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Shalom and Sheiks: 80 - Trial By Horse

...With much laughter and with no regard to my dignity, they heaved me up into the saddle, as they called it. There was hardly anything of it. I was expecting a huge saddle that John Wayne used, like a miniature lounge chair from which you could not fall. This Arab saddle was small and as comfortable as sitting on a brick...

John Powell tells of his first experience of riding an Arab horse.

To read more of John's superlative autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/shalom_and_sheiks/

I wanted some photos of Arabs on horses at the gallop and Muneef and Roka'an obliged. Cantering off, they wheeled as I took the first photograph; squatting down in the desert, I took the second as they galloped towards me, rifles to the shoulder, shouting their tribal cry of, "Al Bu Nimr!" As I sighted for the third photograph and was about to push the button, Sheik Roka'an pointed his rifle at me and pulled the trigger: the bullet 'cracked' over my head and I fell over backwards, taking a perfect picture of a cloudless sky. They both pulled up roaring with laughter and dismounted. Sheik Muneef, apparently out of practice riding a horse, felt his sore legs carefully. I grinned in revenge,

"Oh, Sheik Muneef, could it possibly be that you, the son of an Arab Sheik, have become so soft that it tires you to ride a horse?"

"In the name of Allah the Almighty," he replied, smiling widely, "I speak the truth when I say that I prefer to ride all the horses in the engine of my car, rather than one Arab horse." And opening the door, he sat down, thankfully, in his Chevrolet sedan. I confessed to him that, really, I was no judge of his ability because I could not even ride a horse.

The next day, six Arab horses arrived at the camp. "I will teach you to ride an Arab horse," said Sheik Muneef, "I and my cousin, Sheik Roka'an, will teach you as the Arabs are taught; you will ride like an Arab. Inshallahl"

'Yes, Inshallah! Allah is with the patient." I added.

That evening, the two of them led me to a stallion. Standing there, covered in flies and with drooping head, he looked as though he could do with one of Joha's donkey pills to put some life into him. "He looks too tired to even walk; I think he is going to die, oh, Sheik Roka'an." For reply, Sheik Roka'an harnessed it with what Mac told me (and Mac was an equestrian expert by all accounts,) was a vicious snaffle and no curb. Whatever that meant I had no idea, but the stallion did, for at once it changed to a spirited animal with arched neck and the whites of its eyes showing (again, according to Mac, a danger sign). This observation failed to encourage me at all, especially as the horse started to prance about with apparent impatience. I was far more patient. Sheiks Muneef and Roka'an, however, had no patience, like their horse.

With much laughter and with no regard to my dignity, they heaved me up into the saddle, as they called it. There was hardly anything of it. I was expecting a huge saddle that John Wayne used, like a miniature lounge chair from which you could not fall. This Arab saddle was small and as comfortable as sitting on a brick; no pommel to hang on to, no stirrups, no reins, just a single rope attached to only one side of the horse's mouth.

I looked up and saw to my dismay a large crowd of Bedouins gathering near the camp gate. They were all looking in my direction, grinning, chattering and breaking into outbursts of laughter from time to time, as they debated the possibilities against the probabilities. Then I noticed some of the welders had arrived, and Texans. The word had got around about my tribal initiation ceremony. I could see money exchanging hands as bets were laid. Then I had no more time to observe anything.

We set off, slowly at a walk. This I did not mind; I was on the grey and Roka'an on the chestnut. Suddenly, Roka'an yelled at my horse and whacked it with a rope; we broke into a canter, heading towards the distant camp gate, where my appreciative audience was waiting, no doubt with pleasing anticipation of events about to happen; the show of a lifetime.

They were not to be disappointed. The break into a canter caught me by surprise and I started to slide down on the right-hand side. My right leg seemed to be dangling below the horse's belly: my left leg, somehow, slid up onto the saddle, so that my left knee was in the saddle where my rump was supposed to be. Roka'an whipped the horse and yelled again: the canter changed into a gallop.

In my precarious position I no longer had any use for the rope up one side of the horse's head; I needed my hand for other purposes, namely, to hang on for survival. Thereafter, the length of rope banged against the horse's knees. Grabbing the saddle, I hauled myself into the correct position, almost, then bent forward and clung on to what bit of saddle I could find with one hand and to the horse's neck with the other.

My head was down and my backside at a far higher level. Then I started to slide sideways again, tNs time to the left, with my left leg dangling under its belly and my right knee in the saddle, while \ clung to its neck. As I went through the gate riding in this rather unorthodox position, I was conscious of a great howl of laughter from the Bedouins. It reached a crescendo of hysterical, laughing shrieks; they were doubled up — and not only the Bedouins. I heard Texas yells of, "Yipeee! Ride him, cowboy!" And a chorus of 'YEEE-ah-hooos!" joining in as we headed out into the desert, Roka'an whipping my horse and yelling, until he dropped behind and I heard his farewell salutations and best wishes for my safety. It was nice of him.

We galloped on...and on...and on. By now I was upright for a time, a position I achieved by hanging on to the saddle with both hands. The ground was a blur beneath me: vaguely I assumed that it must come to an end eventually, when I fell off, or when we reached the Euphrates river; even this was doubtful, for it seemed to me that at the incredible speed at which we were travelling he might decide to jump it, as the river was onty a few hundred yards wide; or perhaps we would go on until either I, or the horse, died of old age. The horse, however, worked it out for both of us. He realised the futility of exerting himself on a hot evening and decided to slow down. He had had enough. So had I.

He slowed to a backbreaking, boneshaking trot, and I realised why I had never seen a Bedouin trot a horse but always break from a walk into a canter. Before long my stallion slowed to a walk and then stopped, whereupon I was, at last, able to bend down and retrieve the rope intended as a rein, and turn him round to face the camp, now barely visible on the horizon. I told him in English to start, but he did not understand the language, so I told him in Arabic to get moving, but he did not want to understand. I kicked him in the ribs — this, he understood, and we headed homewards in a sedate and dignified manner.

Reaching home, Mac took me aside and, giving me a beer, commenced a very learned lecture on how to ride a horse, how to mount a horse, how to control a horse and many other informative hints, such as how to jump a fence. The nearest fence was 101 miles away, so I felt that it was a little needless; I had enough trouble trying to comprehend such useful snippets of information such as where, or what, a fetlock was meant to be — although Mac informed me that everybody knew it was between the cannon bone and the pastern. This clarified it for me; of course, everyone should know where the pastern was. I looked about me in the tent of this equestrian expert. Mac was obviously an authority.

There was a miniature riding whip, ending in a cigarette lighter; a calendar suspended in a horse shoe; on the table were photos of Mac holding a hunting horn and sitting in resplendent fashion on a horse; more photos of Mac, without a hunting horn and sitting in resplendent fashion on another horse, of a different colour; a huge enlargement of Mac, holding a polo stick and holding a horse by its bridle; also a clock in the shape of a spur on the heel of a boot. Mac gave me another beer and recommenced the same lecture, with the same anecdotes, for the benefit of his captive audience. I declined a third beer and fled.


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