It was with some delight that we discovered on a recent visit to Cambodia that there’s an equestrian centre in this war-scarred southeast Asian country. The recently opened Cambodia Country Club, on the road to Phnom Pehn’s airport, serves a clientele mixing rich local industrialists and officials with expat businesspeople and NGO workers. A smartly designed open air arena was busy when we visited, and after saddling up in the adjacent stables, enjoyed a good hour lesson with head-coach Ray Fisher, from Ireland.
From Kildare, the equestrian heartland of Ireland, Fisher teaches a majority-French clientele on a mix of retired racehorses shipped from the Bangkok racing scene and local red-brown Khmer ponies. His assistant Sim Nurith exercises the stock with a glint in his eye and an unmistakable devotion – Kim is one of several local kids introduced to horses by the Pitt Jolie Foundation: the organisation set up by two A-list actors (they’re also parents of a Cambodian orphan) gives impoverished locals assistance and training. Sim rides in a pair of wellington boots but longs for a size seven pair of riding boots. Maybe next time I’m in Cambodia I’ll bring him a pair.
Given there’s another club in Siem Reap, the German-run Happy Ranch, equestrianism may be making its way in Cambodia. Fisher however says local riders have to import everything – from saddlery to vets – from neighbouring Thailand, which has several large equestrian clubs. Tropical Cambodia, home to 11 million mostly ethnic Khmers, hasn’t had time to think about horses, given the decades of civil war and insane Khmer Rouge rule it’s endured for the past 20 years.