they have worked in, training local farriers, providing medical assistance and feeding and workload guidance and worming the horses in different villages several times a month.
Still, of the estimated 30,000 rural working ponies in the country, they only have the resources to work with about 500.
“Farmers are causing great damage and pain to the ponies. Diet (and the lack of food) is one of the biggest concerns for the local ponies. Mistreatment and pulling loads that are too heavy, sometimes up to a tonne” says Piseth.
“They are very proud of their pony when the animal can transport the heavy load…but what they don’t know is that this is putting the animal at a high risk of injury and even death. Colic is endemic. Lameness is very common due to poor farrier training…the welfare of ponies in Cambodia is still very poor,” Rinda says.
“It’s not so much a matter of mistreatment but a lack of knowledge. It’s pretty rare to come across cases of abuse and neglect in that way. Once they’re equipped with knowledge things tend to improve enormously. Money is obviously also a hindrance,” Piseth says.
There is a fine line, however, between educating the often impoverished farmers and becoming dogmatic, they say.
“Our role is to promote animal welfare, but it is also to improve the owner’s welfare…if the horse is stronger and lives longer it benefits them. It’s a blurry line, how can you tell them to do something when they’re also living in less than ideal conditions? I guess we’re different to other welfare groups that stage protests. You could never do that here- they would think you are crazy,” Piseth says.
Yoky picks up the split hoof of a small brown pony and calmly explains to its owner the importance of shoes for the animal. He swabs antiseptic over an infected abscess on the hind leg of another pony.
“Taking care of a horse’s legs and hooves is the most important. We can say that the horse has five hearts – one leg is equal to a heart. A human can break a leg and stay alive, a horse cannot,” he says.
Van says the ponies, often worth $700, were valuable assets to the farmers, but many were not aware of the extra care they required.
“They are more delicate.”
Still, with the countryside developing and globalisation spreading, she says motorbikes and machinery were, in many places, taking over the use of the working ponies.
“If there is no conservation, in 20 or 30 years I think this local breed will disappear, which is sad. I think we’ll see a huge increase in the interest in horse racing, which will also increase the desirability of bigger horses, racing horses. More attention needs to be paid by the government on conservation, on breeding perhaps for tourism, this could work. I would like to see some measures and plans to keep the local pony alive- they are strong and hardy creatures and have adapted to Cambodia.”