When it’s first suggested I try swimming with horses, I have to check whether I’ve read the email correctly. Swimming, yes. Horses, yes. Together – sorry, what? But when Desert Ranch at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa confirms that there’s nothing wrong with my eyesight (just my sense of adventure), there’s no way I can pass up the opportunity to try this unusual pursuit. Casting aside earlier bad experiences with horses (such as having my fingers bitten, and hanging on for dear life when the horse I was riding decided to bolt), I sign myself up.
Fast forward a week and I’m out of bed at the unholy hour of 6am. I arrive at the hotel’s stables for 7am, where I meet the rest of my group, as well as Dodger, a dark, glassy-eyed teenager and my four-legged friend for the morning. Though we’re on site, nothing much seems to happen for a good hour, so it’s an opportunity to spend time nosing into the stables and saying hello to each and every one of the handsome creatures peering curiously over the doors. There’s even a delightful little pony to gawk at, guaranteed to turn even the manliest man to gibbering mush.
The Monday morning session, operated by The Desert Ranch at the Jebel Ali hotel’s stables, encourages riders to bring their own horses to the swim. It turns out that many of my group do, and just before 8am a large horse box roars up, ferrying at least half a dozen striking steeds from the Emirates Equestrian Centre. If you’re not in possession of your own horse, worry not: Desert Ranch will lend you one of theirs. This may even be a better way of doing it, as their animals are much more used to the water (they prove to be much more calm than the first-timers throughout the experience).
It’s a short walk down to the beach from the stables, but long enough for us to accumulate a posse of intrigued tourists and hotel guests as the convoy of animals and riders parades along the surf.
It’s my first time on a horse in 10 years and, luckily for me, Dodger’s overriding urge seems to be less about bolting and heading for the horizon, and more ripping huge chunks of grass from the hotel’s well-kept lawns. Unfortunately for a few others in the group, a first encounter with the sea proves too much for two of their own stallions, who rear up, whinnying playfully (or so I hope) before quickly being soothed by some of the grooms on hand.
Leading Dodger into the water, I’m struck by the fear that I’m going to get a sharp kick to the stomach or face (or both). Maybe I’ll even get trodden on. Yet to my enormous surprise, my horse is calm and, instead of stomping around all over my size fives, he steps lightly, following my lead deeper into the water, and I’m soon hoisting myself onto his saddle-less back. Despite the fact it’s a little harder to keep my legs straight on either side as the water attempts to sweep them up, it’s an incredible feeling to ride a horse sans saddle, and I feel much more aware of him. It’s also far more enthralling, and a surprisingly emotional experience. I’m told when the horse starts to swim, I may find myself getting swept off his back, but it’s soon clear Dodger’s swimming style is more doggy paddle than underwater gallop, and by the time he has his hooves back on the sand I’m still upright (not to mention a little smug).
Without a doubt, this is one of the most amazing things I’ve done in a long time. I’m grateful that Dodger is calm and comfortable with me and, having cast off my initial trepidation, I now have plenty of new, positive memories of equine encounters. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.
The Desert Ranch at Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa offers swimming sessions with horses every Monday, 7am-9am, Dhs250 per person. www.desert-ranch.com (04 832 7171)