It’s been described in turn as the ‘Hollywood of horses’ and ‘horse heaven’, and it’s guilty as charged according to the Irish stable of workers at Qatar’s leading equestrian centre.
In some of the most challenging conditions in the world for horse rearing, where average high temperatures often approach 45C across long, sweaty summers, Al Shaqab controls the climate in their own desert oasis.
More than 400 horses can be accommodated in air-conditioned stables, as well as 6,000 visitors at their indoor equestrian arena. There’s an equine hydrotherapy and exercise unit, including a purpose-built swimming pool, equine jacuzzi, and a specially converted treadmill.
The centre, on the outskirts of Doha, covers 980,000 sq m as buildings are organised in the shape of a horseshoe, with a variety of luxurious stables, a breeding centre, riding academy, visitors’ centre, hotel, on-site staff accommodation, and a huge veterinary centre arching around the outdoor and indoor arenas, which will host the CHI Al Shaqab in February and March’s Longines Global Champions Tour.
In the middle of them all, among the acres of paddocks and exercise tracks, and along the rubber walkways, are the Emiri Stables, bespoke equine accommodation hewed from marble and stainless steel to house the Qatari royal family’s horses.
The site, flanked by the 2022 World Cup-hosting Education City Stadium, was specially selected back in 1992. Al Shaqab takes its name and location from a historic battle against the Ottomans, which eventually led to Qatar’s independence.
Arabian horses played a key role in that battle and Shaqab seeks to promote Qatar’s rich heritage with that breed across three main departments: Equine education (showjumping and dressage), endurance racing, and breeding and show.
While the horses are trained using the latest in technological expertise, it’s the one-to-one ratio of grooms to horses which enables them to achieve the best for every individual horse.
“The facilities they have for the horses are second to none, top quality. They have the complete full complement of all of the kind of rehabilitation, the exercise facilities, the swimming pool, the underwater treadmill, they have it all really,” says Dr Jessica Johnson, a Dubliner who counts herself among the Irish contingent working at Shaqab.
Dr Johnson joined the recently opened Equine Veterinary Medical Centre as a surgeon in March 2018. The centre, which is located on-site at Shaqab but serves all of Qatar, draws on staff from 35 different countries who work across three operating theatres, lameness examination rooms, isolation facilities, necropsy, a farrier workshop, pharmacy, and stabling for 50 horses. “It’s a really interesting project to open a hospital from scratch and not many people have an opportunity to do that. The hospital at EVMC is really state of the art so it’s a real privilege to be able to work in a place that has such fantastic facilities and everything brand new.”
The challenges of working with the Arabian horses in Qatar are quite unlike those faced in Ireland. Due to the extreme heat during the summer, horses are turned out into paddocks at nighttime.
“The animals are brought up indoors by hand so they’re very well behaved and they get into their regular routine. They’re all taken care of on an individual basis so nutrition would be tailored for the individual animal.”
Whereas Ireland can have an oversupply of grazing, Qatar is the opposite and the sand paddocks pose problems when the horses consume sand.
“One of the big problems in the country from a veterinary perspective is where the horses ingest sand and they get sand colic so you have to manage them carefully.
“Forage needs to be fed from feeders and even with that, it’s kind of inevitable that they ingest sand. So there would be preventative healthcare, they would all be undergoing routine dosing with what we call sand shifter, which is psyllium that tries to find the sand in the gut so they pass it out before it causes impactions.”
The Arabian horses themselves have their own genetic health issues too.
“They are interesting in that they live up to their own stereotype in terms of the susceptibilities that they have for the breed to different kinds of diseases. We see a lot of joint problems in the Arabians.
“The show horses get a lot of soft tissue injuries as well as a lot of tendon and ligament injuries. The way the horses are managed means that we see a lot of laminitis.
“It’s just a different set of challenges here than we would experience at home.”