Making history in South Africa

Two black riders join elite team working with performance horses connected to tradition dating back to 15th-century Europe.


    Kyalami, South Africa - Twenty-two-year-olds Shepherd Zira and Cyril Thabede had never heard of the South African Lipizzaners, an elite breed of horses trained to perform.

    But since they became the first black people to join the team last year, they have formed a new sense of what might be possible.

    "Riding these horses is basically the world's greatest opportunity," says Zira.

    The Lipizzaner breed dates back to 15th-century Europe and is tied to an equestrian tradition that is more than 400 years old.

    Shepherd Zira is the first black rider in the South African Lipizzaners' history [Al Jazeera]

    The primarily white stallions are admired for their stellar physique, regal bearing and willingness to be trained.

    There are only 4,000 of them in the world.

    "I love these horses so much," says Thabede.

    "There are very few people who have the opportunity to ride these stallions. So when I ride them, I feel like a king."

    'We're their ambassadors'

    The horses were brought to South Africa shortly after World War II. For the past 46 years, they have been delighting audiences every Sunday in Kyalami.

    “It's all about the horses. No matter what we ask them to do, they do it for us," says Bronwyn Taylor, a junior rider.

    “We're their ambassadors. We’re the people who have to speak for them, have to keep the breed going and keep them alive."

    Admired for their stellar physique, there are 4,000 Lipizzaners in the world [Al Jazeera]

    Up until recently, there was little opportunity to join the South African Lipizzaners, beyond the rarefied group who could afford riding lessons.

    "Equestrian sport is a very exclusive, privileged sport seen by the whole world and it's a very expensive sport to be in," says Taylor.

    Last year, the non-profit organisation found a sponsor and created a development programme catering to economically disadvantaged South Africans.

    Zira became the first black rider and Thabede the first black performer.

    Up until recently, there was little opportunity to join the South African Lipizzaners [Al Jazeera]

    "Most of us, especially the people of colour, we have no idea about horses or anything because this is just a white people's sport," says Zira.

    "I would like to see more black people, people of colour, join the organisation. Just show support - you don't have to join - and get a little bit of understanding of horses."

    The men developed a love of horses as children, while trailing their fathers to the stables, where they worked as grooms.

    By joining the Lipizzaners development programme, they were able to train and achieve a level of expertise that has allowed them to springboard into careers in their country's equestrian industry.

    Equestrian sport is a 'very exclusive, privileged sport seen by the whole world' [Al Jazeera]

    Thabede says: "I have already started teaching children. This was my plan when I got to this programme, to use this opportunity to expose young people, especially black people."

    One might have to be as patient as these horses are reputed to be, when it comes to change.

    As the men look into the audiences, they seldom see faces similar to their own.

    But each time they step into the arena or teach students, they are showing how a sport steeped in tradition, can evolve into a more expansive one.

    "They've created awareness that anyone can actually do it," Taylor says.

    "It's not specifically for people with money."

    The Lipizzaners have been delighting audiences every Sunday since 1971 [Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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