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Eight years since the horrific earthquake that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, a young rider’s dreams of equestrian glory are proving inspirational for the people of Haiti.
Mateo Coles is set to become the first Haitian rider to participate in the Youth Olympic Games when it is held later this year in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
While the Caribbean country and its fledgling equestrian scene was decimated by the events of January 12, 2010, it is hoped that 15-year-old Mateo’s qualification for Buenos Aires will give the sport, and perhaps even Haiti as a whole, a welcome boost...
The events of 2010 led to unimaginable consequences for Haiti’s people, and the country’s economy has never recovered. The impact on equestrianism has been devastating. Two major clubs closed, leaving just three that can host events, and sponsors are non-existent. People do not have money for new horses or to invest in breeding, which has led to a decline in competition standards for what remains of the equestrian scene. Beyond that, many of the young riders who left the country immediately after the earthquake never returned.
“We are doing all we can to maintain some activity, but it is difficult,” said Jean Patrick Chemaly, president of the Haitian Equestrian Federation. While “difficult” may be an understatement, Chemaly is eager to focus on the future and the sport’s potential.
Mateo’s qualification for Buenos Aires is a symbol of hope. As Chemaly explained: “We are thrilled at our first trip to the Youth Olympic Games. Mateo’s appearance can boost equestrianism in the country. It will remind other young people that they too could realise their dreams.”
Mateo, who is currently based in Florida, is determined to forge a professional career in equestrianism and represent his country on the international stage. He is also keen to use his profile for good, having allied with the Kay Père Juste orphanage, located at Wharf Jérémie, which takes care of 600 children and is also a school.
Beyond Mateo’s trip to Buenos Aires at the elite level of the sport, the federation has been aided by the FEI and its Solidarity Programme and has developed a Training and Development Plan for 2017-2020 that seeks to inspire growth and improvement in standards. The HEF has invested in and engaged itself in the FEI Coaching system, which is “systematic and provides continuity… and has made a world of difference”.
Chemaly added: “We have organised many riding clinics by FEI Experts for coaches, riders, grooms, vets and blacksmiths – some sponsored by our clubs and many of them sponsored by the FEI Solidarity Programme.”
Haiti is also keen to participate again in the regional FEI World Jumping Challenge, which provides competitors and administrators with “realistic goals that are challenging, attainable, and that would motivate our riders, coaches, parents and club owners”. Haitian rider Dieulenes Velines won an FEI World Jumping Challenge Category C Jumping class not too long ago, which shows the nation’s potential at a regional level. The plan adds that the event “also provides us with an international standard to measure our progress”.
Jumping is the most popular discipline in Haiti, with about four or five riders able to jump more than a metre. The HEF hosts a two-phase, four-day National Jumping Championship, and has plans to introduce a National Dressage Championship.
The HEF is keen to reach out to the wider population in Haiti, noting that equestrianism can appeal to all. Chemaly added that participants in Haiti range from wealthy individuals to low-income families, with many competitors having started out as stable staff. “There is no particular ‘type’ of person that enjoys our sport,” he said.
The HEF has a long tradition of working with the less fortunate, and collaborated with the Wings of Hope charity before 2010 when the disadvantaged young people it helped were relocated to Jacmel, a Haitian province on the southern border of the island. However, the HEF continues to play a proactive role in helping those still suffering from the events of 2010.
Chemaly explained: “We have organised scholastic outreach programmes as well as programmes that focused on helping amputees from the horrific earthquake Haiti suffered. Both those programmes were sponsored by the FEI Solidarity Programme.”
Text by Richard Mulligan
Images by Liz Gregg