"Three years ago I went with my trainer to buy a new horse," says Lior Albeck, 17, the son of Ofer Albeck, the chairman and CEO of Tescom, a high-tech firm. "My horse, Peleg, that I rode for two years, was 14, and I had to advance. We went from ranch to ranch - in Holland, Belgium and Germany - and saw 15-20 horses every day. Toward the end of the week we remembered the three horses I liked best and went to see them again. That's how I connected with Vagabond.
"He was young, just five and a half," Albeck continues. "After he arrived in Israel he lost weight, and you could actually see his ribs. It took a whole year until he got some heft. All horses love to eat, but he's not wild about it. He's a very smart horse. He is very curious about the world, but he's a big coward. In the first year we won the competitions, but in the second year he lost confidence and we lost.
"I had a really good rider who rode him and brought his confidence back. Right now I am ranked first in Israel under the age of 21. I come every day from Tel Aviv to the ranch in Rishpon and work with him for three hours. I went to training camps in Italy and Germany without him, four times. I have an agreement with my father: a horse in exchange for good grades, above 90."
This is a typical conversation among the second generation of the local aristocracy, for whom horseback riding has become the favorite sport in recent years. This has happened even though riding, in contrast to golf - a pastime that is also popular among the country's wealthy - requires total commitment and a particularly serious financial investment.
The major expense is the horse: from an unknown colt that goes for a thousand euros, to an Olympic breed that is worth two million euros. The price is determined by the animal's genealogy and its achievements in competitions. In the first stages, the youngster will ride a trained horse worth a few thousand euros. But as his riding level improves, he will need increasingly better horses.
Talented horses with competitive potential cost between 10,000 and 50,000 euros. The price of a horse can shoot up or crash and, as with shareholders, the owner of a horse has to know when the peak has come and realize the asset. The point is not to generate revenues, but to ensure the upkeep of the athlete.
"When you have a good horse and you sell it," relates Ken Lalo, the executive vice president of Polar Investments, whose son rides, "it makes it possible for you to buy and maintain several horses, which is essential for a professional rider."
There is no breeding of horses in Israel; the animals are bought in Europe. This entails a trip of several days to ranches in the Lowlands and flying the horse home, which increases the budget by $5,000. The shopping isn't done alone, but with the assistance of an instructor, who accompanies the youngsters and presents the horses to them. The upkeep of a horse, insurance (an annual payment of 10 percent of the animal's value), veterinary care and training add another NIS 5,000 a month.
These days, the status of riding among upper-class families is such that the children - depending on their physical development and their parent's' enthusiasm - are in the saddle from the age of eight or 10. If they are prepared to continue, the parents buy them a horse of their own, which is kept at local stables or in the yard of their private estate. At the age of 14 the young rider is sent for training to Europe, usually in Germany or Italy, and takes part in competitions there. There he will hook up with his peers from the local aristocracy, for whom riding has been the noblest sport for decades.
Among Israel's young aristocracy are Lee Ofer, daughter of Israel Corporation head Idan Ofer; Karen Posielov, from the diamond merchants family; Maya Kahan, granddaughter of the billionaire businessman Morris Kahan; Dean Lalo, Ken Lalo's son; Natali Leibowitz, whose father owns a company that imports foreign workers; Roni Ayalon, grandson of Yigal Arnon, one of Israel's foremost lawyers; Hila Bufman, the daughter of Bank Leumi chief economist Gil Bufman; the children of Yoram Turbowicz, the chief of staff of Prime Minister Olmert; Tal Dotan, the daughter of Ami Dotan, managing partner of a venture capital firm; Roi Barner, the son of BMW importer Danny Barner; and others. The children of Israeli-based Russian oligarchs are also showing great interest in the sport, as are new-immigrant youngsters from families that originally came from France.
Because of the small number of competitive riders in Israel, it is easier to enter official competitions abroad, which limit the number of participants from each country. Gabriella Salick, whose millionaire father owns a chain of cardiology clinics in the United States, immigrated to Israel in order to receive citizenship and represent Israel in riding competitions.
'A horse is not a dog'
"My father is one of the owners of the Jockey Club Ranch in Rishpon," says Natali Leibowitz, 22. "Since I was zero years old, everything has been horses. We had 20 stables; today we have 50. I started riding when I was 10. With horses, either you fall in love with them or you don't. I snuck out of school to pet them. When I was 12, I got my first horse as a bat-mitzvah present, a pony called Sunrise. You have to forgo a lot of things. A horse is not a dog. It's not like Mom bought me a jeep and now it's in the parking lot. There's no such thing as 'I don't have the strength' or 'I don't feel like it.'
"The adrenaline rush you get from this is addictive. So you move on, take more risks, and then there's more adrenaline. This sport attracts me because it's the only one where men and women compete together. I don't want to hear people say: 'You're a woman.' So the competition is a lot harder. It's a terrific feeling to beat your ex-boyfriend."
The people pushing behind the scenes are usually the parents, who are happy to see the kids spending time outside, far from the computer, in a sports activity which also develops one's sense of commitment. Sometimes, though, the children do the prodding.
"At the age of 11, I told my father that I wanted to ride," says Tal Dotan, from Tivon, who is now 19. "He bought two horses, for my brother and me, and that pulled the whole family in. At that moment I understood that this is not just some extra-curricular activity. I was taking ballet lessons at the time, and that was my whole life. When Dad wanted to buy me a horse in the United States, for competition, I realized that there was no time to ride and to dance, so I stopped dancing."
What effect did this sport have on you?
Dotan: "It changed my life in every respect [and made me] look at things that other children didn't look at in the same way, and say, 'Wallah, getting dirty is okay.' It's totally taken for granted that you clean up the horse shit."
The parents usually follow the child's progress closely - out of love, of course, and also because of the social intercourse involved.
"When my children were young, I pushed them to horses too much," Alison Lalo relates. "They switched to basketball and golf. But then they went to a riding camp and got hooked. These days we get up at 6 A.M. every Saturday and accompany them until 10 at night. We film every ride so they will learn from their mistakes. We just bought a jeep and a trailer, and we are building a farm, where we will keep the horses. Every Christmas we go to a competition in England. In Europe, horses are the center of family activity."
Why does it make you happy that they ride - is it the sport or the continuation of the aristocratic tradition?
Lalo: "They are sportsmen in every respect. The 'horse children' can't go partying on Friday night and come home at 5 A.M. On the eve of a competition they are in bed at 10. Instead of going to some happening on holidays, with drugs and alcohol, they devote their time off to competitions."
"Working with horses grinds you down," confirms equestrian Karen Posielov, 42. She immigrated to Israel from England as a girl and continues to take part in international competitions. "I was in a competition in Germany with my husband and the children, and I didn't have a minute to be with them. They saw how I perspired, didn't eat anything, got back from training in a state of collapse. When I myself gave instruction on the ranch, I saw a large number of children and they were not spoiled in the least. At 5 A.M. they showed up for competitions with sandwiches, and went home totally worn out."
So, all the rich kids are good and industrious?
Posielov: "Sometimes you get some that are too pampered - they can't bear to give up the Friday night parties or wandering around in the malls, and they drop out."
No local sponsors
Working hard at this sport is not enough, nor is family tradition or an aristocratic sensibility. Achievements in riding demand large outlays of money, and because this is not a state-subsidized sport in Israel and has no commercial sponsors as of yet, all the funding comes from parents. Thus here, riding remains the prerogative of the rich.
Elsewhere, the sport attracts many sponsors, and because success in competitions is attributed to horse, rider and owner, businessmen buy expensive horses and match them with experienced riders. They go to competitions in Europe, which extend across long weekends, receive VIP privileges and rub elbows with other members of the upper class. In some cases, business clients are invited to competitions and races.
The rider is an athlete in every respect, but if he is not rich himself he remains dependent on the person funding him. For example, Ulrich Kirchhoff, a medalist at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, was forced to give up his horse when his sponsor gave it to a Saudi rider. Another senior rider, Christophe Barbeau, became a trainer in Israel after the Athens Olympics of 2004, because his sponsor took his horses from him and he did not have enough money to purchase Olympic-level horses.
The children from rich families thus often work with top trainers, even if they do not always deserve them. The parents of the German Pia-Louise Aufrecht, for example, who own a factory that manufactures racing cars, spent millions of euros to get their daughter into the top rank of the world equestrian scene when she was in her twenties, even though she was considered to have no talent.
The training camps in Europe are an integral part of the professional process young riders must undergo. The trainers recommend that the parents send the young rider to a ranch in Italy or Germany, where one of the world's top equestrians will put them through their paces. About 30 young Israeli riders (most of them after army service) are now based in Europe and taking part in international rounds of competitions.
Dean Lalo, 18, from Caesarea, went to Europe ahead of his induction, to a training camp in Turino, as a prelude to his service in an antiaircraft unit. "My dad hooked me up with a trainer and suggested that I learn there," he relates. "My friends suggested that I go on a trip with them to Cyprus, but I decided to go to Italy for three months. That's been my life for the past six years. It was also an opportunity to upgrade my level before the army. I lived with the trainer's parents and I was at the ranch every day from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening. I rode eight horses a day, and I was also given a horse to look after, and I took part in competitions with him every weekend."
Was there more to the experience than just riding?
Lalo: "Yes. I also learned how to speak basic Italian, and I was able to communicate with everyone there. There was an Israeli girl on the ranch - she had done her army service - who was learning riding in Europe, and also two Brazilians, a Romanian and Italians. An encounter of cultures. One time we went to a competition in Barcelona, a 10-hour trip, and in the evening the whole bunch of us and the trainer went to a game of the Barcelona soccer team."
Natali Leibowitz's life follows a similar pattern: "At age 14 I represented Israel in an international competition, and after that I worked on the horse six hours a day. On holidays I went to training courses in Italy, Switzerland and Norway. At age 17 I registered for the European championships for youth and went to Turino for four months. If you want to make it abroad, you need four or five horses. I came to the European tournament with my horse. Immediately after the tournament his value rose. The army brought me home."
Leibowitz: "I had a taste of it, and I understood that I don't want to be an international rider. It's demanding to breathe horses 24 hours a day. I want to go on riding in Israel and take part in competitions abroad, but at the same time to study, be independent and have a career."
'My own ego trip'
Gideon Yaniv sits in his office at the horse ranch in Basra, a moshav (cooperative farming village) near Netanya, smoking a thick cigar. On the desk are photographs of his son, Elad, Israel's top rider. Elad did not grow up as part of the local aristocracy, but with economic backing and much encouragement from his father, who wanted to see him do well in sports, he excelled.
His father wanted him to be a professional rider all along. Not even a serious road accident when he was 14, which left him bedridden in a full-body cast for weeks, made that dream fade. Says Gideon: "When he was 16 I informed the school that he wouldn't be coming back and sent him to Holland. He is very dyslexic and I was worried about him. I sent him books of humor and television programs that I recorded. From there he went on to books about Israel and philosophy. He became fluent in German and he understands Dutch. He succeeded in dealing with the dyslexia by himself. He interned with Ulrich Kirchhoff and later with a master in Germany. He became independent only four years ago. He has many friends, and also a girlfriend, and they live in her parents' home in Germany. He is not suffering in any way. He sat with Pavarotti at a dinner and rode his horse."
What did this demand of you as parents?
Yaniv: "Every day you are busy trying to get into competitions and set goals. I am not his personal trainer, but on a certain level I am his manager. Until last year all the family trips revolved around horses. We never went to the Riviera or skiing. We are sacrificing ourselves; there is no other way. In 1999 he was ranked 16th in the European championships, and in 2003 we won the Grand Prix."
How did you get along financially?
"I did not ask the state to underwrite me - it's my own ego trip. The method was to buy a horse that was six or seven years old for him for $30,000 to $120,000, to develop the horse and reach a high level, get results, and then sell. Today we have four horses in partnership and one of which we are the sole owners. Ahead of Athens 2004, our horse was 12, and that was the last minute to realize his sale. We got a good offer and sold him for a few hundred thousand dollars. It was impossible to train a new horse for competition, so we didn't participate. Before the Sidney Olympics we wanted to buy a horse for 200,000 euros. We took the horse to competitions and Elad won. That same evening they pumped up the price to 400,000 euros. We dropped the idea."
Yaniv has little good to say about the situation of equestrians in Israel. "What is going on here doesn't scratch the surface. Parents view riding as a hobby. They buy a horse to keep the kid quiet. The people with money in Israel aren't doing anything. You have to find someone who has everything, and wants to sit in an arena in Beijing next to princes and counts from around the world and watch as the horse and the rider bring them an Olympic medal."
"There are parents who wrote the check for the horse and that's it," says Ken Lalo, formerly the chairman of Israel's National Federation for Equestrian Sports and currently the head of the judicial committee of the the Federation Equestre Internationale (or FEI. Its current president is Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan. Previous presidents include the sister of the king of Spain, Princess Anne of England and Prince Philip of England.).
"Then," Lalo continues, "the girl doesn't do well, and the frustration begins. You have to be a lot more involved in order to understand what will go down and what won't. The child also has to understand that if he wants to get ahead, he will have to switch horses. That is the hardest part. There's no choice. It's a real dilemma. So the family buys another horse, and keeps the first one, too."
At the end of the intermediate days of Passover last month, dozens of spectators sat on the stone terraces of the ancient Caesarea amphitheater and watched a staged horseback-riding show. The participants: youngsters from a Caesarea riding club, who wore riding boots, matching caps and red robes. The plot: a Roman princess falls in love with a royal rider; the emperor threatens to have him executed, but at the last minute puts him to a riding test.
Such equestrian "telenovelas" are not confined to exhibitions. Sometimes there are happy endings in real life, too, as in the case of Alison and Ken Lalo, both of them riders from childhood, who met at a competition. Or Lior Albeck and his girlfriend. Sometimes the tales are more convoluted, as in the case of Frankie de Laida, who came to Israel as a horse leader and decided to settle here. He met an Israeli woman and married her. Later, they separated, and today she is the partner of the chairman of the Equestrian Federation of Palestine, Hassan Bazlamit, a former bodyguard of Yasser Arafat. Bazlamit, who lives in Jericho, is on excellent terms with the Israeli federation, which uses its connections whenever Israel Air Force helicopters and planes fly low and frighten the Palestinian horses in Jericho, where training is held for the youngsters of the local aristocracy: the children of the senior officials of the Palestinian Authority. W