RIYADH: At the age of 10, Abdullah Al-Sharbatly was watching the International Federation for Equestrian Sports’ (FEI) World Championship with his friends when he turned to them and said, “one day, that will be me winning gold.”
It was a bold claim but fast forward 31 years and he is a champion show jumper.
To date, his best result at the World Championship was a silver medal in 2010, but he has a collection of other golds, including a record-breaking six wins at the Asian Games.
Two of those came at the event’s most recent edition in Hangzhou, China where he won the individual and team equestrian events on his horse Skorphults Baloutendro to consolidate his place as the most decorated athlete in Asian Games history.
Al-Sharbatly told Arab News: “It was a great victory; it was important to win for my king and my country. It was important for me personally too because I last won the individual title in 2014 and I really wanted to win it back again. It was an amazing feeling to do so.
“I must thank King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as (Minister of Sport) Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and (Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation President) Prince Nawaf bin Faisal bin Fahed Al-Saud. Their support is invaluable.”
With the Asian Games now behind him, Al-Sharbatly is focused firmly on the Olympics in Paris next summer. His best previous result was a bronze at London 2012 and with the Games returning to Europe for the first time since then, the 41-year-old is in confident mood.
He said: “For as long as I can remember I have always been thinking of gold and now my aim is to win the Olympics. It is a clear goal for me. I am in super condition and have a lot of confidence. I believe I can win medals in both the team and individual — this is the target.
“Both mean the same to me — a medal is a medal and both ways should be celebrated. I think I have a good chance to win in both categories.”
At the 2012 Olympics, Al-Sharbatly’s bronze was made even more impressive by the fact the horse he was supposed to be riding was injured. Fortunately, Saudi breeder Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud Al-Kabeer Al-Saud stepped in with a late replacement.
“It was amazing in London. I won the silver in the World Championship two years before and felt confident I would win a medal. My best horse was not fit at that time, so I had to take another horse called Sultan from Prince Turki.
“It was not the best situation, as I was only able to ride the horse once before the Olympics. But you have to get used to these situations and together we won bronze,” he added.
Prince Turki, who died in July, was one of Al-Sharbatly’s leading supporters and the rider pointed out that the late royal was a major influence on his career.
He said: “I wish more than anything that he was with us at the Asian Games and would be with us at the Paris Olympics. He was like a father to me.”
Born in England, Al-Sharbatly first sat on a horse aged six and was already winning competitions as a precocious nine-year-old rider. However, in equestrian competition experience is everything. The average age of the past four men’s Olympic gold medallists in individual show jumping was 42 – exactly how old Al-Sharbatly will be when he competes in Paris.
“The older you get, the better you get in show jumping and I certainly feel this improvement each year. It is a sport that needs experience. You understand better how to manage different situations in the ring, how to train your horse.
“Every year you learn more – it’s the opposite of football, you don’t need to be young and fresh. Honestly, if I am alive and healthy, I think I can compete until I am 70. Why not?”
On the formula for becoming a gold-medal winner in equestrian, Al-Sharbatly added: “To be successful in this sport you need talent and skill of course, but you must also have ambition and hard work together if you are to win the big competitions.
“You have to believe in yourself too. My friends still remember me saying as a child that I would win the world championships; they laugh now about this confidence, but you must have it in this sport if you want to be successful.”
Al-Sharbatly could not have won his medals without his horses, and he noted that his relationship with the animals was at the heart of his success.
He said: “The medal we get is not for the horse and it is not for me as the rider, it is the combination of the two of us.
“You need to have chemistry with your horse, and I have a lot of emotions toward all of my horses. I see them as my kids and as my friends, they are not just my horses.
“I spend all my days with them – no one on this planet loves these horses half as much as I do. This is why, when we win together for Saudi Arabia, there is no better feeling,” he added.
The training regime in elite equestrian is relentless and Al-Sharbatly rides every day in the pursuit of the minor improvements that will enhance his medal chances.
He highlighted the vital support in recent years of endurance rider and friend Tarek Taher, who co-owns Asian Games-winning horse Skorphults Baloutendro.
“Tarek is like a brother for me. We have had a strong friendship for many years, and I’d like to thank him a lot for supporting me.
“In equestrian, we must train for many hours, and it is intense, but you must also spend time with the horse, not just ride them. They need to feel happy and good, it’s a long-time commitment but it is worth it when I can see interest in the sport grow, particularly in Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Sharbatly knows that an Olympic gold medal in Paris would make him a Saudi sporting icon, a status he would relish.
He said: “I take this position as a role model very seriously and know that when people see me winning, they have hope that they can also do this. I try to encourage young people to believe in themselves and I’m always pleased to see all the Arab and Middle East riders succeed.
“Of course, my deepest feelings are for my fellow Saudi competitors as I always want to see my country’s flag flying high. This is why I compete, and this is the goal in every international competition,” Al-Sharbatly added.