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Horse-loving couple live and work in Saudi Arabia, introducing one of the world's oldest equestrian cultures to holistic care and training.
While the precise origin of the Arabian horse remains as elusive as the shifting desert sands, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long identified riding and horsemanship as intrinsic to its cultural heritage. In the mid-1800s, ancestors of its ruling family, the Al Sauds, gathered what was said to be the greatest herd of Arabians ever to exist, prompting British horseman, W.G. Palgrave, to report, “Never had I seen nor imagined so lovely a collection… Their appearance justified all reputation, all value, all poetry.”
More than a century later, one married couple – she a former jockey from the United States, and he an ex-eventer from Great Britain – have been living and working in Saudi Arabia, introducing one of the world’s oldest equestrian cultures to new avenues of wellness through holistic approaches to care and training, and creating an oasis for the horses they have rescued.
DEBBIE AND KEVIN
Meet Debbie and Kevin Gibson. Debbie, an equine massage therapist, was born 54 years ago in Beaumont, Texas, and started riding at age 18, competing hunter/jumpers, and exercising racehorses. She earned her license with the now-defunct Delta Downs Racetrack in Vinton, Louisiana, first as an exercise rider, and then as a jockey and owner/trainer. Kevin, 57, was born in Hull, in the United Kingdom, and began riding at age 17, eventing in the U.K. and Australia. Kevin is a certified barefoot trim practitioner and field instructor with the United Kingdom Natural Hoof Care Practitioners; he is also trained in floating teeth by the Academy of Equine Dentistry in Glens Ferry, Idaho. His PhD in computer simulation led to his current job, as a systems analyst, for a Saudi-based oil company, Aramco.
“We met through mutual friends in Saudi Arabia,” Debbie explains. “We love living in Saudi. I have been here for 20 years and Kevin has been working all over the Middle East for the last 30 years.” Aramco is the world’s largest oil company, and provides its employees with housing in neighborhoods known as Aramco communities. “Our community is named Najma and is situated on the Persian Gulf, so we can ride on the beach if we choose.”
“We live in a double-gated community that resembles suburban Phoenix, Arizona. Aramco communities are well maintained, with sidewalks, lawns, and palm tree-lined roads. Facilities within the communities include a commissary, mail center, dining facilities, golf course, swimming pools, gyms, cinemas, and a bowling alley.
“Our stables are built and mostly maintained by the oil company, and have resident grooms that care for the horses on a daily basis. All horses are privately owned. Probably the major difference from ‘traditional’ stables is that our stalls are made of pipe and chain link fence, to allow air to flow through the stalls. Most owners don’t use bedding. Horses are kept on sand that is dug out and replaced every three to four months.
“The stables have large turnout areas, and we try and maximize the time that our horses are out of their stalls. In the summer, they are kept in during the day, under fans (due to the excessive heat) and are turned out only at night. The stables have round pens, training arenas, cross-country courses, and resident riding instructors. There’s a competition season (dressage, show jumping, and cross-country) during the winter months between the Aramco communities and some of the local stables.”
“Ironically, horses did not come into our relationship until about a year after we were married,” she says. Like the ancient Bedouins, once horses joined the Gibson family, they were there to stay. But unlike desert tradition, they have incorporated holistic horsemanship into their daily care and riding programs.
FIXING BROKEN HORSES
“In our time in Saudi, we have owned eight horses,” recounts Debbie, “and each has taught us something about holistic horsemanship.” First was Tyarre, also known as Junior, a 14.3-hand bay Anglo Arab gelding whose “bizarre behavior under saddle” led to Debbie attending saddle fitting clinics and earning her certification in equine sports massage in an effort to get to the root cause of his problems.
“What I know now, but did not know then, was that Junior was exhibiting pain-related behavior under saddle. He would work fine for about fifteen minutes, and then start getting agitated. He’d want to trot if we were walking, canter if we were trotting, and eventually would bolt, spin, run backwards, ‘levitate’ sideways, and all manner of strange stuff. We now call this ‘working up.’ When we work with a horse, what we want is a horse that gets more relaxed and calmer after the session than before. If not, if he ‘works up’ instead of ‘working down,’ we start lookin g for pain-related issues.”
She continues, “Since Junior was quite green when I got him, I mistook his antics as training issues, and would work him harder and longer, but to no avail. He just learned more bizarre evasive maneuvers. I started suspecting it had something to do with his saddle (like many Arabian/Thoroughbred crosses, he had very high withers and a short back), but I knew nothing about correct saddle fit, and at that time, had no adjustable or treeless saddles. You could say I was a rider, but was not yet a horseman.”
A year into his training program, Junior’s behavior had only grown worse. “He became lame, mean as a snake, and a nightmare to ride. That’s when I started on my journey of learning how to fix horses. Of course, I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time: I just wanted to fix this horse that I had broken through my ignorance. That is when I started researching saddle fit, taking massage therapy courses, and spending the next seventeen years learning how to fix broken horses by working with experts like Dr. Madalyn Ward.” (Madalyn Ward, DVM, a veterinary advisor to Holistic Horse, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas, and is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy.)
“I used what I had learned with Madalyn and started working on Junior, also relying on books like Jack Meagher’s ‘Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses,’ and Dr. Cain’s ‘Acupuncture: Diagnosis and Treatment of the Equine’.” Debbie transferred to horses what she had already learned about Swedish Massage Therapy for humans (she had earned certification in the late 1990s from the Mueller College of Holistic Studies in California). “I used what I had learned in those courses and with Madalyn, and started working on Junior. He was my true teacher. Trying to fix him literally changed the course of my life.”
SEEKING A PERFECT FIT
In 2003, she discovered her next influential instructor and became officially certified for horses, spending a month in Florida with Don Doran and taking his equine sports massage therapy, equine acupoint therapy, and Tui-Na courses. “I also took a five-day saddle fitting course that Don sponsored, with Master Saddler, Blake Kral, and did Wes Mallard’s integrated equine cranio-sacral therapy course.”
“I had some hands-on experience before going to Don, which helped me realize just how fantastic he and his wife Lisa are as therapists and teachers. Their courses were excellent, both academically and from a practical standpoint, but beyond that, what I appreciated most was their love of animals. One of the clearest memories I have of Don is his telling the class, ‘All of you are my magic bullets. I teach you what I know, so you can go into the horse world and make a difference’.”
OUR HORSES, OUR TEACHERS
The next ‘instructor’ to make a difference in the Gibsons’ lives was Barghan, a 16-hand dark bay Thoroughbred gelding. “He was a rescue: chronically thin, colicy, with bad-smelling, cow patty-type manure. He led us to use hair analysis, which identified a total deficiency in selenium and a major deficiency in copper. This was not only the key to his problems, but resulted in an improvement in the condition of all our horses.”
Two more horses taught them the rewards of going barefoot. “Fetra was a 15-hand gray Anglo Arabian mare who was given to us when her owner could not sell her due to extremely spooky behavior that made her unsafe. Her feet could not hold a shoe. Six months after taking her, she foundered and our resident farrier had left, never to return. Fetra started us down the road of barefoot trimming and taught us about preventing and treating founder. An interesting note,” says Debbie, “is that Fetra’s spookiness disappeared after going barefoot.” She became Debbie’s main riding horse, and has been safely used as a lesson horse for small children.
Nayef, a 15-hand gray Arabian gelding, was another rescue who, according to veterinarians, would never be sound again due to myriad problems including ringbone, osselets, and X-rays revealing severe degeneration of the cartilage in his front fetlocks. “He taught us the true meaning of a naturally-balanced hoof. He hasn’t had a day of lameness in the last five years.”
GOING BARE IN SAND
Kevin adds that the sandy Saudi terrain poses its own challenge to trimming and keeping sound feet and horses. “The three major influences on development of the hoof are diet, exercise, and terrain, so riding in sand affects the hoof differently, and the barefoot trim has to be modified to local conditions.
“Hoof walls in this climate are drier and harder, and can be more brittle. Whereas a barefoot trimmer in a temperate climate typically leaves 1/16th of an inch of hoof wall above the white line connection, I take the wall down to the white line. If I were to leave 1/6th of an inch, the hoof would start flaking off wall within about two weeks.
“Landing heel-first on sand keeps the heels down, and rarely do I have to trim much heel. On the other hand, the toe doesn’t get the same wear as it would on a harder surface. I have to be more aggressive trimming at the toe. Especially with Arabians, or horses that do less mileage, the ‘mustang roll’ is applied from the white line.”
Kevin’s added skills in equine dentistry were put to the test with Lazzaz, a 20 year-old Arabian gelding given to them because of severe back and lameness issues. At age 20, the delicately-built bay had such profound dental problems that, “He could not even swallow his food in a normal manner. He had to toss his head in a backwards motion to get his food back far enough for him to swallow.” Happily, they report, “His teeth now function and he is sound. He is a very honest pony, and we let him go to a family with little children who are learning to ride on him.”
GOING BITLESS, TREELESS
Spooky Fetra also taught them to address pain-related behavioral issues by eschewing traditional tack for treeless saddles and bitless bridles. After a career of riding racehorses, Debbie began taking dressage lessons, and while learning to sit the trot, grew frustrated with her lack of seat “vibrating down my reins and smacking my horse in the mouth with the bit.”
She exchanged Fetra’s metal bit for one of Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridles. “While my sitting trot was still far from desirable, the difference it made in Fetra’s way of going was dramatic.” Five years ago, “We began riding all our horses bitless, and have never looked back. For the most part, both ex-pats (ex-patriots, i.e. non-natives) and Arabs use traditional bits, but the majority of bitless horses ridden here use Dr. Cook’s model.”
While Aramco communities meet the needs of the average family, tack shops are few and far between, compounding the difficulty of finding a properly fitting saddle for horses whose innate conformation already poses a challenge.
“Due to the dubious crossing of Arabians and Thoroughbreds, we see a lot of smaller horses with very high withers and short backs, which are very hard to fit. Since we don’t have heavily-stocked tack shops where you can just swap saddles until you find the right fit, we look for a certain degree of flexibility in the saddles we purchase.”
On horses whose backs fall within the “normal range,” they have found their best success using Wintec® saddles, because of the changeable gullets and Cair® panels. For high-withered, or hard-to-fit horses, “We like treeless saddles, and favor Heather Moffett’s line from Enlightened Equitation. Treeless saddles are brilliant for dressage, and Heather’s in particular, because she is a rider and trainer in classical dressage.” Treeless saddles are allowed in competition at their Saudi horse shows.
“Most sore-backed horses I see get that way from an ill-fitting, treed saddle,” cites Debbie. “Treeless saddles are absolutely beneficial, and I recommend them to riders with sore-backed horses. It is important though, with a treeless saddle, to make sure that you have a good pad that lifts the saddle off the spine. I like pads that have a dedicated channel for the spine, as well as pockets where shims can be placed to accommodate balance problems.”
A WHOLESOME OASIS
Each horse that has enjoyed the good fortune to join the Gibson family has emerged better for the experience. Kevin’s current mount, Angelus, is a 16.2-hand bay Thoroughbred they discovered while considering another prospect, named Flint. “While we were looking at Flint, we found Angelus. He was sore in every muscle of his body, had terrible feet, was lame and would not move off the leg, but he did have a sweet nature.”
Initially, Debbie recalls, “Kevin wasn’t interested in Angelus, but I promptly bought him. We managed to fix all his problems and now he is Kevin’s primary riding horse.”
Meanwhile, Debbie is busy starting a 15.1-hand Anglo Arabian mare, Buffy, under saddle. “We ran across Buffy while helping friends look for a horse in the Arab communities. Kevin decided that she was too nice to be left tied to a palm tree all day and so he bought her. At five years old, she arrived completely untrained, and we have been using a lot of ground work and clicker training to get her started.”
Through a holistic approach to healing and training, and demonstrating that “less” (as in bitless, shoeless, and treeless) really is more, the Gibsons are slowly but surely shifting the desert sands of tradition, and revealing an oasis for the horses lucky enough to come under their care.