Bedouin trainer: horseman by nature

Ali Al Ameri is renowned across the world for his ability to “fix” problem horses. He tells Vision about his Bedouin upbringing, his globe-trotting career and why he still 
prefers life in the desert

Ali Al Ameri doesn’t know how old he is, 62, 63, 64 maybe. Being born under a ghaf tree in the desert, as he was in the days before oil was discovered in the UAE, there was little call for a birth certificate.

“The tough ones survived and the weak ones died,” says the Bedouin horseman who has made a career and an international name for himself working with and “fixing” problem horses. “No vaccines, no doctors, nothing.”

Animals, he says, were vital to his people’s existence. “If you were in the desert and your horse galloped away, you were dead.” This symbiotic relationship between the Bedouin and the creatures that transported them across the dunes to find food and water has existed for over a thousand years.

“Our horses and camels and goats made us who we are now,” he says. “Without them I wouldn’t be here.”

Nomadic lifestyle

Life back then was hard. “There was not much food,” he recalls. “Just meat, dates and camel and goat’s milk. Sometimes we would get flour and make bread on the embers.” They would often wait two or three days for the camels to bring water.

But despite the daily struggle for life, Al Ameri remembers a happy childhood. “There was nothing to worry about,” he says. The first time I saw the sea – I must have been nine or 10 – I said, “wow there is so much water here!” and I tried to drink it, because water for us was a big thing and very rare.”

In about 1970, when the late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi started to build schools, and the framework of modern-day Abu Dhabi began to emerge, Al Ameri and his family – along with many other Bedouins seeking work and education – left their nomadic lifestyle and moved from the desert to the city.

“I remember the Al Manhal Palace, which is right in the centre of the city now,” he says. “We had our goats and camels there. We lived there in a barasti house (a traditional desert dwelling built on a wooden frame made out of mangrove poles) with no power, nothing.” It was also Al Ameri’s first experience of school. “They put me in a classroom, which I hated. I’m an open field man. I like to see.”

His current home is Rahal Ranch, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi – a flat expanse of desert where he has built a cluster of farm buildings, an indoor arena and a house. Here, among the many trees he has planted, live 30 of his own horses, as well as several others that come for livery. There are paddocks and arenas, and plenty of space. With the birds tweeting in the cool January air, it feels peaceful.

Though it is his work with horses that has made Al Ameri famous, he initially discovered his talent through working with difficult camel bulls. A spell in the army brought him into contact with horses again, and he realised that they responded to his techniques as well.

Globe-trotting career

Twenty years on, Al Ameri has worked with horses all over the world, from the US and South America to Australia and Europe. “Horses to me are everything,” he says. “They’re my life. I’m not good at anything else. I’m not good at business, at being a lawyer, or doing office work. With no horses I would starve. I love them, they are my family.”

So what exactly is his technique? It is a combination of psychology and body language, he says. Beyond that he cannot explain. All that he does know is that success is guaranteed. “If it’s not a physical thing, I can fix it,” he says. “It doesn’t take weeks or months – it is the same day.” He shows me a big black mare, which arrived at the ranch yesterday. She is pacing quietly in the ring. “She was a problem horse,” he says.

“Nobody could deal with her, nobody could lead her, nobody could ride her. She was just a mad, dangerous thing. And now, a kid can hang by her tail and she’s fine.” How did he know what was wrong? “She tells me,” he says. “When I work a horse, in the first minute they tell me what the problem is. They don’t talk, it is just the signs. And every step leads to the second step.” In this case, he says, the horse was spooked. “She was scared even of her shadow. But she is fixed forever now. Her owners are coming to collect her tomorrow.”

Al Ameri hopes the tradition of horsemanship will continue and has brought up his three sons to work with horses, and passed on the knowledge of his forebears. “They all know how to survive in the desert and how to find their way using the stars.” He is not sure yet, though, if they will follow in his footsteps. “It’s not about what I want, it’s what they want,” he says.

In the meantime, though, Al Ameri hopes that others can learn from him. “There are a lot of horsemen, but none who do it like me, he says. I’m not saying I’m the best, but I think I may be the quickest.”