Amid poverty and hardship, the Maddox Chivoan Centre in Phnom Penh has given many children the opportunity to try horse-riding, but one boy wants to turn the sport into a life
Nartih and his pony jump over a small cross and pole at the Cambodian Country Club, where he trains every day at horse-riding.
IT'S a quiet Friday morning. About 10 children from the Maddox Chivoan Centre, a shelter dedicated to caring for children from HIV-positive families in the Pochentong area of Phnom Penh, arrive at the Cambodian Country Club (CCC) to take a horse-riding test.
The small, smiling children are divided up into groups and tested: Can they wash and saddle up the ponies, then ride them through a series of compulsory exercises?
At the stables, a group of giggling girls are riding their ponies around the yard.
A girl, knee high to a grasshopper, is struggling to control her small black pony, which seems to be in a hurry to get to the nearby arena.
Leaning forward, she whispers something in the pony's ear that seems to have the desired effect: He slows down and waits for her signal to
Behind this group, a young boy, Narith, 14, gently lifts a pony's fetlock, props it on his knee and starts brushing his hoof. Two small girls wearing oversized rubber boots watch, awestruck. They stare as the boy plunges a paintbrush into a thick, oily liquid and smears the hoof with it.
It looks simple as he does it, but when the girls try to copy him they fall over a few times, to the surprise of their long-suffering pony, before managing to oil the hooves correctly.
Narith stops what he is doing to help the girls - as he does for everyone who is interested. But he is not a teacher. He is just a Cambodian kid who is passionate about horse-riding, against all odds.
All his friends at the Maddox Centre see him as a role model and bombard him with questions. When they ride in the arena, he gives them tips - how to improve their position, how to feel more confident in the saddle.
When it is Narith's turn to take the test, the teachers lift up the jumps. Many of the other children stop what they are doing to watch him. Even the construction workers who are building a house behind the arena stop hammering.
Narith is very elegant in the saddle and appears to control his steed with ease. He moves around the circuit fast, perfectly anticipating the jumps with his pony following his every instruction. After the test is finished, Narith thanks the pony with a pat on the neck.
Narith is so ahead of the other children that even the casual observer cannot fail to notice. His teachers say he improves faster than anyone else and has a strong will to become a champion.
A destiny to ride
Over the last few months, the young boy has been training every day at the Cambodian Country Club. As soon as school finishes, he rides his bicycle to the stable. His unwavering conviction that he has made the right choice - that he is destined to ride - is impressive as he is riding against the express advice of all the main figures in his life, including his family.
"My father is dead and my mother, who is a factory worker, dislikes me riding. She does not understand me, and she does not like to come see me during a championship", explained Narith, shyly.
Even when he wins, his mother is not interested, he says. She would prefer him to work on a construction site - as her husband, Narith's father, did.
Narith resists with incredible determination for a boy his age, refusing to be a construction worker. But he sometimes has to slip out of his own house when the talk turns violent, and he has to lie so that his mother does not know he trains every day.
I want to go in for riding competitions outside Cambodia ... when I am riding a pony or a horse, I know I am right.
At school, he endures the same suspicion and mistrust. When he asks for a day off to pass the riding tests, his teacher accuses him of going to gamble. Most of his classmates do not believe him either, but he quietly stands firm.
"I want to go in for competitions outside Cambodia. Some day they will know. When I am riding a pony or a horse, I know that I am right," he says.
Sorraya Ourrais, manager of the CCC, said that all of the teachers are aware of the problems facing Narith. They support his dreams but know that he is a pioneer in a country where sport is not important, where horse-riding is not only strange but totally unknown to the public. They know that the key to a future is to find a job with a salary that will give him a place in society.
But for now, Narith just has to learn. When he falls down, he has to manage his shame and try to understand why the pony or horse did not obey him.
He regrets the departure of his former teacher, Iva, who explained many valuable things to him.
"Before, I hit the pony if I wanted it to go fast. During my training with Iva, I learned how to send the same messages or orders only with the body. I learned how to connect with the pony through the position of the legs, the hands, the lower back. I also learned to go up and down according to the walk of the pony and to feel what leg he suffers just by riding him," Narith said.
The experience was, he says, like learning a new language - one that often left him stiff and sore.
Iva's departure was a difficult thing for Narith because her trust was a turning point in his life. She asked him to help care for his pony. He has never been given responsibilities before, he said.
Despite his difficulties, Narith has some good luck pursuing his dream of becoming a professional rider. The CCC hopes to send him to Thailand next year in order to train him in a higher-level riding school.
If he continues to progress, he has a chance to represent Cambodia at the first Youth Olympic games in Singapore in 2010.
At the Maddox Chivoan Centre, where Narith keeps all his medals and trophies, and which pays for a part of his group training, he has got strong support too.
"Marie [the centre's director] told me she would like to help me go to France in two years," he explains.
Far from reality
For Narith, these plans help him dream every night of winning a jumping competition, but they are far from the poor circumstances that make up his daily reality.
Narith in his riding helmet at the Cambodian Country Club. He would like to buy proper riding boots but does not think he will be able to afford them.
He would like to learn more from books, but he cannot read English. He would like to watch more international competition, but he doesn't have a TV. He wants to buy a pair of professional boots, but he has been told they are very expensive.
When he looks down at his trousers, he remembers that he has been wearing the same pair for two years now. And he wonders if what he eats every day will prevent him from winning, as it is the food of poor people.
And in his loneliest moments, he wonders if in this world, any other 14-year-olds share his passion for horse-riding.