HORSE LOVER IN KAMPALA. In Gayaza, you will not stop at the traffic congestion but the fun of visiting Flametree horse stable. Miranda Bowser, the proprietor of the stable tells Makhtum Muziransa how she started out.
The road to Flametree Stables is muddy, and probably dusty in the dry season, but smooth and graded. Flametree is a 200m drive, in Kijabijo Village, off Kayunga Road after braving nearly eight kilometres from Gayaza Town. Take a drive there with Miranda Bowser, the stables proprietor and one thing stands out; she hardly has her right hand on the steering wheel, she waves at people she meets. She has a good grasp of the economic and political climate of Uganda. Miranda will challenge anyone into speaking about agriculture, oil, the presidential campaigns and land use.
Her engaging nature is probably the reason behind the dear relationship with the locals since 2009. The time, Bowser ditched an 18-year-career in coffee production in search of land to start a horse riding school. She lives in Bukoto but makes a mandatory trip to the stables and is involved in village projects every day. She shares ice blocks with Nyange Supermarket while Janiffer Kisakye, a woman involved in hardware, usually gets Miranda equipment to mark out courses for events at Flametree.
“I worked in Kalagi as a coffee administrator and this was the last road out to Kampala to be worked on,” Miranda explains, in a gruff but moderated voice, her decision to set up the stables in a village where life can be so abrasive that anything one earns there, is well deserved.
“Go to Kampala-Masaka highway; chock-a-block, Kampala-Entebbe; houses and traffic. You won’t find 25 acres of land like we have here,” Miranda, who started riding horses at eight years when she lived at Hampton Court - London, adds.
She learnt how to ride by hanging around local stables and nagging riders until they let little Miranda ride. She did her pony chores before and after school, consequently she made no time for other sports. But now she owns a stable and tries to keep fit by running five kilometers every day.
Flametree has lush green vegetation, horses and foals in the paddocks made of wood, the sand arena, the practice area for more experienced riders and the clean stables.
Every step she takes around the stables, her horses draw closer. Her attention to detail is remarkable. She recognises movements of all horses, their height – which she measures in an old fashioned way using the back of her hands.
“Your horses have got to like you. They like rolling to show they are playing,” Miranda says almost to herself. To me she says, “ It depends on how you treat them, a couple of my ponies started in small fields and were not used to human interactions but they eventually got used.
“Horses love being around people, it is a matter of training, grooming them every day. Older horses wouldn’t dream of biting like these babies,” Miranda explains as one of her youngest ponies Oriental Dancer tries to nibble at her hands.
The stables are surrounded by over 60 Flame and 100 Cassia trees (Miranda and daughter Katie tired counting at that) and derive their name from that. They are full of activity. People of all walks of life pitch camps and hold picnics at the peaceful site. Cyclists on their training regimes usually have their lunch on the site.
“People have nowhere to walk in Kampala. You would get run over by a boda boda but it is amazing seeing all these people enjoy the landscape here.” Miranda never imagined this when she set out.
“I started with 14 horses, six from a friend. Peter, my husband said I would get carried away and I argued. Now I have 36 horses, so he was right and I was wrong,” she shares.
Coming to Uganda
Peter has always known and appreciated that his ambitious wife can get carried away or be stubborn, perhaps a lesson learnt from when she decided to join him in Uganda in 1990. The two met in London in 1989 after Peter, born in Uganda in 1964, had completed school.
“He told me he didn’t want to live in London and wanted to return home. I came in 1989 for a holiday and the next year I told my mother I was only going for two years, the rest is history. Now it is 25 years,” Miranda says with a smile.
Peter’s father was a member of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and came to Uganda under an ex-service league. He never left and when he passed on with his wife, they were buried in Jinja Cemetery.
Miranda joined the coffee industry after the economy was liberalised in 1990 and was fully into horse work in 1997 when she helped Sudhir Ruparelia introduce horses at Speke Resort Munyonyo.
“When Sudhir started doing more Chogm (Commonwealth) work at his hotel, we needed more space and brought the horses here,” she adds.
A self-sustaining project
Miranda believes after five years she is in this for the long haul, there are plans to even grow bigger.
“I am 50 and I can do this as a hobby or job.
“I can’t mess with this and say I’m in it for months. We have a tremendous team here and Robin (Kasumba, the stables manager) has been with me for 19 years and has been relying on me to pay his income all this long,” she explains.
More than Shs3m is spent on horse feed per month. There isn’t a full time veterinary doctor at the site and the fact that most of those in the country are only trained to handle livestock has pushed Miranda and her staff to learn how to do most of the work.
“I can’t praise them enough, they have learnt the hard way; kicks, bites and falls but they are now accomplished horsemen,” she says as we watch two of them tend to a horse that had sprained a leg muscle.
They have resorted to growing some of the herbs and grass while there is also a call to bring the locals on board so the stables can buy some of the hay in Kijabijo. Her neighbour Sam Ssekyanzi, who Miranda says is her best friend in the village, leased part of his land to Flametree so they can advance their projects. In return, he gets hay for his livestock.
Most of her stallions are castrated to control breeding but the recent demand for her horses among her friends has pushed Miranda to let some reproduce.
“Horses breed every 11 months and at three you can start to use them. But they are completely fragile even though they look strong, anything can go wrong without a vet,” she explains why she has had to castrate her stallions, bar two, and instead resort to buying horses.
Her decision not to make this a huge profit-making business, even when the costs would push her to, has come at an expense but for Miranda it is mostly a successful idea.
“If I wanted to do this as a business, and don’t get me wrong my husband would want that, I would never really do it,” she explains just before taking a phone call from one client, who wants to hold a birthday party at the stables. She wonders why people keep asking if there is any entrance fee to the stables. There is free access; it’s only lessons that would cost you a penny.
“My husband says Flametree has got to sustain itself 100 per cent. We have been self-sustaining for six years. I don’t pay school fees from this, he does, but we are always looking for ways to make money for the next few months,” Miranda says.
Sometimes she has had to sell some horses at an average of $5,000 or make money from those that pay for lessons, all in all the stables have got to be self-sustaining. Sometimes she gets partnerships to keep work moving.
Counting achievements and firsts
In November, Bob FM, a Western and Country music station, held a ‘Cowboy and Indian’ parade, where 13 Ugandans, two Kenyans and Natalie McComb from New Zealand rode horses through the streets of Kampala.
“Twenty years ago, it would be unimaginable to have one Ugandan at such a parade. It is a first but I am most pleased to have committed Ugandan riders,” Miranda says.
Speaking horses, her pony Oriental Dancer, named after linking its parents’ names (Great Wall of China and Dancing Lady), travelled to Kenya on November 5, 2015 where she is training to become a race horse, a first for a horse born in Uganda.
“My husband is glad because he loves horse racing. He usually says, horses are dangerous animals, they kick they bite, why would anyone want to near them? But he is cheerful about Oriental Dancer.”
But a lot more feels her heart with joy. The highlight of her life is riding with Katie, the daughter who is now at Edinburgh University. Katie, who has moved from ponies to riding horses, is a record five time winner of the “Lyndsy Plate,” Kenya’s most coveted trophy for juvenile riders.
Every Wednesday, during the schools term, autistic children from Ambrossoli School, Bugolobi visit the stables and now Flametree want to do it for the disabled too.
Miranda was also invited by the chairman Uganda Olympic Committee William Blick, to pioneer the start of a Uganda Equestrian Association. The sports association will be launched at Flametree and there is work in the pipeline to showcase horseracing at a motorcross event in Busiika mid this year.
“That letter was just fantastic. I imagine that 20-30 years from now we could have a Ugandan rider at the Olympics,” she says.
Flametree is open to riders in the afternoons from Tuesday to Sunday.
Lessons last a standard 45 minutes and can extend to one hour depending on how many riders are present on any given day. And cost anywhere between Shs45,000 – 55,000 depending on the number of people.
A private lesson costs between Shs80,000 - 90,000 depending on how long it lasts. A pony ride around the stables costs Shs35,000 for 30minutes.
Robin Kasumba, 29, is stable manager and the most talented local rider according to Miranda.
Jackson Adriko, 26, is in charge of the well-being of horses and teaching young local riders. He has been in this field for 10 years, six in Munyonyo and four at Flametree
John Kinyua, 29, is Kenyan and also into writing music and singing. He supervises most of the farrier work at the site. And he has mastered most of the health needs and remedies for horses. He was brought up on a farm where his father was managing horse work. He learnt how to ride in 1995.
Simon Edukani is a Turkana from Kenya and has been a farrier, a smith who shoes horses, for 18 years. He has only been in Uganda for 13 months. “This work is the most important, the horses feet must balance. if you fail at it, you lose the horse,” he says.