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A Show with Horses' Well-being in Mind

by Johanna Ullstrom

We have had the most rainy, wet winter in France that I can remember. We have been practically swimming! Woolly horses and mud everywhere. It felt like summer would never, ever come back.

And then I received a text: 

“Please consider coming to Abu Dhabi with some horses!”


“End of January.”


It was Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan who kindly invited us to bring some horses over for their Al Shira’aa show. The text came from farm manager Antonia Bautista. They generously invited several horses from Europe to come over and participate at their show, and this year was the third edition of the Al Shira’aa International Horse Show.

I gave a quick thought to our hairy, muddy yaks walking around in the pastures, on total winter rest. I swallowed once and replied – yes, sure, it would be wonderful! I was silently wondering how the horses would look under their locks of coat, flowing in the wind!

I told the girls in the barn that we should prepare three horses for the show and we had about seven weeks to make them ready. They gave me a quick look, a quick look at each other, and shot into action. I can’t count the number of blankets Stefanie brought from the storage and prep started! Luckily, our horses stay fit, they have a lot of daily movement outdoors already in the first place, so they were pretty well muscled. But they looked like angora rabbits in their faces and I had a hard time seeing how we would make them look summer-faced with black skin just some weeks later!

It is different with a horse who has been wearing blankets, with slick coat, even in winter, but I’m talking about sheep about to be sheared here.

In any case, we got in touch with the flight agents from the EHS – blood tests were done and sent, and we received packing lists, to do lists and all kinds of info – the flight was well organized, 32 horses were to fly, plus one dog.

Our two grooms were to be among those flying with the horses, and they were all to stay in Belgium at the prep stables to do the last paperwork, so off they went. They had a few rooms there as well, so Stefanie could stay the entire time together with our horses.

We do not know how the EHS team manages to keep everything together, to be so systematic, well organized, friendly and communicative, it is an operation, and they even took the time to bring our girls to the grocery store. Respect!

Meanwhile, we had to contact local sellers of feed and hay in Abu Dhabi. It felt a little concerning, before knowing if the feed would be delivered at all, but we would not have to worry, they even delivered before arrival/payment, and all the brands we use here at home! There are wonderful people to find everywhere!

Very early morning of the flight (it doesn’t go any earlier, we’re talking about 2:30a.m.), horses were prepared and loaded, together with equipment and grooms, to leave for the airport in Amsterdam. The plane was to take off in the afternoon with all the 32 horses and the dog.

First, horses had to wait in the truck, while customs papers were arranged. They had big winter blankets and hoods on as it was chilly.

They then had to get loaded onto the containers, three  per container — except stallions that were two per container. They got undressed, but we chose to keep fleece blankets on ours, as I know it can be cold in the cargo hold.

Our stallion was an exception at loading —he did not need an empty space beside him, he traveled with two females. He is accustomed to being next to the two-year-old filly at home and this is how he traveled as well. He did it with style, totally impressing the agents with his fantastic manners!

The flight was delayed, which is almost always the case; they didn’t take off until early evening, so they had spent the whole day in the truck and container spaces, bless them. They were eating and drinking, and looking content though, with people they knew and trusted around them.

The flight went smoothly and once landed, trucks were waiting for them, and a three-hour drive to the final destination: the barns at the showgrounds!

The tent stables were big and airy, with permanent, large boxes for the horses, close to the showgrounds, but still far enough for our horses not to be disturbed at all by the noise/speakers, etc. There were also paddocks connected to the barns, where our horses could stretch their legs, and restaurants for the grooms. Our two grooms were planning to camp at the barns during the whole stay, as they did not want to leave the horses alone, and because of that, showers were arranged for them as well.

It was such a positive atmosphere from the first to the last minute, and many other organizers can learn from the Al Shira’aa show when it comes to horse- and guest-friendly environments, which is often a low priority, in my opinion, except in the VIP areas.

Nothing was an issue, and we were asked a few times before the show, if we could think of anything that we would like to see better, or if there was anything we needed.

The horses and grooms arrived at the showgrounds only two days before the show. We arrived one day before, and went straight to the barn during morning, to find happy, sparky, fit horses with happy grooms! They had found their ways and felt at home already!

We stayed at a hotel approximately 15-20 minutes away from the showgrounds, and we had a rental car, but learned that the organizers had also arranged a shuttle to and from the showgrounds. It was so smooth and comfortable for everyone!

At the show, we were treated with delicious food, beautifully served. The show started on the minute each day, with no delays! 

Something remarkably nice was the music that played. We did not get the impression of a wild rock concert, where we had to yell at each other to be heard and with following migraines, but instead delightfully played, beautiful background music, creating lovely atmosphere and emotion. It was appreciated by the crowd, and in particular, by the horses! It must be far easier for a horse to enter a ring when there is some calm inside! I always wonder who are the ones enjoying the music at shows where it is so incredibly loud? I often ask, but so far I have not met anyone who likes it.

"Our stallion was an exception at loading — he traveled with two females... and he did it with style, totally impressing the agents with his fantastic manners!"

A few other points regarding the showring – it had room enough, and especially the width. Horses feel intimidated by narrow show rings, and in my experience, those that are wide enough make it easier, especially for youngsters, to feel at ease. On top of that, those moving electronic screens framing the ring are scary and intimidating. At this show, there were such screens, but smartly, they were frozen during presentations, so horses did not worry about them. Plus, there were not any noisy decorations, just a very tastefully-placed rose covered frame in the middle.

It seems like little details, but these can make a big difference in the short moment we have for the presentations. Also the collecting ring had lots of space. The entire DC and ringmaster teams were firm, correct and fair, and extremely well-organized. Still, they managed to give handlers freedom to work, as long as there was respect and cooperation. That is a fine and difficult balance to keep; I really admired them all for staying patient and kind, but without being scared of speaking up if the situation required it.

The classes were big, often 15-20 horses, but it all went so smooth and easy. The judging team as well, worked smoothly together and overall, in my opinion, scored the horses by judging them, more than placing and adapting the score to their preferences.

We heard that most of the public agreed that this show was a fair show, with no games or shady business going on, instead it was a horse show, where you can compete for who is the best horse of the day. Is not as common as one would wish!

On the last day, before the championships, we watched the most beautiful liberty presentation, by Spanish Santi Serra with his stunning Arabians. It was an inspiration. The presentation was so emotional and lovely, not only because of the high level of performance, but also because of the obvious freedom at heart and mind in these mares, and the delightful, respectful, joyful and sincere relationship between Santi and his herd.

They gave such an example to us all, and maybe also a little reminder about how to love our horses, and not to be harsh with them, as itreally not necessary. 

Once Santi went out of the ring with his mares, all in freedom, the championships began. Each category had some absolutely stunning first-place horses, and judges had some work trying to choose the gold champions!

We flew our horses back home two days after the show, together with the horses from Santi Serra. The other invited horses stayed in Abu Dhabi to compete at a second show at the end of February – we had commitments at home, and could not stay away for longer.

The trip home went well, and horses stayed fit and healthy during this whole marathon! We got some medals and all our three horses placed very well within the prize money. We congratulate our owners, all other owners, and we would like to express our gratitude to the organizers of this wonderful show.

Horses were not merely tools for trophies at this show, but instead, the main attraction! As horse shows should be.

We hope to see you next year again! 

Impressions Of A Most Excellent Adventure 

Jeremy Malou, the calm axis in any endeavor...including horse shows, shares his thoughts...

2024 hirra show OI7A5115 

“Under pressure from both Denise and Johanna, and since a woman’s wish is the equivalent of a command to man, I will share a few impressions here,” says Jeremy Malou. “As my friends know, I am not a fan of horse shows, and try not to attend more than a few per year. Johanna must invariably convince me, as I prefer to be out in nature or surrounded by our own herd, rather than locked up at a table for several days. 

“…one could feel the inherent wish to make of it a fair competition, designed to improve the breed by fostering a neutral attitude.”

“The Al Shira'aa show was a refreshing surprise and I thoroughly enjoyed the few days spent in Al Ain. The show was elegant, calm, precision-timed and with attention to detail. There was a flair of boutique ambiance wrapped around it, and the fact the wonderful brand Bulgari was associated to it, only confirmed the direction. 

“Horses were taken into account in various details often overlooked, as were the grooms, without whom there would be no shows. The music level was wonderfully low, allowing everyone to keep relaxed and able to talk, and letting the horses be their more natural selves. The entire catering staff was thanked and applauded in the arena just as much as winners, judges, and officials, which is extraordinarily rare. Classy, and elegant attitude all over, I thought again. 

“We are a community, and all members contributing to events gathering us all must be acknowledged, and feel part of a larger family. Only in doing so can we spread the fame, care and love for the Arabian horse across all stratas of society, and keep genetic diversity of the breed alive. That may become in useful some time down the road. Judges were in a larger number than we are used to, extreme points were discarded, and one could feel the inherent wish to make of it a fair competition, designed to improve the breed by fostering a neutral attitude. We had the luck to be among great friends, and laughed more than our fair share during a trip marked by refinement, calm, good vibes and wonderful encounters with the local community. Kudos to the organizer, and her team for a job well done!”


most excellent adventure at stalls c62cf932Alejandro and Ana Vigil, left, had the thrill of seeing their two-year-old filly Agmal Psytara (AJ Nawash x Agmal Psyrensia) compete in Abu Dhabi. “For us the highlight of the show was bonding with friends old and new, and watching and appreciating beautiful horses in an amazing setting,” says Alejandro Vigil. He and his wife, Ana, are the owners of Anvil Arabians in San Diego, California.”


alihandro with jeremy malouAlejandro and Jeremy


Veterinarian Simon Bollengier (aka "Fluffy"), helps Johanna’s team at the shows, and was on board with the horses for their flights to and from Abu Dhabi.

“Thanks to Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan for a wonderfully organized show! Every time one of our horses goes out and puts their tail up and dances in the showring with joy, it gives me goose bumps. But my best memory is the sheer happiness in the eyes of my dear friends when one of their favorite horses becomes a Champion at the show, a victory for which they have worked so hard, with passion, for so long.”

 The stallion RP Burj Al Arab ( WH Justice x Pamira Bint Psytadel ) was a perfect gentleman,  sharing the container with a two-year-old filly and an eight-year-old mare. And now he is an Al Shira’aa show Silver Champion, too.  


Stefanie Bovens is one of the managers, and assistant handler at Johanna Ullstrom’s breeding/showing/consulting enterprise in France – Arctic Tern SCEA. Stefanie shared her thoughts about  her first experience accompanying horses on a flight. 

"Thanks to Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan for a wonderfully organized show! And thanks also to Antonia Bautista from Al Shira'aa Stables who was very helpful at the showgrounds. The barn where the European horses stayed had nice boxes, quiet, showers for the horses, paddocks we could use to stretch the horses’ legs,  and so much more."

My little heart was following each horse to load…

"Horses – three of ours, plus 29 other horses, travelled like stars. Once at the airport, I didn’t know what to expect… how it was going to be for the horses. My little heart was following each horse to load…and finally it was time for our three horses to load in the container. They looked at me as if to say, “all will be fine, you are with us,” and they all walked into the container. We had one stallion, a two-year-old filly, and an eight-year-old mare. 

"The trip was long, but the horses traveled well and arrived fresh at the showground. Together with my friend Simon, we stayed the whole trip with our horses, camping in the barn. We are a great team together as we know perfectly what has to be done. It is as if we share the same mind. 

They looked to me as if to say, “All will be fine, you are with us."

"After two days of rest for the horses it was show time. I could not be more proud of the three of them, and how they showed next to Johanna – no fear, just sparkling. We got amazing results. For me that’s just a bonus. Everything was just perfect. The last day before the championships we got to see the presentation of Santi Serra and his Arabian mares and show dog – all at liberty. It was remarkable. 

This was a lifetime experience for me. I loved and enjoyed every minute of it.”

Photos by Henrike Hormann: 

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Denise Hearst
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Betty Finke
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Cindy Reich
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Johanna Ullstrom
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