When we said to our friends we were going to Doha, people would reply, “where’s Doha, never heard of it, sure you don’t mean Dubai?”, we must admit we had to do a google search when we first heard mention of the capital of Qatar, a small country on the edge of the Gulf.
Back in 2005 David Atkins contacted us and said he wanted to talk about running a horse up a ramp as part of the Opening Ceremony for the 15th Asian games to be held in Doha in 2006.
We said, “sure”… BUT this was no ordinary ramp, it was from the floor of the stadium to the top; 60 metres long and at 26 degrees. It had never been done before, but Steve was willing to give it a try.
David hadn’t quite finished, “there’s more; the rider has to carry a torch up the ramp and light the cauldron which will tower 30 mtrs above them”.
And a bit more!; David was thinking that the rider could be the Prince, third son of the Emir of Qatar”
Well…… now it was sounding more difficult. How capable was the rider, Steve was faily confident he could get a horse do it, but was the Prince accomplished enough to pull off such a stunt in front of a crowd of 45,000 people? No one seemed to know, as no one had seen him ride!
Work began back in December 2005 to find three suitable pure Arabian horses to train for the task. Two would be exported and one would remain in Australia. After eight months preparation in Australia, Riveroak Malibu (Mal) and Satisfaction (Ace) were our chosen ‘Hero Horse’s’ and as such were loaded onto a plane at Sydney airport on September 10 and arrived in Doha 17 hours later.
Coming from an Australian winter into summer in Doha – 50 Degrees plus- was a bit of a culture shock. As a result they lived in purpose built stables with massive air conditioners to make them comfortable, spending their days inside and evenings outside. Our first set back happened only days after arriving when Ace “tyed up”, resulting in around the clock monitoring and numerous tests to get him back on track.
The Hero rider was confirmed to be, HE Sheikh Mohammed Bin Hamad Al-Thani, the captain of the Qatari International Endurance team. At first Steve would take the horses to Al Shaqab, the royal stables, to work with HE Sheikh Mohammed whilst 3 practice hills were being built in the desert in order to help prepare for the task.
The three ramps were of varying degrees, the first a slope of 14 degrees, then 22 degrees and the third was the actual 26 degrees, same degree as would be ridden on the night of the opening ceremony. HE Sheikh Mohammed was a good keen learner and quickly got the hang of the new riding position, which at first was very foreign to him. Steve was impressed with his ability to learn.
The slope of the hill meant that Steve had to come up with the most suitable saddle that would allow the rider freedom to get up over the horse’s shoulder and allow the legs to go back for balance, after trying everything it was decided that a dressage saddle would allow the rider to do just this whilst not interfering with the action of the horse. The rider’s legs were so far back down the horses sides it meant that the stirrup leathers had to be anchored to prevent them sliding off the bars. The saddle had to be secured by a breastplate to stop it sliding off the horses back.
Practice happened on the hills every night until the stadium was completed. At the stadium there were two parts to the ramp. From the ground a shorter one went up onto the central stage, and from there it went up again. This was the longer run to a platform which overhung the edge of the stadium on top. It is from this platform that the caldron would be lit as it was raised into position. Initially only the smaller ramp was available for us to practice on at the stadium, so the horses would run up to the stage and be brought back down in a specially designed flying box, which was operated on the end of a crane.
The inaugural ride up the whole ramp was an anxious, tense moment where David and all his executives held their breath for 14 seconds. Even though the horses had been working at this angle for a long time, the full length had not been available to try until now. From the ground it seemed like it took forever to get to the top! A huge roar of approval went up when they scampered to the top for the first time. After this, both horses would practice on the ramp most nights. Malibu was clearly the strongest on the ramp, being able to make the journey up to six time a night. Towards the end both horses were extremely fit.
As well as training for the ramp, we had a purpose built 74 horse complex, which included a full size 1 to 1 (“to scale”) practice stadium. This was to train the horses and riders for the ‘Desert Horse’ segment of the Opening Ceremony. Training for this segment was severely hampered with our training being held up due our 1 -1 stadium not being completed. As a result our initial training was restricted to a small training arena where we began work on basic troop drill and the skills required for the riders to become a team. Training sessions for the Desert Horse segment were held 3 – 4 nights a week. As it turned out we couldn’t get access to our 1 -1 rehearsal stadium until 3 weeks before opening night which put a lot of pressure on the team to be ready for the Big Night. It always seemed like there was never enough hours in the day and Steve found himself constantly running between meetings, Hero Horses and Desert Horses.
Despite many hold-ups, Opening night finally arrives but it was not without drama. Doha had not seen real rain for the past 2 years but against all expectations it began to rain, and it rained and rained! There were no real contingencies for such a deluge and our hearts went out to David Atkins, who after all the blood swear and tears that had gone in to putting this production together, had to cancel some of the most spectacular aspects of the show. Unfortunately the wind was too strong to allow the aerial performances, or the flying in of the huge props to go ahead. Whilst this was devastating to those involved, the remainder of the night’s entertainment was so spectacular that none of the world wide audience would have been any the wiser.
Our riders in the ‘Desert Horse’ segment performed incredibly under very difficult conditions. The magnificent gold crown that they were to ride around was one of the casualties of the evening. Due to the wind it could not be flown in, so instead the crew ran in substitute props to surround the 20mtr deep hole that was now exposed in the centre of the Stadium floor. This change created a problem for our horses, not only because of the vast difference in appearance but also as the new props were quite different in dimensions to the crown forcing un-rehearsed changes to our choreography. Fortunately with the help of in-ear communications and an experienced Aussie leader in Martin Addy, we were able to pull off a spectacular performance. The crowd went wild and it was a great moment for all the local riders.
Although the rain slowed during the Ceremony the ground conditions were still very wet and Steve had to make a decision weather the Hero horse could still go up the ramp. After hours of deliberation, Steve decided he could still run Malibu up the ramp. Fortunately he had previously run Mal on a slightly wet ramp due to condensation forming late at night in the stadium. Whilst this was no concrete test Steve believed that Mal was now so good at the job that we had enough up our sleeve to ‘go ahead’. We had flown Ian Dix, our Aussie farrier over just to look after the 2 Hero horses, and an hour before the show he was removing nails and replacing nails with sharp heads, rasping toes in order to give him the best traction he could get into the rubber surface of the ramp. In addition to the moisture, there was a large amount of shiny metallic ‘flitter’ remaining on the ramp from a previous segment. We were worried that this flitter, in conjunction with the existing moisture on the ramp could add to our problem, so it called for a last minute effort from the Aussie crew to clean and dry the ramp as best they could.
The dramatic entrance of HE Sheikh Mohammed and Malibu into the Stadium, commenced from under the ground. Whilst mounted on Mal, HE Sheikh Mohammed rose up to the stadium on an elaborate metallic “Sunstage”. There wasn’t much room on the stage and understandably, no room for error. There was no safety fence to hold the horse on, if things went really wrong it was a 15 metre drop to the floor below. We were relying on a lot of training and preparation, the partial barrier created by the vertically raised rays of the “sunstage” and in particular the skill of Sheik Mohammed his ability to remain calm. During the many rehearsals we had one of our top Aussie wranglers, Alan Wallan, travelling up with them on the platform; but on the final night Al stepped off, leaving HE Sheikh Mohammed and Malibu to up alone. After overcoming numerous issues in rehearsals Mal stood like a rock, as the two rose to a live audience of fifty thousand in the stadium and an estimated viewing audience of 1.5 billion world wide.
Out of the two horses, Mal was the strongest on the ramp, it was 26 degrees and he handled it easily. During training he never faltered, although he knew how long it was and would always trot the last couple of steps to save energy. In training he was also good with the caldron, which stood thirty metres over his head, with a circumference of twenty metres in diameter. In preparation we had lots of things flying over his head so he would hopefully see the caldron as just another flying object. We knew that there was going to be both fire and fireworks coming from the cauldron, so back in Australia we had fireworks nights to get the horses used to it. All was going well until three days before the big night; we rehearsed the fireworks out of the cauldron and to everyone’s surprise it malfunctioned giving both horses a shock. We rehearsed a few more times, but it wasn’t working as expected, the fireworks weren’t what we had prepared for so David dropped them out. The problem was, with two days to go we were now in damage control as Mal was expecting a loud bang to go off with the fireworks. As a result Mal became worried and understandably reluctant to stand still under the caldron. As we needed the horse to stand still whilst lighting the cauldron, we had to get the pyro techs to repeatedly light ‘wicks’ along side the horses that didn’t go off with a bang in order to re- establish some confidence in the caldron. The night before the big show, we again ran with the cauldron then waited 2 hours for it to cool down to be re-loaded so we could do one more run to give both horses the best possible chance to feel safe with the Caldron.
The decision as to which horse would use was not made until the last minute. Both had their good attributes but on the night it was the conditions that made the decision. With the slippery ramp being the area of greatest concern, Malibu became the obvious choice. With twelve months preparation behind us, we could do nothing now but wait in anticipation for HE Sheikh Mohammed and Malibu to do their stuff. Steve was in the control tower where he was able to speak to HE Sheikh Mohammed over the radio to his ‘in-ears’ , whilst our Aussie team was strategically placed to give instant assistance if needed.
They came up on the Sun stage and stood magnificently, like statues, then the Torch Bearer, Talal Mansour came up and lit the torch of Sheikh Mohammed and Mal again didn’t budge (so far so good). With the torch alight HE Sheikh Mohammed and Malibu followed Talal Mansour back down the ramp and off the Sunstage without hesitation. From there they trot over to the Stand and ceremoniously salute Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Emir of Qatar. Following this ceremonial pause the two trot to the other side of the stadium to prepare for the ramp. Steve was there in HE Sheikh Mohammed’s ears, telling him to take his time, get organized, don’t rush, and focus. No one in the crowd had any idea of what was about to happen… and then the moment arrived: off they went, the crowd went berserk as the climb began. The first stage was just as planned……………..but half way up the second ramp Mal’s head was turning to the left, he was starting to stall, the whole crowd was screaming. By some amazing drive both horse and rider had the heart to keep going. Steve knew that the horses couldn’t walk up the ramp, it was too steep, but Mal struggled on, nearly loosing his footing and at one stage looking like he was going to go backwards, when Sheikh Mohammed again pushed forward and with the help of the cheering crowd edged to the top of the ramp! It was extremely dramatic, it wasn’t supposed to be like that, but was great theatre!!! and he went on to light the cauldron without a problem!
Once we had settled our adrenalin from the big opening night and had a good sleep it was straight into the closing ceremony rehearsals!
Thanks to our talented team of Aussie Horsemen, it wouldn’t have happened without your skill and dedication - Martin Addy who flew across with Steve and the horses The early shift who arrived 3 months before the ‘big night’ flying in with Sandy; - Troy Welsh - Don Eyb The midnight Cowboys who arrived at the end of October to‘wow’ the crowd with their Akubra hats and personalities; - Iain Hyde - Bruce Withers - Wayne Biffin - Alan Wallan, Our farrier who dropped everything in Australia to fly across at a moments notice - Ian Dix, Steve’s son and Daughter, who are always a fantastic help and never complain - Dustin - Ashleigh. Our vet, who to our great relief showed up and threw his heart into the health of the hero horses and also acted as ramp crew - Michael Robinson. And a special ‘thank you’ to our ‘Qatari Cowboy’ ……. - HE Sheikh Mohamed Bin Hamad Al-Thani
Each of them brought with them their own unique skills to make an incredible team of horsemen. We are grateful and proud to have worked with such a great team.
Thank you all.