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Inside the expensive world of horse riding in Uganda

Away from the hustle and bustle of Kampala city is the Flame Tree Stables in Kijjabijo along Gayaza road – home to 40 of the 240 horses currently in Uganda.

Twenty-five years ago, with typical British swagger, Miranda Bowser, then in her mid-20s, set out to start life in Uganda and on board came along all her horses. She had lived a life of horse riding throughout her childhood.

Miranda Bowser and her friend horse riding at Flames Tree stable

Inspired by Sudhir Ruparelia’s father – then a friend to her husband’s father – Miranda brought her $500-pony (small breed horse) from Kenya.

“I thought I knew everything about horses and I thought it was all going to be easy,” she says.  “I was to later find out that I actually knew s**t. Uganda posed its own unique challenges right from the weather, feeds, veterinary services. Keeping them in Uganda was a whole different course.”

Unlike most Ugandan businessmen and women, Miranda is so comfortable to talk figures of her horseriding investment.

She claims the set-up fees for the stable were $200,000 (about Shs 660m). Land (22 acres) alone cost Shs 240m. She started with 25 horses whose population has now grown to 40. Horses feed 24 hours a day and the feed does not come cheap.

A horse being trained for the first time

According to the horse breeder, each of the huge animals consumes about 10kg of feed – 8kg of that is dried grass (hay). The feed ranges from maize brand, rice brand, cotton seed cake, sunflower cake, bailey, soya, and wheat brand, including 60-80 litres of water per day. It costs Miranda Shs 1.5 million every two weeks to feed her horses.

“The mix has to be right and I only trust one person, Rebecca, who can make the mix right. I used to buy from so many others but whenever the ingredients were not enough, they would just add in anything to make up the volume,” she says.

“Strong as they appear, horses are very fragile animals; they are not easy to keep. Insects such as tsetse flies can kill a horse; so, they must be kept in a tsetse-free area.”

Miranda employs 12 stay-in workers at her stables, whom she says is happy to share with a third of the proceeds once they sell off a horse.

“It is from selling horses that you make some money and I want the staff to have a sense of attachment; that is why we share the profits.”

UGANDA'S SHOT AT EQUESTRIAN SPORT

This year, Uganda has added cyclists to its Olympics delegation; who knows, in a few years there would even be a team of fine horsemen!

Equestrian sport is more or less about showing how disciplined and obedient a horse is to the rider; it is a display of fine horsemanship. The sport demands maximum perfection and precision and to the uninterested, there is a sense of purposelessness in the rider and horse jumping over obstacles yet that is the zenith of the sport.

L-R: Caretakers John Kingua, Jackson Adriko and Robin Kasumba

The first error on the course (touching/dropping the obstacle) draws minus two and minus four points on the second time round. Ten points are awarded for excellent horsemanship, nine for very good, eight for good and so on.

The sport has several disciplines but Uganda is taking the one that includes dressage, show jumping, and cross-country (riding in the woodlands).

Dressage may appear to be the most boring especially to those who don’t understand the sport, but it is “the highest expression of horse training” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements” according to the International Equestrian Federation.

Young in equestrian sport as Uganda may be, Miranda notes that Robin Kasumba Vincent from Masaka is “good enough and ready” to compete with the Kenyans at the Gilgil competition later in August.

“I’m very proud to be the first Ugandan to compete for my country in equestrian,” Kasumba, a senior-four dropout, says.

Technically, though, he is not the first to represent Uganda, as Kenya-born John Kinyua already did that in 2014. Kinyua is now a senior instructor at Flames Tree.

As per Miranda’s assessment, Kasumba, now a married father of two, started working with horses when he was just 11 years old. He used to clean and groom the horses at Sudhir’s stables in Munyonyo, before Miranda picked him up.

Kasumba, who has been training with his horse, Kantara, for about six months now, is optimistic he will come back from the competition with something to celebrate from Gilgil. Also to compete later for Team Uganda is Jackson Adriko, also a senior- four dropout from Micu Secondary School in Arua.

“We used to ride on cows’ backs on our way back from grazing,” he says.  He joined Sudhir’s stables in Munyonyo before Miranda picked him for further horseback training.

He was sent for farrier training (shoeing horses) and a horse teaching course in Nairobi. And for young men whose lives almost ground to a halt when school failed, they may soon be the most coveted sportsmen in the country, seeing as Ugandans’ appetite for the unusual and all things Western cannot be quenched.

Miranda has trained her staff so well that she does not have to stay at the horse farm – the mother-of-one who is turning 50 this year keeps a home in Bukoto.
Additionally, Flames Tree trains children and adults horse riding.

But for the horse lover too far away from his/her lovely animals, Flames Tree also allows visitors to ride their horses for Shs 35,000 on weekdays for 30 minutes and Shs 85,000 on weekends.

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