Starting an equestrian club in Cambodia has its challenges. For starters, there's
not a single horse doctor in the country. Sick stallions and fillies go to the regular
vet, getting super-sized treatments.
And then there's the lack of trained grooms, good farriers, a general knowledge of
horse sports ... the list goes on.
But that hasn't stopped horse lovers from trying. A year after its founding in September
2003, Cambodia's first equestrian club, located near the Northbridge development,
is thriving. Since last spring alone, membership has climbed from around a dozen
to over 60. Riders of all ages come each week to guide horses around the club's dirt
tracks, practicing their posture, jumps and other skills.
That doesn't mean it's been easy.
"We started from the beginning, so there was a lot to do," said Soraya
Ourrais, an instructor and the club manager.
Before the country's independence from France, equine pastimes were popular among
the Cambodian elite, said Porleng Van, a partner in the club. Scouring through archives
in Aix-en-Provence, she came across pictures of young Prince Sihanouk and royal relatives
riding on small horses.
But in recent history, Cambodia has had no resources for horse sports.
"They work them here, not ride them," Van said. "A horse is a way
of transporting goods and people."
Such work horses, common in Cambodia, are much smaller than their sporty counterparts.
When Ourrais gave a farrier in Takeo province a sample horseshoe and asked him to
produce similar ones; he was shocked by its size.
"All the people in the village came to look at the shoe I brought," she
said. "They couldn't believe how big it was."
Discussion ensued as to how tall an animal must be to wear a shoe so large, with
villagers reaching far above their heads to demonstrate approximate heights.
"When the farrier finally did see the horse he was very afraid because it was
the first time he had ever seen a horse bigger than himself," Ourrais said.
He took a picture back to the village to show his neighbors.
Because of this unfamiliarity with the club's central attractions, Ourrais has had
to work closely with local Cambodian staff to care for the horses.
The club's 22 animals - eight horses and 14 ponies - require much effort. Imported
from Siem Reap, Thailand and France, most of the horses had not already been trained
"When we started, the horses didn't know their jobs," Ourrais said. "It's
hard to teach the horses and try to increase clients at the same time."
Still, the club has managed to grow, attracting both novices and experts alike. Ourrais'
hope is that, in the future, a wide swath of Phnom Penh's diverse population will
take up equestrian.
"The club can become a place where all kinds of people come," she said.
"People can develop a relationship with a horse that doesn't depend on language
- they just speak to them with the hand, leg and body."