Al Shaqab - galloping into the future
Written by Rachel Morris
Long before oil and gas brought the region into the international consciousness, the Arabian Peninsula gave the world another precious and distinctive commodity – the pure-bred Arabian horse.
Horsemanship, or furusiyya, is a centuries-old tradition in the Arab world, but it is in Qatar that the noble Arabian horse and the history of the nation are intertwined.
“The Arabian horse was created in this region,” Al Shaqab’s Director Fahad Saad Al Qahtani told Oryx. “These are the horses that gave our ancestors the ability to travel great distances through the desert for trade and exploration.”
Al Shaqab itself takes its name from an historic battle against the Ottomans. It was at the 1893 siege of Al Shaqab in the town of Al Rayyan, on the outskirts of Doha, that the Qataris, led by Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, defeated the Ottomans and catalysed Qatar’s independence from the Empire.
The battle of Al Shaqab is an important landmark in the modern history of Qatar, and so it seems fitting that the modern incarnation of Al Shaqab, located less than an hour’s ride from the site of the famous battle, is also at the forefront of modern Qatar’s development.
Sheikh Jassim’s descendant, Qatar’s Emir His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, created Al Shaqab in 1992 as his own stables. A renowned horseman, Sheikh Hamad also seeks to preserve the Arabian bloodlines that were native to his homeland, and to incorporate other bloodlines to better the breed.
Within a couple of years of its inception, Al Shaqab began garnering international championships in shows with its acclaimed group of Arabian horses through its ‘Breeding and Show’ unit, perhaps its most visible successes. Today, led by His Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Al Shaqab is one of the leading breeding establishments in the world. It is also the only stud farm to have bred three world champion stallions, all born in Qatar: Al Adeed Al Shaqab, a straight Egyptian bloodline; Gazal Al Shaqab; and his son, Marwan Al Shaqab.
“We are always looking to better the breed with crosses to other bloodlines that will bring out the beauty, strength, and intelligence of the Arabian,” says Al Qahtani who has been tasked with taking Al Shaqab into the next phase of its development. “You are not always assured of success simply because you breed the best stallions to the best mares.”
So advanced and successful are the breeding and conditioning techniques used by Al Shaqab, that other breeding operations – some with history stretching back hundreds of years – regularly visit Doha to learn from the team. Also, as Al Qahtani is quick to point out, international recognition is not the single driving force behind Al Shaqab’s activities.
At the centre of current and future activities is the riding academy. Its role is to educate and promote horsemanship as part of the country’s long equestrian heritage dating from Bedouin times. Part of the focus is on preserving the link between the Qatari community and horses.
“We do not want our culture to lose its connection to the horse, and through riding lessons and equine training, future generations of Qataris will enjoy riding just as their forefathers did,” says Al Qahtani.
The newest pillar of Al Shaqab’s mission is the winning Endurance Team, an equestrian sport that sees rider and horse race against the clock over a challenging course. Al Shaqab has developed one of the top teams in the sport, and at the 2008 FEI World Endurance Championship in Terengganu, Malaysia, the team gained its highest international placing, earning the silver out of the 24 competing nations.
In 2011, Al Shaqab will unveil its new facilities at Education City in Doha, around 20km from Doha International Airport and at the heart of the Qatar Foundation’s sprawling campus. Encompassing 980,000 square metres, the complex includes air-conditioned performance arenas designed for international show jumping and dressage competitions, and a full-service riding academy and equestrian club. Also under construction is the Middle East region’s most advanced veterinary clinic, hospital, therapy centre, and research facilities, a specialised endurance training centre, and a state-of-the-art centre for Al Shaqab’s Arabian breeding programme.
“Qatar is now a rapidly developing country and society. There is construction all around the country, and the people of Qatar are provided with many wonderful opportunities,” says Al Qahtani. “As we develop as a country and people, it is also very important that we work to preserve our traditions. Arabian horses and equestrian skills are part of Qatari culture. As a country and people it is essential that we maintain and honour our traditions as we build for the future.”
One of the oldest and most recognisable horse breeds in the world, the Arabian or Arab horse originated on the Arabian Peninsula, and has a distinctive head shape and high tail. The Arabians were prized by the nomadic Bedouin people of the region, often being brought inside the family tent for shelter and protection during harsh weather.
The stallions Al Adeed Al Shaqab, Gazal Al Shaqab, and his son, Marwan Al Shaqab – and their progeny – have won major championships including the prestigious US Nationals, the Egyptian Event, and Scottsdale Championships in the USA; All Nations Cup and European Championships in Europe; Brazilian National Championships, as well as championships closer to home in Arabian Gulf. The growing honour roll also includes several World Championships at the famed Salon du Cheval in Paris, France.