Sunday, August 29, 2004
The more I see of Israel, the more I discover the surprises hidden away in this tiny country. I had no idea what was in store last Friday when my friend invited us to visit her new place of work.
Driving into the village outside Netanya, the scenery reminded me of a typical Nahum Guttman painting: fields of ruddy terra rossa soil, citrus groves and shady eucalyptus-lined lanes with pastel stucco houses nestling under terracotta tiled roofs. There are hundreds of places like it all over central Israel.
Arriving at our destination the scene was more John Constable than Guttman. Though flanked in typical Israeli fashion by fuchsia bougainvillea, the barred metal gate bore a green English language sign: "Horse Route".
Beyond it a short path led to an immaculate paved farmyard. A small brown Welsh pony leant inquisitively over the half-door of his loosebox. Bales of hay were stacked nearby. A pair of towering majestic horses were being led away from the spacious paddock by efficient stable girls wearing jodhpurs and knee-high riding boots, their hair neatly tied into plaits and buns.
We entered the very English-looking stables, complete with a welcome sign adorned with horseshoes. Three large farm cats lounged in the shade of its eaved roof and a shaggy muppet-like guard dog ambled out to greet us.
Indoors, a neat tack room was well stocked with black velvet riding helmets and English saddles. Spacious stalls housed the sort of impressive horses you see on the professional European show jumping and dressage circuit - evocative breeds such as Westphalian, Holstein, Wurrtemberg and Trakehner.
If you shut your eyes to the adjacent orange orchard, you could have been in England.
Only instead of being called Charlotte or Imogen, the stable girls had names like Anat and Noa, and their language was biblical, not Shakespearean.
In general, the scene reminded me of Kipling. Surely the British imperial India that he knew must have been something like this, incongruous slices of England implanted in an oriental land, native creatures intruding on the semblance of Britishness. The English romantic poet Rupert Brooke came to mind with his visions of English rural idylls. I felt as though I'd happened upon a remnant of the British mandate.
As a child I had devoured books about such places, so exotic to me in their goyish country Englishness. Places where girls named Jill and Kate competed at the village pony club, treating their mounts to Polo mints from the village shop, while their parents went along to the local foxhunt.
I never imagined that my first visit to a prim and proper rural English riding school would be around the corner from Netanya.
My mind spun with a flood of pent-up horsy knowledge, untapped for years - obscure vocabulary, breed details, correct saddle posture - never mind that I've never had a riding lesson in my life.
I chatted in a Hebrew peppered with foreign jargon to the very English-looking - yet Israeli - proprietor. Her mission is to promote the discipline and elegance of English riding, in particular that most refined of equestrian arts, dressage. Akin to ballet on horseback, this dignified sport requires a perfect fusion of horse and rider to achieve the appearance of effortless coordination.
Israel, I learnt, has a small but devoted dressage community, competing in events in Israel and abroad. We even had an entrant in this year's Olympics, though injury to his horse prevented him from competing. While Israel is nowhere near western European standards, we have won tournaments within our regional group, which includes Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey.
I was taken aback to discover that dressage even exists here. Its formal style, with horses with plaited manes and competitors clad in smart tailored jackets, trim breeches and sleek boots, seems utterly at odds with the regional culture.
I knew there was a thriving Western riding scene in Israel, and even rodeos. The small beef cattle industry supports a modest group of professional Israeli cowboys, which has inspired a growing culture of recreational Western horsemanship. This easygoing style, with its macho overtones, gung-ho vocal commands, casual riding attire, and big, comfortable saddles seems to better suit the rough and ready Israeli character.
There is apparently little love lost between advocates of the English and Western schools in Israel. The stable's proprietor bemoaned the pervasiveness of the Western style here, how uncouth it was, how unaesthetic. She ran her stables as an example of how she thought things ought to be.
As Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream".
And as Rupert Brooke wrote, "There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England."