What you need to know:
According to the owner of Flametree Stables, horses are not able to thrive in Uganda because the country lies at a higher altitude, unlike Kenya which lies at a lower altitude with colder weather.
What was your first impression after you rode a horse along a trail? For Mark Lawrence Kirabo, “it was amazing.” Far from getting a bigger adrenaline rush than he’d bargained for, the 18-year-old Seeta High School student was struck by how “very calm” the horse was once he was in the saddle.
Kirabo’s 16-year-old sister, Blessing Francis, admitted to being “a bit nervous at first.” Then she “quickly got used to riding.” Their firsts played out at the Flametree Stables Riding School in Kira Town, Wakiso District.
Located in Kijabiijo Village on the Kampala-Gayaza Road, approximately 28 kilometres northeast of Kampala City, Flametree Stables, Uganda’s leading horse training school, rears horses, offers horse riding lessons and provides space for hire for various private functions. It is listed under the categories of horse riding/stables and sports and outdoors.
The equestrian facility owned by Miranda Bowser, a British national, sits on a 23-acre piece of woodland. It is currently home to 16 horses, two foals, and 24 ponies. One unnamed male rider at the facility spoke with great pride about reining in a 16-year-old horse called Doctor D. While the horse “has a bouncy trot”, which means it is economical with forward movements, this was not about to rain on the male rider’s parade.
“I have been coming here every Saturday for over a year now. What pulls me to the horses is these days life is very singular. Even at home, everybody is busy on his or her smartphone,” he revealed, adding, “When I come here, I connect with nature, trees and the weather is cool. A horse will get used to you and will follow your instructions. Horses have different characters like human beings. Some horses are sensitive to the instructions.”
In the saddle
After reading the disclaimer that says in part “horse riding is a high-risk activity”, I was initially frightened about mounting the 12-year-old Yale. A black imported Fresian from South Africa, this Yale, weighing 750kg, was primed to give me my first experience with horse riding. I was afraid that the horse would resist me mounting it.
While in the saddle, I felt the giant steps of the horse as it negotiated paths with a junior instructor—Moses—in tow. I would later feel the effects of the horseback ride in my back later in the evening at home.
“Ugandans are now spending their Saturday and Sunday mornings here,” Miranda told Saturday Monitor, adding, “We also offer horse carriages for wedding parties, photoshoots and music videos. We have tents for rent for those who want to spend a night here and ride horses the following morning.”
Per Miranda, the extended introductory ride that spans 20 minutes “around the land” and another 20 minutes “in the sand arena with one of our instructors” is particularly popular.
“This costs Shs65,000 ($17) or Shs75,000 ($20) on a weekend,” she revealed, adding, “You can also enjoy the Introductory Ride, which is 15 minutes of riding around the land, then followed by a further 15 minutes in the sand arena with one of our instructors [for] Shs60,000 ($16) or Shs65,000 ($17) on weekend day. Or you can just ride around the land for 30 minutes on what we call a pony ride. This is Shs55,000 ($14.6) on a weekday or Shs60,000 ($16) on a weekend.”
Private lessons knock back anywhere from Shs120,000 ($32) to Shs130,000 ($34.5) per hour. Miranda further revealed that great care is taken to ensure “the 42 horses are not over-exercised.” The horse enthusiast has seen horses in her stables grow from nine in 2010 when she started out.
“My achievement has been that I have been able to introduce the sport of horseback riding to an average Ugandan to experience the horses and sit on them, unlike in Kenya, where horseback riding is for the super-rich and expatriate community, who even play polo. Playing polo in Kenya is like owning a Ferrari, a luxury sports car,” she told Saturday Monitor.
No walk in the park
Miranda said horses are not able to thrive in Uganda because the country lies at a higher altitude, unlike Kenya which lies at a lower altitude with colder weather.
“Horses tend to thrive in lower altitudes. Horses can die from bites of tsetse flies (glossina). Uganda is infested with tsetse flies, which do not exist in Kenya,” she revealed, adding, “Horses can also die from ticks. Ticks can breed a lot of illnesses that horses cannot resist. Tick-borne illnesses can be fatal to horses unless you intervene early enough.”
Margaret Kimezire, a Ugandan veterinary doctor, disclosed that Kenyans have been breeding horses since the 1940s. When horses were introduced in Uganda at around the same time, tsetse flies decimated them.
“Not everybody can afford to own horses because they are very expensive to maintain,” Kimezire said, adding, “At the same time they are very fragile animals … The owners of horses have to be vigilant with proper management, diet, deworming and vaccination systems.”
Miranda revealed that horses “eat for 17 hours a day.” Kimezire added that if poorly fed, “[horses] will develop a lot of stomach problems like colic, ectoparasites, internal parasites like worms, viral diseases like African horse sickness, bacteria diseases, and tick fever transmitted by ticks.”
Currently, Kenya owns 4,000 horses compared to 200 in Uganda. Miranda says she plans to increase the number of horses and ponies through a breeding programme at her stables. She hopes to do this in conjunction with a friend in Mbarara District, and another in Kisumu, Kenya.
For now, her stables employ eight workers and casual labourers.
“I started working here when I was 14 years old in 2009. I am the longest-serving staff member. I love this job, although it was not my dream job. But from nowhere I fell in love with his job,” Hamidu Mayega, one of the instructors and farriers, told Saturday Monitor.
Miranda says given the insatiable appetite of horses, one cannot make money from horses. She added: “It is out of our passion that we keep horses. It is a hobby. I am happy because the operations are able to cover the costs and salaries of the business.”
The horses feed on a daily diet of grass, fibre in hay and hard feed made up of bran, pollard, and maize.
“We usually import hay from Kenya. Farmers have started growing hay in Gulu and Wakiso districts, and at the Namulonge Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute in Kampala,” Mayega said, adding horseshoes are imported from South Africa and the saddles, as well as other leather products, from the United Kingdom.
The horseshoes are removed after 30 days and hoofs “which will have overgrown” trimmed, says Mayega. There are fly traps around the facility to keep the insects far away from the horses.
The road ahead
Miranda Bowser, the owner of Flametree Stables, says a horse has four speeds—walk, trot, canter and gallop, which is the fastest speed. Horses can also take part in endurance riding, horse racing, polo, and show jumping.
Pre-pandemic, Flametree Stables riders would make the short trip to Kenya four or five times inside a calendar year to compete in different horse racing disciplines.
“Now we travel to Kenya once or twice in a year,” Miranda said, adding that they “also hold inter-country competitions because we are fully established here”.
Miranda further disclosed that both Ugandan adult riders and juvenile riders have won numerous competitions over the years. She says Uganda has the potential to build international horse racing courses. The Flametree Stables, Speke Resort Munyonyo Equestrian Centre in Kampala, BushBaby Lodge in Mukono District, and Nile Horseback Safaris in Jinja District are capable of meeting the demand for horse riding in Uganda per Miranda.
“The business [is self-sustaining]. Owning the land and our breeding programme helps us sustain the business,” she said about the income and sustainability of the stables. “I have no idea how much money we have invested so far. It is too much money, but it is my passion, and I’m happy to support it and my amazing staff’s employment.”
Asked about the future plans she has for her stables, Miranda said: “I’m happy with where the stables are at, if we got any bigger, we would lose the quality we are well known for.”