From beginner rider to showjumper while stuck in four-month lockdown on South African safari

  • A novice rider who spent the first lockdown at a South African horseback safari centre had ridden 25 horses and was jumping 1m by the time he reached home — and is now continuing his showjumping career.

    Saúl Castro Gómez and Susannah Shelley left their home in the UAE on 13 March last year, for a holiday at Horizon Horseback, in the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.

    “Then the world changed,” Saúl told H&H. “We flew to South Africa, and it was the week we were there that everything changed. We left for a week and ended up staying for four months.”

    The couple were given the option to fly home early but did not realise how strict the lockdown would be, and then the UAE closed its borders.

    “It was like a movie,” Saúl said. “They closed the borders at midnight, and if your flight landed after that, you were sent away. I don’t think any country knew what to do, under the circumstances.”

    But of course there are far worse places to be stranded for four months than an African safari centre that also offers polocrosse, western games, jumping, cattle mustering and swimming with horses.

    “It was a fantastic experience,” Saúl said. “We had a moment of uncertainty, then recognition, then we took advantage of being there.”

    Both managed to keep working from the centre, while also riding twice a day. Susannah describes herself as a “happy hacker”, who has ridden for a number of years, but although Saúl rode as a child in his native Venezuela, where horses are “part of the culture”, he was still a beginner. “One member of staff at Horizon had jumped to 1.20m in Scotland, and evented, and one day she said: ‘Why don’t you try to do a jump?’” he said. “That day changed my story.”

    Over the next weeks, a jumping course was created in the savannah, surrounded by baboons and warthogs, and Saúl progressed to jumping a metre.

    The couple flew home on 14 July, with emotional farewells to the Horizon staff, and the intention for Saúl to carry on his showjumping. They found a trainer, Osama Zbibi, and his father Fadi Zbibi, at FZ Sport Horses.

    “They’re now training us, and continuing what was born in South Africa,” said Saúl, who went to his first show last month — and jumped his first clear round — on a mare called Wilma.

    “It was very special,” he said. “My mouth was absolutely dry but it was an amazing feeling.”

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    Saúl would like to have his own horse, once he has more experience, and also has a dream of competing internationally.

    “That would be amazing,” he said. “Without the pandemic, I’d never have discovered showjumping, and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

    Susannah added: “We felt blessed to be able to spend our time on an extended stay at Horizon, and all there are now like an extension to our family.”

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