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2023 theswiftrunner home header sepia

Spartan and Archie

By Jeffrey Wintersteen

Photos by Annalisa Durighello

The faint hint of dawn colors the sky as we drive east out of the city. Behind us, the lights of Doha are softened in the moist air. The humidity surprised me my first visit to Qatar several years ago, a staple of the winter here before burned off by the mid morning sun. This unique climate is a product of this finger of desert jutting north into the Persian Gulf from the coast of Saudi Arabia. Around me my friends and colleagues of Arabian Insider have fallen back asleep, the result of too many days of filming and late nights editing in preparation of our coverage of the Katara International Arabian Festival starting in a couple days. This morning’s task is filming Francesca Aragno and me on a couple of Arabians horses from a local stable in the Qatari desert that will hopefully be used as an intro for our coverage of the show. A large portion of life’s bucket list go unchecked, so all the more reason to celebrate being able to tick one of those boxes. As a child of equine parents, riding an Arabian through the desert in the Middle East had always been on my list. This, and my jet lag only a couple days old, has me wide awake while the others sleep.

Jeff on SpartenJeff on the stallion Spartan Al Gharafa (Wadee Al Shaqab x Nooran Al Shaqab).

When we arrive, our two mounts are already saddled, a gray gelding named Archie and a bay stallion, a son of Wadee Al Shaqab with a beautiful face and neck that looks like it can bridle. The stallion is alert and eyeing the new arrivals. I instantly claim him to the chagrin of Francesca, though perhaps she is a bit relieved to have the gelding, still waking up and fighting the exhaustion from the last couple days. 

Spartan, the stallion, is good natured, but with too much energy that is trying to find a release. I am in sneakers, without my usual riding chaps and lace up western ropers. Add to this I have ridden little the past few years, and most of my riding the last ten years has been gallops at the track with an exercise saddle, irons up high and rubber race reins knotted short. While this kind of riding is a unique skill, it can also create some poor habits when a race fit steed, always pulling you forward, is an additional point of contact. I quickly find that Spartan does not like my track hardened hands, and sometimes breaks into a crow hop at the canter when I instinctively stand and lean into the reins as if I am still on the oval. I apologize to him and try to soften, giving him a pat on the neck, telling him, “it is me, not you.” 

eff and FrannyJeff and Francesca in the desert of Qatar.

The desert is also not the dunes stretching to the horizon with soft sand to gallop in that I envisioned. By contrast it is flat and hard, littered with stones and a low scrub brush. The gallops must be picked thoughtfully to avoid the rocks. We have been filming for an hour when a man and boy appear leading a string of camels to the south. Franny and I yell to the crew to follow with their cameras as we take off in a gallop towards the camels. As we approach, the horses hesitate, then stop all together. Archie lets out a snort and spins trying to retreat. Spartan follows suit and Francesca and I burst into laughter realizing they have never seen camels before. How is this possible for Arabian horses in the Middle East? By the time Annalisa, Alessandro and Simone  arrive on foot, the excitement is over, the camels are retreating in the distance and the horses’ tails are down off their backs. All that remains from the adventure is our smiles. 

There is only one other incident of note, Franny being dumped by Archie, though it was neither’s fault. Alessandro flew one of the drones too close and Archie spooked. I chastised Alessandro, but there is always a narrow line between safe and dangerous when trying to get that perfect shot. To Francesca’s credit, she still held onto Archie’s reins despite hitting the dirt, the result of a brave horse crazy Italian girl growing up with a vet for a father. I am grateful for her tenacity, saves me chasing after the gelding into the empty desert.

Franny on ArchieFrancesca on the gelding "Archie" (Ohio x Jabask Azzaela).

After a couple hours, we head back down a tree lined dirt road on the way to the stable. Franny can’t keep from laying on Archie’s neck and affectionately scratching his ears...he is no longer her second choice. The horses’ edginess is gone, loose reined they are content to ramble next to each other. Franny and I are also content, like most of these type of pre-show days it is chaotic list to finish, reason enough to enjoy the quiet moments. There is still much to do before the day is over, but already we count it as one we will remember. 


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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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Scott Benjamin
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Jeffrey Wintersteen
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