900 horses, a 10-man horseback pyramid and a mounted orchestra
The Queen’s passion for horses has been a lifelong affair. The young Princess Elizabeth first learnt to ride in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace and on her fourth birthday she was given a Shetland pony called Peggy by her grandfather King George V.
Apart from being a highly accomplished rider, the Queen has also bred and owned a succession of top racehorses.
Lester Piggott rode her filly Carrozza to Oaks glory at Epsom in 1957, and three years ago she became the first reigning monarch to win the Gold Cup at Ascot with her thoroughbred Estimate.
It is no surprise then that the Royal Windsor Horse Show is an unmissable event in Her Majesty’s diary.
Held in the private grounds of Windsor Castle this week, the five-day show will also be the venue for her official 90th-birthday celebrations. Among the 900 horses and 1,500 participants will be a cavalry unit from Oman.
The event’s organiser, Simon Brooks-Ward, explained, ‘The Omanis performed in front of the Queen on a state visit there in 2010 and were extremely well received.
As a result, we invited them to England for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012. They went down so well that they will be one of our star acts at Windsor. They provide a performance the like of which British audiences rarely see.’
For the last 10 months, Omani cavalry officers have been struggling to imagine a green field in the Home Counties as they prepare for the birthday celebrations.
Temperatures in the Sultanate often hit 50C during the summer and rainfall is treated like a gift from heaven.
From Oman to Windsor
Part of the cavalry’s base next to Al Safinat beach has been somewhat anglicised in recent months to mirror Windsor Park showground, over 3,500 miles away.
Admittedly, the view from the replica royal grandstand faces the Indian Ocean. There’s also not a blade of grass in sight and palm trees double for English oaks.
The horses are a well-groomed mix of mainly Arabs, Clydesdales and Shires. ‘The countries and acts for Windsor have been selected for their variety and ability to join in with the spirit of the event,’ said Brooks-Ward, who has organised many equestrian spectaculars for the Royal household, such as the Royal Tournament and the 2012 pageant.
Included in the celebration programme with the Omanis are Chilean huasos, who will perform a synchronised dance routine with their horses; Canadian Mounted Police showing off their horsemanship, a troupe of dancers from Azerbaijan, and riders who perform acrobatics on Karabakh mountain horses.
Over four nights they will combine with foot soldiers and marching orchestras from both Australia and New Zealand. The celebrated French horse whisperer Jean-François Pignon was also personally requested by the Queen to appear.
The British military will be represented by the Queen’s mounted troops, marching alongside more than 100 pipers.
Preparing for The Queen
A member of the Royal family will attend each evening, with Her Majesty watching the finale. For today’s 4pm rehearsal in Oman, though, Brigadier-General Abdulrazak al Sharwazi is looking anxious.
With just three months to go before the event, the commander is making copious notes from high up in a grandstand, located exactly where the Queen will sit at Windsor. The routine involves 100 horses and a cast of 150 riders and musicians.
‘We can recreate the Windsor showground for our riders but we cannot teach the horses what to expect. In Oman they are not used to performing with the noises of a large crowd sitting so close – their role is ceremonial and takes place on large display grounds for royalty and state visits.
‘Just the murmur of talking or the clatter of a seat nearby can be disturbing. There is also the very real worry of cold weather.
Boeing 777 jets for horses
‘It is totally alien to the Arab horse,’ says the brigadier. The Omanis were booked to arrive in England at the end of April so horses and riders can acclimatise
Their horses are transported in two specially modified Boeing 777 jets before they set up camp in Windsor Park for three weeks.
Today, though, the rehearsal will be the focus of Sharwazi’s attention. His cavalry unit was established by Sultan Qaboos in 1974, initially with just 20 horses.
‘Later the Sultan decided to create a ceremonial section that celebrated the riding skills of his countrymen and women. Horses have played a great part in our history and remain highly prized in society, for both showing and racing.’
History of the cavalry
The cavalry has grown to 140 horses and 200 riders, filling the vast Al Safinat stables. Most of the cavalry squadron are in their 20s and some performed at Windsor for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The base was built in the mid-1980s and is part of the Royal Palace complex, some 15 miles north of the capital, Muscat. The Firqah ceremonial section of men and women was created in 1993 and is famous for brightly coloured displays of costumes and horsemanship.
‘There is no correlation between the costumes the riders will wear at Windsor and their tribal heritage,’ said Sharwazi. ‘The Sultan has always tried to avoid secular identification but very much encourages the notion of nationalism in the Firqah – bringing the country together.
Acrobats on horseback
Some of the skills they perform on horseback date back centuries and would have been used in combat or for displays of bravery.’
Although the brigadier is determined to keep the exact details of his Windsor programme under wraps, British audiences can expect a 15-minute display of breathtaking agility.
Stunts include a 10-man pyramid on horseback, and a thunderous cavalry charge. The Arab horses they ride are one of the most easily recognised breeds, with a beautiful dished face, and tail carried proudly high. Women now make up 25 per cent of the Omani cavalry.
In the Firqah, some of them are trained to stand upright on their saddles. Others perform the rakd al arda, or close- formation galloping in pairs. Their riding skills are enhanced by poems and chants, as well as the hairoob – in which the horse lies down and plays dead.
‘These are all traditional skills that we can trace back to our ancestors,’ explains Sharwazi. ‘They were used to fighting in the desert and we are helping to keep these traditions alive.
‘We love to show off our riding to the world: our soldiers perform with smiles on their faces because they enjoy what they do.’
The brigadier also believes his mounted female orchestra of 160 women is the only unit of its kind in the world.
Playing for the Duchess of Cambridge
It formed in 2009 with musicians selected not only for their playing skills but also riding ability. They come to Al Safinat to perfect their musical techniques in a state-of-the-art facility that includes a recording studio.
Then comes the difficult part – learning to guide a horse with only their knees, while playing an instrument at the same time. British cavalry officers have been drafted in to help for the Windsor event. Paul D’Arcy, a retired Corporal of Horse with the Household Cavalry, is a percussion specialist.
During a long military career he has played at countless state engagements, including the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011.
‘They make it look easy but years of training have gone into this,’ says D’Arcy, tightening a saddle drum before the orchestra horses enter the arena. Alongside him is retired major Douglas Robertson of the Scots Guards.
Now band expert at the Royal Cavalry of Oman, Robertson has been working with the mounted orchestra since 2013, and says, ‘There’s no doubt that they will be up there with the best mounted bands in the world.’
Sultans, Sandhurst and ostriches
Unusually, the Omanis will also take a full complement of 14 mounted bagpipers to Windsor.
Sultan Qaboos has a penchant for the instrument from when he joined the British Army as a 20-year-old and trained at Sandhurst.
The cavalry officers have also been trained to play while riding camels, and Sharwazi is keen to point out that the Sultan has a flock of racing ostriches in his collection, too – though, sadly, these will not be performing for the Queen.
One of those returning to England for Windsor is Raida Albahri, 25, a member of the mounted orchestra. In the morning she rides out with the rest of the cavalry, then studies the flute in the afternoon. ‘My father bought me my first flute when I was a little girl.
He encouraged me to join the Sultan’s cavalry but I really wanted to be a police officer. He kept urging me on, so I joined the army when I was 19.’
Traditional silk costumes
The colourful costumes worn by the women are based on traditional Omani clothing. In silk and cotton, they are specially made at the Al-Obaidani factory in Muscat.
‘We find them very comfortable – they are light and easy to ride in. When we were introduced to the Queen in 2012, she was fascinated by them,’ said Albahri.
The men also wear traditional riding clothes. Tarik al Haddabi, 29, joined the cavalry 10 years ago and says his only concern about travelling to England is the cold.
‘I think all of us will be taking something extra to wear underneath our costumes. We have been warned it is possible we could even see snow – none of us has ever experienced that!’ Most ride barefoot and al Haddabi isn’t sure how he will cope if temperatures plummet. ‘We will all be praying for good weather.’
Inside the stables
The air-conditioned stables at Al Safinat are spotless. Each horse has a large loose box and is identified by a printed name tag that slots into the stable door.
Bogama, Methaq and Maskirovka are among those travelling to London. ‘Arabian horses are very slight, compared to English breeds,’ explains al Haddabi.
‘This makes them agile and fast but they will lose weight on the eight-hour flight to London. We have a special feeding programme to cope with this.
‘Give them too little and they lack energy – too much and they don’t want to perform. Everyone here is an expert, so we know exactly what to do.
It will take them just a few days to recover from their flight, replenishing any liquids and weight loss.’
In the parade ground, the horses are beautifully turned out and, having started their day with a canter along the beach, they are ready to concentrate on the task ahead. Sharwazi takes his seat and nods for the rehearsal to start.
Pipers lead the orchestra in, mounted on Arab horses, and close behind is a large wooden carriage containing the drummers, pulled by six Friesian horses.
Against the desert backdrop it’s a mesmerising sight. While the soldiers look stunning in their costumes, it’s the horses that steal the show.
Decked out in tassels and brightly coloured saddle clothes, their necks jingle with braids of silver that catch the afternoon sun.
And while one Omani rider takes a tumble at the finish of a galloping stunt during rehearsal, it will take more than that to stop the cavalry at Windsor.
The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration runs from May 12-15.Tickets have sold out but the final performance will be broadcast live on ITV on May 15. The Royal Cavalry of Oman will also perform at Royal Windsor Horse Show on the same dates. For tickets, visit rwhs.co.uk or call 0844-581 4960