Can you tell us a little bit about your history at Sumba and how you came to be involved?
I first came to Nihi in 2013. My husband was working on a project with the hotel. He encouraged me to join him on this forgotten island and of course I fell head over heels in love with Nihi and Sumba. It’s very hard not to. It’s a paradise of well-being, but the lustre can easily be lost unless you keep yourself busy and immerse yourself into local culture and traditions. It was on this visit I met James McBride (partner and CEO of Nihi). He suggested (in the knowledge I like horses) to take a walk to the far end of the property and take a look at the ponies he had bought for their guests. I was really keen to find a role for myself so I approached him with the idea of setting up an equestrian facility for the guests. Having worked in the field of tourism and facilities development I felt I had enough experience to make a real difference.
How did you find the right horses?
James was keen to build up a herd of horses for guests to ride on the beach. The trouble was that the local ponies were too small. We had to find larger horses. Initially it was suggested I get them from Bali, but I had heard of horses on the east of the Island which are used for racing and wondered if they were suitable. Most of the horses I saw I didn’t think I could use for guests in Sumba. The way these horse were trained, they would be too wild for strolls down the beach at sunset. But I didn’t want to give up, as I felt that there were some horses that weren’t too broken might come right… And so Sandalwood Stables was born.
How did you find the staff?
The staff are all boys from the local villages. Horses are a very important part of the Sumbese culture, but when I first employed them, they had no idea of western methods or needs. They couldn’t grasp the concept of introducing horses to a calmer life. Most villagers have a horse or two in the family, either for racing (village against village) or transporting food. The staff therefore believed the feistier and faster the better, so it was a learning experience for me and for them to try and introduce other methods.
What is the link between the horse and the Sumbese people?
Horses are very important part of Sumbese life. They came to the island via trading many moons ago and villages used them not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also for religious beliefs. They have deep rooted traditions and sacrifices make up a very important part of this. At funerals and wedding celebrations they carry out sacrifices and animals (not only horses, but also buffalo and wild pig) carry status and are a form of high currency. The more bloodshed on the ground is giving back to the Gods. The more animals you sacrifice, the higher your status. It is a huge part of their life, and they believe their soul is connected to the horse, so if you are a horseman you need to sacrifice a horse in order to be carried into the next life. Pasola is a tradition that happens annually where villagers attack each other on horseback in order to shed blood to the gods. Villagers attack each other on horseback and the most noble death is to die in this way.
Some of these traditions are quite shocking to the Western horse owner, and I am sure to yourself at times. How have you managed to put your beliefs on horse care to one side and have you managed to educate them in a gentler way of handling at all?
Being a horse lover, it is clearly hard to witness some of these traditions, but over time I have learnt to come from a place of non-judgement. There are many things that have shocked me since I have been at Sumba, but when I sit back and view the world from Subesese point of view it helps me to come from a less judgemental stance. For example, after the sacrifice the villagers are fed, and Sumba is one of the poorest of the Indonesian islands, so in this way it becomes a circle of life. It is incredibly important for me to work alongside the villagers in order to educate them and this does not come from a critical point of view. My vision has always been to create a ripple effect of natural horsemanship. I have taught my staff to connect with horses and they have learnt that through love they can get so much more out of their horses. Now the local children come down to the resort and bring their ponies to show guests pony racing and this gives me so much joy as it is an ideal place for me to start. Many of the children then choose to spend time at the stables and this way I can subtly teach them how to be gentler in their approach. If I can start with the children, I can hopefully bring education to future generations.
Tell us more about your staff. How long have they been with you and where does the majority come from?
I started with three local village boys in 2014 (who are still with me), and now we have a team of ten people. Some were employed by Nihi originally on the manual side (garden maintenance etc), but wanted to work with horses and the Nihi ethos is very much to keep everyone employed as one family. Over time I have seen these young men blossom and bloom, and they are now everything from basic farriers to vets. They can administer injections to horses, know basic first aid for horse and human and can guide guests across the island on treks. They are learning to read and write and work with computers and all of this has been a complete delight to witness. Over time I have given more responsibility, so they are often named ‘head of farrier duties’ etc to give confidence. I am really quite proud of them all.
When did you first have the idea to hand over the reins for the community to run the stables and how long has this process taken?
It was with this pride in mind (and seeing how well they have progressed) I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day these guys were managers of the operation, and it would become theirs.
I planted it as a seed initially and they thought I was being sarcastic, but over time they began to understand and I am now on site only every six to eight weeks, the rest of the time they take care of the operation. It’s been progressive over the years, but over the last twelve months I have stepped further and further back. I try to stay in the background and I leave the guests to them, unless it is the equine connection therapy, which I run. I probably spend more time training the staff now than the horses and I like to think their gentle ways are taken home with them.
With your continued guidance how do you see the stables progressing over time?
Increasingly we are seeing more riders visiting (as opposed to beach ride beginners) which is exciting as it allows us to expand our amazing trail rides around the island and bring in different elements such as Spa rides, picnics and even camp out’s. The healing with horses and yoga and meditation has also attracted a lot more horse savvy guests and this is great for me as I can now look to build on this area also, which is my absolute passion.
And lastly, out of the many horses you have rescued which one would be your favourite?
I honestly can’t say I have a favourite, but if I had to choose I guess it would have to be the first horse I bought, Covo, named after my husband whose nickname is Covo. Covo belonged to the local mayor of a town and was a racehorse. His sale was a bargaining tool for some business decision with Nihi so management bought this horse and I didn’t have much choice in him coming! He turned up with a terrible attitude and used to try and get me off all the time with rearing. With groundwork he would charge at me and there was no way in the world he would be befriended. One day I was in the arena with Covo trying to lunge him yet again, I had to use two lunge whips to fend him off at the time, and as usual he kept running at me. I was tired and frustrated, was beginning to feel pressure to get horses ready for guests and was doubting my horsemanship abilities. So I took him off the lunge and left him free rein and as usual he trotted to the gate and stood there waiting to be let out. I was disheartened and sat on the ground, and for a brief second wanted to give up on him and on the whole idea. I surrendered and let go, and I am not sure how long I was there but the next thing I knew I felt a muzzle on my ear and I could feel his breath right there on me. I stayed for a while and then I got up and moved to the exterior of the arena… and he followed me. We stayed there for a moment motionless and it was a turning point. I realised at that very moment that I needed to lose my agenda, Covo reminded me to stop and listen, he just wanted to be listened to, and that’s where the meditation with horses comes from.