To those who have never visited, South Africa seems an unlikely place to find a huge community of talented, hardworking and enthusiastic equestrians. It’s a poor nation where you’d expect to see working farm horses, if anything. And you wouldn’t be wrong about the farm horses…there are plenty of them.
Yet, you only have to stray slightly out of the city centres to find a country brimming with quality sport horses, racehorses, exclusive livery yards and purpose-built dressage, jumping and eventing venues of the highest standard. Whether you’re after your own land with stables, a riding school, or a private yard with world class showjumpers, there’s no shortage of places to go.
What South Africans have that allows them to keep horses so easily is an abundance of space. Of the nine provinces in South Africa, only two have a population density of more than 100 people per square kilometre, so there’s loads of land…and it might as well be filled with horses!
In all the major cities you’ll find horsey areas, though the largest concentration of riding and competition horses lie in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Even within the country’s main business hub of Johannesburg, you’ll find Kyalami, an area only 15 minutes away from the office parks and high rises of Sandton.
This is South Africa’s horse central, as far as English riding disciplines go. It’s impossible to drive or walk ten metres without seeing another horse, another stableyard, another rider. In fact, Kyalami is thought to be the most densely horse-populated area in the entire world. It is home to the majority of top South African riders, especially in Dressage and Showjumping.
And it’s not just riding horses. Cape Town has the most racehorses of any area on the African continent, for instance. Prestigious South African horseraces like the J&B Met and the Durban July attract crowds of thousands and are the talk of the nation for days afterwards, and the majority of adult riding mounts are retired racehorses, both in riding schools and competitively.
Riding, competing and owning horses
For those who are able to, South Africa is one of the most pleasant countries in which to own and keep your own horses. Why? Not only is there great weather and enough space for large paddocks, good arena and lunge ring facilities and airy stables, but almost all livery yards include full stabling.
This means that owners can be as involved or uninvolved as they like, because all “stable chores” are covered. Labour is notoriously cheap in South Africa, which means that for those who earn well, the cost of employing a full time groom (or team of grooms at large yards) to care for your horses is negligible.
As a result, most horse owners are not responsible for taking their horses out or bringing them in, changing rugs, feeding, or grooming. Sometimes, they don’t even have to tack up or hose down after a ride. While this may sound lazy, it’s important to remember that unemployment is a big reality of life in this country, so any opportunity to create a job for someone is seen as a positive thing.
In some instances, grooms will also lunge or even ride horses when owners are not able to exercise them. There’s no doubt about it though – South African horse owners get the best of both worlds!
Another big bonus point for South African riders is the incredible array of outrides available. For those who are landlocked in Gauteng, there are large open spaces and fields, as well as dedicated trails and equestrian estates where hacking and trail riding is possible, meaning that very few riders have to cross roads or ride alongside a lot of traffic.
Eventing and cross country venues are also often open to the public for a small fee, so riders can take their horses for a gallop in a very large but safe area.
For those who are lucky enough to be based in more scenic areas, there’s no shortage of beaches, vineyards, sand dunes, forests and mountainous trails for riders to explore to their heart’s content. You can even ride alongside wild animals on a safari ride if you’re that way inclined!
One problem with horse riding in South Africa is that despite the land and ease of keeping horses, it’s a sport which is not accessible to everyone. While the costs of riding and keeping horses are miniscule in comparison to more developed nations like the UK or Western Europe, the reality is that horse riding to a large degree remains a sport for the privileged.
Slowly but surely, there are organisations and charities which aim to change that – the Soweto riding school being one of the notable examples.
While we are blessed with some great conditions in which to keep horses, we’re also plagued by African Horse Sickness or AHS. This is a virus spread from horse to horse via biting midges, and with a mortality rate of up to 90% and no known cure, it’s one of the deadliest equine diseases on the planet.
There is a vaccination, and horse owners give two vaccines each year, but the vaccine only provides a small degree of protection against the virus.
Every year over summer, horse owners in South Africa sleep with one eye open as they anxiously await the first frost of the year which kills off the midges and puts an end to AHS for the next six months or so.
Preventative measures involve letting horses out later and bringing them in earlier to avoid the times of day when midge activity is highest. We spray insect repellent all over our horses, erect shade cloth over stables, have horses out in fly sheets in the full African heat, and some even have fans in the stables in an attempt to prevent midges being able to fly near their horses.
Each year, many horses die of AHS, from foals to top competition horses and in bad years, entire herds have been wiped out and breeders have been shut down. It’s an unpleasant death involving bleeding and foaming from the eyes and nose, internal organ failure and often a sky high temperature. It can be fast, with the time from onset of symptoms to death being as short as a few hours.
Why aren’t more South African riders competing internationally?
Because of AHS, many of South Africa’s top racehorses were not allowed to be exported. For a long time, importing sport horses was not viable at all. As a result, the South African thoroughbreds are of exceptional quality and are often seen competing at high levels after their racing career has ended.
You’ll also see them making up the vast majority of riding school mounts, with everyone from novice kids to experienced adults riding them in lessons.
However, it’s true that a good purpose-bred Warmblood will normally beat a good Thoroughbred particularly in dressage and jumping. As importing has become easier, more and more competitive riders are opting for European-bred Warmbloods to ride and breed from, which is pushing up the quality of local horses even further with the obvious result of improving the competitive aspect of the sport, although arguably making the journey to competitive riding even harder for those who are unable to afford a well-bred Warmblood.
Unfortunately, despite the influx of quality horses, South African riders have failed to make their mark on the international scene. There are a variety of reasons for this. Horse transport is very expensive, and restrictions are often imposed due to African Horse Sickness, making it hard to compete outside of Southern Africa.
Also, there are very few international qualifiers held within South Africa. As a result, top riders either have to resign themselves to moving overseas to make a real name for themselves, or they have to be content with reaching the top echelons of the sport at a domestic level.
Normally, it comes down to funds. Those who can afford it will attempt to make a living from riding overseas, but the costs of relocation are high and so are the costs of keeping horses – on top of that, most riders have day jobs or businesses to fund their horses, and it can be difficult to move these overseas.
So , while South Africa is a beautiful place to be a horse owner, it isn’t the ideal location for those who have set their sights on the Olympics.
For the mere mortals amongst us though, there’s no place better. They say that once you come to Africa, it’s always in your heart, in your blood.
Just set foot into our country – you’ll understand why.