A love of horses has run deep through the veins of Dubai for centuries. Today it is up to the nation’s children to preserve the equine tradition – and learn a little something about horseracing along the way
Meydan racecourse in Dubai is used to entertaining VIPs, but this morning’s group are particularly special guests: some 25 of the emirate’s most hyper- active visitors in the shape of a class of eight and nine-year-old students.
Judging by the awestruck “oohs” filling the stable, it is clear that Meydan has found the key to getting children interested in all things equine. An irresistible mix of classic legends, prize-winning racehorses and details of David Beckham’s diet keeps the students enthralled long after the stable door closes.
Some 400 children will pass through Meydan’s stables this year. The Meydan Equine Education Programme (MEEP) has created a specially designed curriculum, which includes a tour of the stables that train and care for the animals. MEEP is offered to schools for free, and the curriculum can be taught as part of the school day or as an after-school club, or schools can simply take a tour of Meydan’s facilities.
Dubai’s passion for horses is evident on Dubai World Cup day – the grand finale of the racing season – but the emirate’s relationship with the noble steed goes much deeper. The Arabian horse is synonymous with the region and a source of cultural pride, says Malih Al Lahij Basti, chairman of Meydan’s racing committee. It is a heritage the programme hopes to pass on to its young students: “Our society is growing so rapidly. As it develops it is important we don’t forget our connections to the past,” he says.
The programme offers children the chance to engage with, and learn about the Emirates’ history and culture – something that schools here are always on the lookout for, says Jonathan Peers, a Year 4 teacher at GEMS Wellington International School. His class contains no fewer than children of 22 nationalities. “Anywhere you live in the world you should embrace and immerse yourself into that culture,” says Peers. “We thought Meydan was a lovely place to do that.”
The students themselves see the value of learning Dubai’s story. “It’s important we learn about Dubai’s history because we live here,” An eight-year-old student at GEMS Wellington School explains confidently. “It would be strange if people asked ‘Oh, you live in Dubai. Do you know anything?’ and we wouldn’t be able to tell them anything!”
As well as cultural learning, the curriculum supports teaching in science and maths. Using David Beckham’s diet as an example, the children compare a human athlete’s regime to that of a thoroughbred horse to see how humans and animals alike maximise their nutrition for athletic output. Anna Batchelder, co-founder of Bon Education, says: “The idea was to bring a bit of nutrition into the programme, and have the kids realise you are what you eat.”
Other horseracing aspects, too, are pressed into educational service – such as using the length of a race in distance and speed calculations. “Often education is not just about a particular subject, it’s how you link different information together,” says Indrani Gulati, a Year 4 teacher at Dubai’s GEMS Wellington International School. “For example, when we talk about units of measurement, we can refer it back to the horse and that brings a visual aspect to what the children are learning.”
As any eight-year-old will tell you, however, school trips are a great opportunity to get out of the classroom, and the excursion to Meydan is the highlight of the programme. Though the tour takes in the stables, the jockeys’ room and the grandstand, it is clear that it’s the horses who are stealing the show. Buzzing around the barn and the farrier’s room – where horses’ hooves are rasped down and shoes prepared – the students are clearly delighted at being so close to the animals. Each pupil gets his or her own, genuine horseshoe to take home at the end of the tour.
The schoolchildren in GEMS Wellington’s Year 4 class are not in any doubt about the best part of the tour: touching the horses. Although they do disagree about which one they liked best. “My favourite horse was Max Beauty,” says a cheerful nine-year-old girl. “She was very gentle and put her head down so I could pat her.”
For some, this is their first chance to get close to a horse. It also demonstrates the care and hard work that goes into getting each horse race fit. Training takes on an ever more human parallel, with the students getting to see the horses’ own gym regime – except that this treadmill goes up to 60km/h, the same pace as a horse at full throttle.
“I really enjoy it when the kids visit, especially when I tell them about the treadmill,” says Ghulam Jilani Siddiqui, assistant trainer at Meydan’s Grandstand Stables (which are home to 64 mostly thoroughbred steeds and 27 winners this racing season). “They are very excited to see the horse on the treadmill, cantering and then going into a gallop.”
“When kids come to Meydan, they realise there is much more to horseracing than just sitting on the horse during the race,” explains Batchelder. “Having an opportunity to visit and see how some of the most competitive horses in the world train is a memory that will last a lifetime and a hugely positive experience.”
Meydan’s VIPs need no more convincing, it seems. “Even now, the kids ask me, ‘When are we going for a second time?’” says Ahmed. Meydan’s Equine Education Programme, clearly has students champing at the bit for more.