Iraqi show jumpers get back in the saddle
Braving bombs and bullets, Iraq's national equestrian team begins a new quest for the Olympics
Just after a Baghdad dawn, the pungency of leather and horses mixes with another scent rare in the Middle East, which emanates from the grass: moisture.
It is on this turf, dotted with brightly painted wooden jumps and steeped in a long-beleaguered hope, where Iraq's national show-jumping team is beginning to rebuild its Olympic dreams.
For now, its national competition flag appears mockingly out of place in this arena - a humble patch of grass ringed by date-palm forests, tucked away on the edge of Baghdad University in a southern district of the capital.
Cars and trucks pass by on a narrow dirt road leading to nearby farms, churning up early-morning dust as passengers crane their necks to watch the horses jump. It's a small slice of unaccustomed solitude and defiant normality (albeit relatively upscale) in a city rocked daily by bombs and understandably obsessed with security.
After two decades of war, sanctions, the attention of Saddam Hussein's son Uday (who often brought a menacing presence to one of his favorite hangouts), and even the wartime pillaging of facilities, Olympic hopes are once more taking shape here.
"Don't be tense!" barks instructor Essam Abdulaziz, who led Iraq's Olympic team to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as a horse and rider circle the warm-up ring. "Try to balance and be in control. Put your weight on the saddle, and keep your back straight!"
As rider Adnan Asad begins an approach to the jumps, an exploding car bomb resonates in the distance.
Even on such a bucolic morning, the occasional gunshot breaks the spell. Mr. Asad's horse extends out over the first of three jumps in a row.
"When you clipped the first jump, that mistake made the second and third ones off," explains Mr. Abdulaziz, as Asad and his horse - wearing a saddle pad marked with a pale Iraqi flag - continue to trot.
Three days before the April 2003 collapse of the regime, rumor had it that Uday was in hiding here - a favorite haunt of the dictator's notoriously violent playboy son. In the aftermath of the war, everything from the door handles to the horse tack was looted. The team began training again just one year ago, using five horses imported from Bulgaria that added up to a $40,000 expense - a fraction of what it would cost to outfit the team with "so-so" European horses that can sell for $50,000 each.
"We are starting everything from zero," laments Abdulaziz, as he describes the challenges for the four-man team.
"Will this team go to the Olympics?" he asks, tapping his riding crop on his tall leather boot, as he looks out at fellow riders, who look the part with riding helmets and reinforced knee breeches. "No, they need more training, more competition."
Several Arabian horses have also been bought locally, but it is all a far cry from more peaceful times in the 1980s when Iraqi riders used to train in Europe, with German and Dutch experts.
While United Nations sanctions no longer prohibit the transport of horses in and out of Iraq - a restriction that cut Iraq completely off from outside competition - today the highway across Iraq to Jordan is too dangerous to risk driving horses.
So the team is working on plans to keep several top horses at stables in Jordan or Syria, and create a training camp there for months at a time.
When the daily balance sheet, however, requires everything from feed to expensive veterinary care and equipment, the cost becomes prohibitive.
Many reconstituted Iraqi national teams - including the soccer players who took Iraq to the quarter-finals at the Athens Games last year and came within striking distance of giving Iraq its second Olympic medal ever - are battling for cash.
"You need so many things," says Asad, during a break in the rider's air-conditioned locker room, as grooms outside shift saddles from one horse to another, for the second workout session. "To go to the Olympics would take $1 million - you need trainers, administration staff; so many things."
The rising cost hasn't dimmed spirits, though, nor a lifetime love of horses and sport. They relish the predawn hours and the noble beauty of the jumping steed.
"I love it!" says Asad, a lawyer who joined the team in 1994, as he straps on his helmet to step out the door.
Already, many women are taking lessons, to be seeds for a women's national team. And as the team deepens its roots, it hopes to expand its equestrian repertoire to the more refined "dressage" level.
"This is my life," says Ali Farouk, a team member since 1989. "Every day we are facing explosions and traffic jams, but what else can we do?"