Destination Qatar

A five-star resort for horses: Qatar's Al Shaqab equestrian center

Barry Neild, CNNUpdated 20th March 2018
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(CNN) — Did the last hotel you stayed in have a swimming pool, beauty parlor, gymnasium, personal trainers, maternity unit and en suite performance arenas?
Of course it didn't.
Which means in Qatar there are horses probably enjoying better facilities than you.
At Al Shaqab, a vast horseshoe-shaped complex on the outskirts of the Qatari capital Doha, horses experience a refined lifestyle that more closely resembles a five-star spa resort than a traditional stud farm.
They enjoy leg-stretching gallops on a private racetrack, daily grooming sessions and individually tailored fitness programs. At night or during the desert heat of midday, they retire to spotless air-conditioned stables.
If they had hands instead of hooves, these thoroughbred beauties would probably be dialing room service.
Built around the site of historic stables, Al Shaqab is a gleaming, ultramodern equestrian facility that reflects both Qatar's obsession with horses and the tiny oil-rich country's desire for opulent status symbols.
It's a worthwhile destination for horse fanatics visiting or transiting through Doha. Public tours can be arranged via the center's website and even non-horsey travelers are likely to find a visit here fascinating.

Maximum cuteness

Al Shaqab Equestrian Center, Doha
Awww: A newborn foal nuzzles up to its mother.
Barry Neild/CNN
There's a chance to see how some of the world's finest show and sport horses are groomed for success. And, if you're lucky, crank the cute-o-meter up as high as it goes with a newborn foal encounter.
Not to be confused with other major Doha horse facilities such as the Racing and Equestrian Club, Al Shaqab is part of the Qatar Foundation, a sprawling campus on the city's northwestern limits dedicated to promoting culture and education in the desert nation.
Al Shaqab, which dates back to 1992, was developed to create a world-class equestrian center and to preserve historic Qatari traditions of breeding Arabian horses.
Getting around its broad acres involves riding in golf buggies, much like those found silently scooting guests around human five-star resorts. They're a big help covering the large distances between buildings, especially when scorching summer arrives.
They skirt around Al Shaqab's centerpiece performance arena and alongside the long straight of its racetrack before pulling up outside the Breeding and Show Department, one of the highlights of any visit.

Natural swimmers

Here, surrounding a sandy outdoor paddock where the horses can cut loose when the weather's clement enough, are some of the exercise and grooming facilities at Al Shaqab, a globally renowned center that to date has nurtured 420 competition and breeding animals from birth.
In late winter morning sunshine, a white mare is cantering around in the sand. One onlooker points out her protruding belly and remarks that she might be pregnant. Her trainer shakes his head. Turns out she's just overweight.
In warmer weather she'd be inside using an indoor treadmill, cooled by air-conditioning, on which horses can get a 30-45 minutes workout on hot day -- a crucial part of training for show horses which, unlike show jumpers or racehorses, typically don't get ridden.
On the other side of the paddock, another cool and airy building contains the swimming pool, a circular water run similar to a lazy river in which horses are encouraged to get their hooves wet at an early age, eventually building up to a regime of five or six laps.
Al Shaqab Equestrian Center, Doha
Hot horses: These lamps dry horses after watery exhertions.
Barry Neild/CNN
"Every horse is a natural swimmer, but we teach our horses techniques so they build their muscles," says Zayed al Hashmi, Al Shaqab's head of stable management. "We make sure they like it, we don't push them too much.
"We take time. We start to teach them when they're young. When they reach one year old it's easier.
"Some of them love it."
Also on hand is a "horse Jacuzzi" -- a therapeutic spray bath which, says Al Hashmi, the horses are less enamored with. They usually prefer a human touch when it comes to massaging sprained limbs.
And, because no self-respecting horse would be seen with a damp post-swim mane, there's a poolside array of heat lamps to dry them off.
All that's missing is a fluffy bathrobe.
Behind the training center are long, cool rows of indoor stables, home to some of the 740 horses currently living at Al Shaqab. The inquisitive heads of elegant animals poke through the gates of each roomy stall to greet visitors.

Atmospheric setting

AL Shaqab Equestrian Center, Doha
History horses: The Ottoman stables.
Courtesy Al Shaqab/Qatar Foundation
In some, newborn foals lurch to their feet and nuzzle their mothers in search of milk. A one-day-old, as yet unnamed, totters uneasily and bumps into the wall as she works out how to coordinate her long limbs.
Most of the horses are born in the Amiri Stables, a private area of Al Shaqab belonging to Qatar's ruling family. As well as reserving the most exclusive area of the center to themselves, the royals gets naming rights on newborns.
After leaving the breeding center, the electric buggy zips round to an older part of the complex near an old fort -- a dusty low-lying compound that stands on the site of the original stables built decades ago, before Qatar's oil-funded transformation.
Still used to house some of Al Shaqab's horses today, these Ottoman stables are a rare piece of history in a mostly modern nation and is occasionally pressed into service as an atmospheric setting for corporate events.
The drive back to the heart of the equestrian center takes the buggy past horses being trained for endurance competitions. A popular sport in the Gulf, these are long-distance races that see Arabian horses compete over distances in excess of 120 kilometers.
AL Shaqab Equestrian Center, Doha
Summer camp: Al Shaqab also operates as an education center.
Courtesy Al Shaqab/Qatar Foundation
Al Shaqab has a reputation for producing winners, both in endurance, show jumping, dressage and Arabian horse shows. Most recently, Al Shaqab horse Falah Al Shaqab was crowned Unanimous Gold Champion Stallion at the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show 2018 in Arizona.
Beyond hedgerows are other facilities that include a veterinary medical center with ambitions of becoming a regional hub for treating horses -- something that may or may not be impacted by ongoing sanctions imposed by the country's neighbors.
There's also an equine education department, where young Qataris between the ages of six and 18 come to learn all aspects of equestrian life in the hope of fostering the country's next generation of horse riders, breeders and experts.

Twin arenas

Al Shaqab's arenas host international events.
Al Shaqab's arenas host international events.
Courtesy Al Shaqab/Qatar Foundation
The showstopper of the Al Shaqab tour is the elegant and large performance arena at the center of the horseshoe layout. Here, a swooping white and gray shell encloses both an outdoor arena and, in almost mirror image, an indoor arena for use in summer.
On site there's also a fine-dining restaurant and a four-star hotel that's open during events to accommodate to those involved.
Further down the line, Al Shaqab is planning to build a proper seven-star luxury hotel to cater for the horse enthusiasts and others who wish to soak up the equine atmosphere of the center's lush, green estate.
No doubt rooms at the hotel will be fully equipped with every high-end convenience to ensure the comfort of guests.
But if there's no hairdryer, there'll probably be a horse nearby who can lend one.
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