Mohamed Kishlaf, an 18-year-old, affectionately strokes his newly-acquired horse as he walks it into a barn. He steps back to ensure ‘West Lothian’ does not closely follow ‘Pippa’, a two-year-old filly that they have bought at an auction with his friend Tony Kuria, 17.
At this year’s Ngong Racecourse auction in Nairobi, they were the youngest bidders and buyers, yet they are savvy and assuringly knowledgeable.
They are part of the next generation of Kenya’s horse owners and trainers, keen on breathing new life into a business taken as an old man’s hobby.
At the auction, most of the attendants are older, some are trainers buying on behalf of others, but the rest are breeders keen on restocking their stables with rare progenies to keep their yards going as they sell off the older horses.
Bruce Nightingale of Kenana Farm in Njoro, who was in charge of the sale, says the Saturday auction that saw 15 yearlings snapped up in minutes was “the best.”
“The horse market has not been good … we have few breeders in Kenya, hence few yearlings but I’m happy all of them were sold today,’’ he says.
Roses, wine, grilled meats, stacks of hay neatly surrounding a small, yet charmingly quaint sitting arena, is where the horse lovers were meeting to bid on that Saturday afternoon.
This year’s top-selling horse went for Sh660,000. The lowest was an unnamed filly that fetched Sh150,000. Mohamed and Tony bought their two horses for a combined Sh575,000.
After the auction, Bruce who is also a breeder and has done other auctions, is too busy to talk to one person for long.
Some horse lovers are congratulating him for a job well done. All the horses at the auction were sold unlike previous years. One buyer wants to write him a cheque for three horses bought. A few minutes after, Bruce is off to the stables. Sitting in their new stable, Tony has two animal passports that shows their vaccination charts.
The young horse owner is finishing his secondary school in about three months. He fell in love with horses when he was seven in a children’s horse training club.
Over the years, he has mastered horses from the nitty-gritty of good behaviour to planned mating for purebred horses so that they produce desired characteristics, and that they are all born in August or thereabout.
“These horses are babies. They don’t know anything, they don’t know how to be ridden, we have to teach them slowly, get them fit for galloping, condition them for the races, because races are not easy,” says Mohamed.
The teenagers have been riding professionally for four years, during which time they were equipped to be horse trainers too.
They have had two other horses, one that won some prize money and a showjumper but they decided to sell them for Sh200,000 each so as to buy exceptionally well-bred yearlings at this year’s auction and invest their skills and parent’s money in the horse training business.
Their barn, also a new investment, can accommodate 20 horses.
In a few months, they duo hopes the barn will be full as horse owners hire them to train their fillies and colts. Horses are bought at a young age and then put in the special hands of trainers hired to train them for races in a span of six months. Juvenile races introduce them to the duel. At three years old, they join derbies.
“Ours will start racing in March next year. We will wait for them to be stronger,” Tony adds.
They know that producing a champion takes a lot of work and luck.
“I hope they are good race horses. We know it’s a tricky purchase because one can buy a horse that will not really win any race. Some come last, some are champions. I hope ours will be champions,” an optimistic Mohamed explains.
Horse racing is a select, high-stakes business. Before the auction, they had come to the stables to painstakingly assess and read a lot about them. Bidders trace the animal’s bloodline and buy into pedigrees that have a remarkable family history.
“We choose them ourselves, we looked at the family history, their body formation, the legs, how they were raised, their mums and dads. We analysed their gait, muscles and how they stand up,” says Mohamed.
One of their horses was sired by a top-class thoroughbred pedigree stallion — a Westonian from South Africa. There were nine foals and fillies at the auction sired by the famous descendant of a Westonian from South Africa.
Being part of a generation that has been raised on the Internet, Tony and Mohamed also learnt about horse training from YouTube.
“It’s all about interest. You cannot force every young person to see potential in horses,” says Mohamed.
“I think most of them [young people] don’t know much about horses. But if they come and watch the races, then they will develop interest,” adds Tony.
Mohamed’s interest was piqued about four year ago. He started training as a rider and his trainer taught him more. He met Tony in a horse training school in Nairobi and they became more than “riding buddies.” As an investment, they say their horses have great potential, but theirs is more than a passion. At a young age, their love for horses has opened job opportunities.
“We are creating employment because immediately after we got our horses, we hired our first worker and because we’re heavy, we will hire jockeys to ride our horses for races. When we fill the stable, we will get more and more workers,’’ Tony says.
For years, horse racing has drawn its fair share of the wealthy, looking to make money from races and sell yearlings but the investment is more than a hobby. It is a source of employment.
One horse hires more than three people: a trainer, a hostler, a sizer and a farrier.
Joseph Muya, who has had an impressive breeding and racing career knows this too well. He has been lucky to enjoy some great days as a jockey and racehorse owner, but none has been more impactful than creating employment for young trainers, sizers, jockeys and hostlers.
“I have hired 90 people, but the impact is bigger because their families are also benefiting from the income. I have trainers, sizers, vets, three jockeys, including my son who did a six-year training in one of the best racing schools in the UK,” he says.
“Jobless youth have become alcoholics, drug users and criminals and we only start lamenting when they start stealing from us. We have to create employment for them. I hired two boys who were seen as social misfits to brush my horses, pet, talk to them and basically groom them. After seven months those boys who were wasting away due to drug abuse really changed. Besides the income, interacting with horses helped them recover mentally,” he adds.
Research shows petting, grooming and feeding horses help patients with trauma and those struggling with substance abuse.
Stellar ‘horse career’
Joseph who got his first horse as a gift 20 years ago now has more than 40 in his 10-acre farm in Nakuru. At the auction, he bought a Sh400,000 yearling called ‘Earl Gray’ with the Westonian bloodline. He hopes ‘Earl Gray’ will be next year’s derby winner.
He says he mostly buys from South Africa which has a big horse market. A South African auction could have about 200 horses compared to 25 on a good day in Kenya.
Being a master in buying horses, so what was he looking for?
“I looked at the breeding. ‘Earl Gray’s sire was a Westonian, so she comes from a lineage of champions. Her mother was bought from the US and she won five races in England and others in Kenya. The sister and grandmother were also pros. I’m glad I bought it because my son liked the horse,” he says.
Joseph is no longer a jockey because he has gained weight past the required 54 kilogrammes. “So, now I also own hotels. But my passion is still in horses, I want to show Kenyans that it is not a mzungu business. When my horses retire from races, tourists use them to tour Lake Nakuru Lodge,” he says.