Yasmin Sayyed doesn't always know if the children who come to Ride to Rescue are having issues. All she knows is that from the moment they climb on to one of her horses, their entire energy shifts.
“The movement of the horse is not imitated by any machine; it brings something,” says Sayyed, 45. “There is an exchange of positive energy when you sit on a horse.” The effect is palpable in children with ADHD and autism, too, she says.
“They just calm down. Parents do not always tell me from the beginning what the kids have, because it’s difficult, but they tell me later.”
From animal crazy to animal caretaker
How Sayyed came to care for 17 rescued horses – and oversee their interaction with children and adults – is a story in itself. Born to a Palestinian father and Greek mother in Stuttgart, the southern German region of Swabia, she has been “animal crazy” since she was a kid (at her home, she cares for 15 abandoned cats). “It’s in my genes,” she says.
While her parents could not afford riding lessons, Sayyed would spend time around stables and link up with families that provided access, becoming an accomplished rider along the way. She moved to the UAE in 2004 to work in interior design, then spent nine years as an endurance rider for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
Sayyed came across her first rescue horse, Salambo, seven years ago at a Dubai stable where she was freelancing. The German warmblood was suffering from a motor neuron disease and could barely stand. “He was a very kind horse,” she says. “And when I saw him, he reminded me of one of the very first horses I cantered on in a forest in Germany.”
Some people might have accused Sayyed – and Salambo’s owners – of being cruel for not having him euthanised. He could not stand and was in pain. “But if you looked in his eyes,” she says, “he had an appetite like a shark."
"He kind of taught me: ‘I need someone to love me. I can suffer. Don’t worry about my suffering.’”
The owners eventually gifted her Salambo, along with Dh500 and his passport. But then he needed a home, and Sayyed had no plan and no funds. She had been stepping away from racing at the time due to injuries, and was working as a freelance fashion designer. Yet she managed to find stables and a healer and, after five treatments, brought Salambo back to his feet. Fluids, vitamin shots, special feed and hay, plus love and care, contributed to his recovery. “We do a lot of treatments that are not related to vets, because there is a lot the school of medicine cannot do,” she says.
Meet the horses at Ride to Rescue
Sayyed also rode Salambo, which was counterintuitive, but seemed to help in his recovery – and now he regularly accommodates children riders through Ride to Rescue. Another horse under her care at the Dhabian Equestrian Club – where the owner gives her a deal on rent to house her 17-strong brood – is an American miniature named Mr Nounou. Despite their height difference, Mr Nounou and Salambo are the best of friends.
In one corner of the stable, a grey and white mottled Andalusian is getting hosed down. “Capitan is having a daily spa because he has very bad eczema,” she says. Pebbles, a 35-year-old Appaloosa pony, is the oldest. Several of the horses Sayyed cares for may have healed from major injuries, but they do not forget. Mandarino is a former champion with 13 screws and a plate in his right leg – “If you go and touch, he will scream,” says Sayyed. Then there is 19-year-old Oceane, an Arabian ex-endurance mare who is still traumatised by a leg injury.
“She’s a lovely, but we don’t ride her,” says Sayyed. “She’s healed, but I felt she needs this type of unconditional love. Just let her be. And she is amazing with children.”
Healing with horses
Sayyed established Ride to Rescue, which is associated with Emirates Animal Welfare Society, in 2017 to give children and adults a chance to interact with ex-competition horses.
Unlike the many cats and dogs who are left behind or physically abused in the UAE, the situation with horses is a little different, she says. Some of the horses have been abused by relentless riding or showjumping; others are neglected or emotionally abused through lack of attention or care. “Most are ridden and put back in the box, ridden and put back in the box,” says Sayyed.
Horses are often euthanised when they are no longer of use or have injuries, as they are expensive to keep. Sayyed believes people are far too quick to get rid of horses. “I have arthritis,” she says. “You don’t get rid of me.”
Whether the children ride the horses or build their own parkour course and lead one around it, Ride to Rescue helps both sides of the equation. It exposes children and adults to the emotional power that comes from interacting with horses, whom Sayyed deems “the best healers”, and gives the horses the love and attention they need. The horses seem relaxed and happy to do it,” she says. “It’s not hard work, we do not push them in the arena, like a riding school.”
Sara Radsi has been bringing her two children, Nora, 3 and Noah, 7, to Sayyed’s horses weekly since October, after the family was exposed to horses on their summer vacation. She and her husband have watched as their hyperactive son calms down and their little daughter has learnt how to sit on a horse on her own.
“From the first encounter up to today, there is such an improvement,” she says. “From being scared of the horses, to feeling absolutely comfortable and loving them. My children know each one by name and, before we go, they know exactly which one they want to ride.”
Radsi has also been on a half-dozen rides on her own, and says Sayyed is a big part of the experience, mostly due to how she devotes her full presence to Ride to Rescue visitors. “It never gets boring, as each time kids learn something new, which is not necessarily about riding a horse but caring for a horse,” she says. “It’s a life lesson for my kids.”
But it's an expensive operation
Ride to Rescue is also a way for Sayyed to attempt to recoup the expense of housing her horses at Dhabian: a cost that runs between Dh2,500 to Dh3,000 for each horse, depending on their diet and medical needs. It is a losing battle, she says, but at least some costs are covered. She already owes more than Dh100,000 to the patient owners of the last stable where she housed the horses.
The situation has grown more dire as the Covid-19 shutdown has meant no income from Ride to Rescue to fund their care.
Even when she can reopen Ride to Rescue, which will happen as soon as the Abu Dhabi Sports Council gives the go-ahead, says Sayyed, summer is fast-approaching. That is why she’s currently seeking donations to pay for the air-conditioned stable she is building for her brood. Although the lodgings at Dhabian, where they have been since last September, are covered, they are still outdoors and will not survive when the heat rises.
Sayyed’s ultimate dream is to transport the horses back to Germany, where they will be much cheaper to care for and can escape six months of summer heat. But like so many other things, that has been put on hold in the wake of Covid-19. Although there are many hurdles to overcome, and a whole hot summer to get through, it’s still firmly an option, she says.
Where most people might be giving up at the enormity of it all, Sayyed looks for ways to keep going. “I’m unrealistic,” she says. “That is why.”
Ride to Rescue offers corporate leadership and riding for children with special needs. The fee is Dh250 per child for a 90-minute ride