“Do you know what dressage is?” When Mohamed Jassim Al Serkal’s instructor asked him this question when he was 13 years old, his life changed forever. Although the young Emirati had been riding since he joined his cousin for a lesson at the age of nine and instantly felt a connection with horses, he had never heard of dressage—only jumping, which he didn’t feel was the right fit for him. But that sentiment of displacement was no longer the case when Al Serkal began practicing dressage. “I felt I was in the right place doing what I loved, connecting to the horse on a superior level—full support of its mind and body.”
A sport that involves utmost control and precision, dressage—meaning “training” in French—features a horse so attuned to its rider that it can execute a range of movements with minimal guidance. Often compared to the elegant moves of ballet, the horse pirouettes, trots, halts, and canters with a subtle signal from the rider’s legs, hands, or shift in weight. “Building a stronger connection with our horses is key, using body language to find the right buttons on certain movements as well as to make our communication more clear and consistent,” explained Al Serkal, adding “When I get on my horse, I feel I can communicate everything with a tap or a touch on my reins; I built a strong connection to my horses that they already know what I want even before asking.”
One of the most prominent examples of dressage can be found at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, where rare white Lipizzaner stallions perform perfectly in sync haute école demonstrations to stunned onlookers in the baroque halls of the Hofburg Palace. Although Al Serkal does hope to represent the UAE in Europe, he has his sights on a much larger stage: the Olympics. While the Olympics have included individual dressage competition since 1912, there has yet to be an Arab gold-medalist on the world stage. However, Al Serkal has plans to change that. “I do not only want to compete in some shows, but I also want to represent my fellow Arabs on the main stage, The World Cup, The World Equestrian Games, and eventually the Olympics.
In the UAE equestrian community, there aren’t many men who compete in dressage. While show jumping and endurance garner a lot of attention, most Arab athletes ride dressage as a hobby, said Al Serkal, but that hasn’t affected his passion, goals, and impact on future generations of riders. “Recently a mother of a young boy spoke to me on Instagram and told me her son has been following my journey and is in awe of what I do; he loved it so much that he asked his mom to take dressage classes and did his first competition—which I was judging—and came fourth for his first time. The boy came up to me and said ‘I want to be like you one day’,” reminisced Al Serkal. “This is what I love to do and if I can influence the young generation to build a relationship with the sport like I have, then we will see a big difference in the coming years.”
To encourage this change, Al Serkal is on a mission to build more awareness, resources, and local competitions so that dressage becomes as integral a part of Emirati culture as equestrianism is overall. The first step? Forming a UAE team for the 2022 Asian Games. Although there aren’t enough trained riders to create a team at the moment, the community is gradually growing, said Al Serkal, and with enough support from the government and private businesses, it has the chance to become something far greater. “I want to create a foundation for dressage based in the UAE where I can introduce people to dressage and show the world how talented our riders are in the UAE.”