A peacock idles on the grass verge. Horses jig-jog past borders of bright flowers towards the dirt racing track, their riders chatting away to one another. Later, the animals will be rinsed off in the stable yard with a hose pipe and left to dry in the early morning sunshine. The start of the racing season is still nearly two months away and the mood is relaxed at Zabeel Stables in the heart of Dubai, where India-born Satish Seemar has been training thoroughbreds for nearly three decades.
This 81-hectare plot of land, where often the only sound you can hear is the clip-clop of hooves, contrasts sharply with its surroundings. Zabeel Stables is overlooked by some of Dubai's most impressive buildings, including Emirates Towers, DIFC and the Burj Khalifa. Driving through the gates, it feels as if you are stepping back in time, glass skyscrapers replaced by nets of hay and blistered stable doors. First impressions can be deceiving, though.
Behind this georgic facade, Zabeel Stables is a hub of innovation and progress. "You stop learning and that's the end of you," says Seemar, who arrived in the UAE in 1990 and now trains more than 120 horses. Last season, Seemar had 38 winners in the UAE and picked up about $8 million (Dh29.3m) in prize money. In an effort to maintain this edge – and winning horse races often comes down to the finest margins – he has already installed a 100-metre swimming pool and a spa for the horses. Now, he has a new tool to play with: equestrian cryotherapy.
The history of cryotherapy
Cryotherapy, which was developed in Japan in the 1970s, has long been used by athletes, including footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and former Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton, but it is only recently that its impact on equine performance has been explored. Cryotherapy involves exposing the body to extreme cold. During whole-body sessions, an athlete – or racehorse – will spend a few minutes in a tank filled with nitrogen vapour, cooled to somewhere between -100°C and -140°C. As the body cools, blood is sent to the core and the body, reacting to the shock, produces hormones and enzymes. As the body warms up again after cryotherapy, this fresh blood is sent back out from the core. This process is thought to relieve muscle pain and reduce swelling, thereby speeding up the recovery process after exercise. It has also been suggested that equestrian cryotherapy raises levels of adrenalin, testosterone and endorphins, which might improve performance.
The first cryotherapy tank for racehorses to be used in the UAE is in a barn at the back of Zabeel Stables. This white open-topped box, lined with blue padding to protect the horse, looks inconspicuous enough when the taps are turned off. But after the horse has been led in and the doors at either end have been shut, the tank begins to fill with nitrogen vapour, which soon spills out like smoke from a cauldron. After a minute or two, all you can see is the horse’s head sticking out of the front of the tank, shrouded in ice-cold clouds, while a screen on the side of the tank shows the horse’s body temperature. Each session lasts between six and eight minutes.
It might look like witchcraft, but are the effects of equestrian cryotherapy akin to magic? "Of course, if you put a pony in the tank, you're not going to come out with a racehorse," says Luka Jurkovic, general manager of Revive, the Dubai company that helped to develop the tank with engineers in Scandinavia. "But we've seen through our trials that the horses recover more quickly. All those small pains that they have after training, go away. If you can increase the fitness levels just a tiny bit, you've already done a huge amount of work. When you play with small margins, everything counts."
'It's only positives so far'
The Revive cryotherapy tank has been installed at Zabeel Stables for 15 months and, although Seemar still feels it is too early to make conclusive assessments (“We need another season or two to back up the findings 100 per cent”), he has been impressed. “There have been no negatives,” he says. “It’s only positives so far.”
You'd hope so – Jurkovic won't tell me how much the Revive tank costs, but a walk-in cryotherapy tank for humans can cost up to $150,000.
These positives include a shiny coat, which Seemar explains is the clearest sign of a thriving horse. Marks caused by a rubbing saddle or bridle also seem to clear up with this treatment. "As we get closer to the start of the season, the horses will do more serious work and the temperature is still very strong, so that's when they need to recover with cryotherapy," he says. OK, but what we really want to know is whether cryotherapy is going to make them any faster. "Indirectly, yes, because the horse recovers more quickly," says Seemar. "The fatigue factor is gone sooner. So the horse will have a little more. But I cannot say it's going to make the horse faster."
Seemar decided to try cryotherapy on his horses after he heard about the effects it had on his stable jockey Richie Mullen, who was badly bruised after falling off a horse, which then rolled on him. "It was a horrific fall," reveals Seemar. And yet, a week later, Mullen was ready to race again. "That made me more comfortable."
Satish Seemar, the horse whisperer
Both Seemar and Jurkovic, who is from Slovenia and moved to Dubai in 2007, stress that the safety of the racehorses is paramount. Tweaks have been made to the cryotherapy set-up at the stables, such as installing a fan at the front of the tank to ensure the nitrogen vapour stays away from the animal's nostrils. "Everything was developed with safety as the main concern," says Jurkovic. "With humans you can explain what's going to happen but with horses, you have to school them, walk them through, show them that nothing is going to happen. That takes time, it's trial and error.
"Satish was a tremendous help with this," he adds. "He is known as a horse whisperer; he's the one who really understands them. So when we led the horse into the tank, he said: 'Let's stop, take him out, do this, do that.' We don't put them in straightaway, press the button and see what happens."
The horse we watch undergoing cryotherapy seems unfazed by the process, although a plate of carrots on one side suggests others might need more cajoling. “We have a rule that I need to be there the first time a horse goes in,” says Seemar. “Then I go back in a week’s time to see if they’re still happy and if not, we don’t force it.” One horse that definitely enjoys cryotherapy is stable superstar North America, who won two Group Two races at Meydan last season before missing the break in the Dubai World Cup as one of the fancied runners. “He’s very much into cryotherapy,” says Seemar.
Revive has already sold a number of other equestrian cryotherapy tanks in the UAE and has seen interest from Saudi Arabia, the US and Europe. Jurkovic believes that cryotherapy could become an integral part of training racehorses over the next few years. “If you look at the spa, the chiropractic massages, people are doing this for horses as well,” he says. “It becomes part of the training routine. We believe the Revive tank is going to be exactly the same because we see the results.
"Everybody wants to have that edge. If you can increase a winning potential by a few per cent, of course you're going to do it."