New wildlife tour buses run on hay

Bani Yas Stables open for riding safaris

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ABU DHABI // The chance to see a giraffe roaming among acacia is a rare one in the Gulf, but the chance to see it close from horseback was until recently rarer still.

Horses are the latest addition to the menagerie on Sir Bani Yas Island off the Western Region.

Gazelles, oryx, cheetahs, hyenas and giraffe roam the wildlife reserve but the 10 horses have a home of their own: the Sir Bani Yas Stables.

The stables opened to the public this weekend at the Desert Islands Resort and Spa.

As the head of the new equestrian centre, Laura MacLucas had to get the horses accustomed to the sight of spindly giraffes and prancing gazelles.

"It's something unusual for them, and it takes a long process for us to convince those horses that they don't need to listen to that instinct that's shouting at them and that the giraffe isn't going to hurt them," said Ms MacLucas.

"When the horses first arrived, they'd look at a peacock and think, 'what's that?' Now they don't bat an eyelid at a peacock."

Horseback is a popular way to experience African wildlife reserves, allowing visitors to get close to wildlife without the rumble of a motor or packs of tourists leaning out of windows clicking cameras.

Even on foot, the silhouette of a human can frighten animals, so horseback is the best way to have a natural encounter.

"It is quite popular around some of the smaller reserves and it's starting to happen in the bigger reserves as well," said Marius Prinsloo, the acting general manager of operations on Sir Bani Yas.

"When you're on top of the horse they don't see the human frame, which allows you to come much closer to the animal."

Experienced riders at Sir Bani Yas can do two-hour tours of the Arabian wildlife reserve through acacia forests, salt domes and on the shores of the desert island.

Ms MacLucas and her team have brought in a group of horses as eclectic as any UAE community.

Annie, the four-year-old Arabian pony with a long mane and chocolate coat, will be a favourite for children.

Beginners can ride Ronan, a quiet pure-Arabian show horse with a shimmering grey coat.

Then there's Grady, a broad white and grey Irish draught horse "kind to large riders", and TJ, a thoroughbred former racer and "real gentleman".

"It's a really big thing for me to make sure this is accessible to everyone," said Ms MacLucas.

"Horses can be quite an elitist thing in other countries and it can be quite an intimidating thing to get involved in it."

The diversity of the horses means Ms MacLucas can match them to personality and ability of the rider.

Polo horses such as Bogus are very responsive and love short bursts of speed, while show horses such as Ronan are groomed to be "well mannered and quiet".

All 10 horses were recruited in the UAE and known for their gentle temperaments before they arrived.

"I can bring a complete beginner here and they will be on a horse there and then - in a very controlled manner," said Ms MacLucas.

Beginners will learn how to sit, how to hold the reins, and mostly importantly, how to feel comfortable with their horse.

Ms MacLucas's love affair with horses began when she was three, when her father sat her atop a pony.

When she was four, he bought her a brown and white Shetland pony named Sparky, who lived until last year, for £100 (Dh577).

Her love for horses is contagious and she hopes to share it with others.

"I tell them the real story about the horses, their personalities," said Ms MacLucas.

The Bani Yas horses have tailored diets and live in luxury at two naturally ventilated stable barns with sand and grass paddocks, and a covered riding arena.

And just like the staff, they are given one day off a week.