Re-Training Racehorses for Nihi Sumba

Interview by Phoebe Oliver

Carol Sharpe is known as the horse whisperer of Nihi because of her incredible work retraining the island’s racehorses for the hotel’s incredible beach and trail rides around the remote island—an hour off the coast of Bali. In this article, Phoebe Oliver of Oliver Relations caught up with Carol to talk more about how she got involved in this very interesting career and lifestyle.

Your initial brief was to source horses for beach rides. What made you consider ex-racehorses? 

Basically size! Most of the horses on Sumba are not suitable in size to carry an average size Westerner; their origins are from Mongolian and Arabian ponies traded for Sandalwood on the Islands.

When I learned of the popularity of racing on Sumba and the local ponies were being crossbred with the Australian Thoroughbred to produce a bigger, faster racehorse, this provided the avenue to source horses locally. With the pickings quite limited, my criteria really narrowed to horses at least 140cm in size, as young as possible with the least amount of racing experience, and generally good in health. 


How long did it take you to train them to become good for beach rides, and how did you go about doing this? 

Gaining trust and communication through groundwork was well received by most of the horses – some would respond in a matter of hours, while others could take days – or even longer. It was up to me to work out their language of cooperation.

It really helped to attend some Sumba Horse Races to see how they are handled where their fear triggers were, and how they might perceive me. 

Most often, horses are trained to race from the fear flight response. I observed this at the Sumba horse races, where at the start line, the horses are often given some raps over the rump with a plastic bottle to build their adrenalin before the jockey is thrown aboard (bareback) to race. With the jockey clinging to their back in an elevated competitive state, it effectively evokes their prey animal flight from a predator response.

Like most horses (and particularly Sumba racehorses), their greatest reward was to feel relief from fear. So I learned to always give them a choice. In training, if I could feel them under fear response pressure, I’d give them a way out, so they could find a safer space before momentum built and resistance would disengage the part of their brain that is curious and cooperative.

Introducing a saddle was a good object for them to feel on their back without a competitive vibe. Training them to take a rider with a different agenda than racing was a little more challenging, especially when asking for upward transitions.

Lots of small circle work and direction changes to keep them thinking, disrupting, and distracting from the fast-forward motion they were so strong at. I also had to resist pulling back on their mouths as they were accustomed to being pulled on with hasher bits for control; their mouths are very desensitized as a result, and they were stronger at pulling back. 

These horses have taught me well that the greatest key is awareness of your own energy and focus…If you can’t hold a state presence and calmness, get off and try again later!  

We began taking guests for beach rides within a couple of months of opening, though the majority of our guests at this time were novices and being lead at a walk which was a great advantage for the horses to learn their new role.

Today, we still advise beginners to be guided under lead; however, we now have an incredible herd that can cater to an intermediate-level rider wanting to enjoy a relaxed canter down the beach! I am very proud of every single one of them – and of course, our incredible staff that are local villagers.

Were some horses particularly more challenging to work with than others, and if so why?

I have found the more challenging is often the purer strain of Sumba village racing pony. They are naturally feistier, clever and definitely cheekier and bossier than their cross-bred paddock buddies!

The horses are used for beach rides but also for other excursions at the award-winning Nihi Sumba. Can you tell us a little bit about these?

I believe Nihi has some of the most beautiful riding trails in the world. On our rides, it’s very much about the journey! You’ll venture through virgin rainforest-covered mountains, cross valley streams and rivers, passing through coconut groves and fields of rice that resemble a great patchwork quilt.

Winding through the traditional villages along the way, you are greeted with friendly smiles, and the only traffic jams you’ll encounter here is a herd or two of Buffalo or goat being guided home by an attentive herdsman! There is also the fantastic destination ride to Nihi’s infamous Nihioka Spa, which is very popular. This is reached with all of the above descriptions on the trail after about an hour in the saddle. 

The horses are also popular stars in Wedding ceremonies at Nihi. Wedding photos are made memorable with Bride and Groom being ushered to the alter by a Sumba horse and horsemen donned in colourful traditional Sumba dress.

We are also working on having the horses play a major role in Nihi’s expanding wellness program. Along with the classes I currently offer under my “Equine Connection Experiences”, which embodies energy and self-awareness through learning Equine communication. Guests will have the opportunity to try yoga with and on a horse, including meditation practice with horses.

I gather that once a year, these horses also become Polo ponies! That must be quite an interesting request for them to go from the racetrack to beach rides to Polo ponies – how do they react to this request, and how do you manage the training?

Ah yes, interesting is the word! Especially when asked to host the first British Polo Day within 18 months from the start … and I still hadn’t yet acquired enough larger crossbreds to cater! It was a relief to learn that the BPD team was not expecting serious polo ponies and that they are always up to play polo on the out of the ordinary…. camels, elephants, push bikes and now rough and slightly wild Sumba race ponies!

The training focus remained on calming for guest rides, but we introduced mallets and balls into the desensitizing training. We could only supply 6 horses for the game, so 3 aside on about a 1/4 size beach field with a larger arena ball. The game is not fast as it’s being played in the sand; it can be hot and hard going for the horses, so we make the chukker’s only 3 x 3 mins long with one final. The breaks between are gauged on the horses’ recovery, and this is usually taken with a dip in the ocean… saddle and all! 

It’s a whole lot of stick and ball fun in trying to get control of the ball in the sand and watch pro polo players try and managed unruly Sumba ponies against my local horsemen that do it so much better! We still have spectators’ participation between checkers in raking the pitch rather than stomping the divets! 

Carol Sharpe enjoying time with a foal
Carol Sharpe enjoying time with a foal

Lastly, how easy, in your opinion, is it to retrain a horse to a different job in life?

I heard a quote once which I think was said by a dog trainer, “there are no untrainable dogs, just ignorant owners” I think this is true for just about everything in life, including training or retraining horses…. if you ground yourself to your beliefs, you will more than likely get what you focus upon. 

Horses take incredible comfort from our confidence.  

NIHI SUMBA lies an hour off the coast of Bali and is often described as the edge of the wilderness. Visit NIHI website.


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