Thiaba Camara Sy : "Everything is about connection and communication"

As far back as she can remember, Thiaba Camara Sy has always had a real passion for the equestrian world and the horse as an animal...

When did your passion for horses begin?  

When I was about 5 years old, I liked to go to the movies to watch "Little Joselito", the story of a little Spanish horseback rider. This series instilled a love both of flamenco and horses within me.

How often do you go horseback riding today?

I ride every morning at 7am at the Cercle de l'Etrier de Dakar (C.E.D) either for a lesson with an instructor or a ride on the beach at sunrise. I need this breath of fresh air.

What is your most beautiful horse-related memory?

Perhaps it was the encounter with my first horse, a mare named Princess. It was like a dream come true. I kept asking my parents to sign me up for horseback riding lessons and they refused until one day, for my 10th birthday, my father gave me Princess. It was Mame Abdoul Aziz Sy Dabakh who suggested this to him, saying: "It would be good for you to raise one or more horses because they are animals loved by God". After that, my father enrolled me in the Gendarmerie where I was a member of mounted squadron. That's where most of my childhood friendships were born and I still have them today. Soon I started to compete in dressage competitions, show jumping and cross country. When I went to France to do my preparatory class in business school, it was the only sport I continued with. At ESCP, where I was part of the horseback riding team, I participated in international student tournaments. I have wonderful memories of that. Another thing I like about horseback riding is that to my knowledge it is the only sport that is completely mixed gender-wise. There is no distinction in the pairing (mount and rider) between male or female, horse, gelding (neutered horse) or mare.

​A passion for horseback riding seems to be in the family...​

My father had a stud farm in Thiès. Many of his horses such as Linguère, Samba Linguére and Serigne Mansour-Borom Daradji have marked the history of horse racing in Senegal and won national trophies, amongst others. At the time, our national 'Leon Zitrone', (horse racing reporter) was Abdoulaye Nar Samb. I remember during one of the tournaments of the Grand Prix du Chef de l'Etat, the horse 'Serigne Mansour' made a false start and then managed a phenomenal comeback. The suspense was unbearable and fueled by the passion of Abdoulaye Nar Samb who, as the race progressed, went from being commentator to 'griot'. The horse crossed the finish line winning the race to the rhythm of a superb and moving declamation of his human namesake. Moments like this one give you goosebumps. The horseback riding world is a traditional passion which is very much alive in Senegal whilst also providing an opportunity to develop the horse-breeding industry and related jobs that support it.

The horse is also a very important animal in the history of Senegal, such as 'Malaw', the famous horse of Lat Dior...

Absolutely. In Wolof, there is a vocabulary exclusively dedicated to the horse, in the same way that there is a vocabulary exclusively dedicated to kings. Traditionally, we have a deep respect for horses. In my father's stud farm, horses were massaged, pampered and fed with germinated millet. During a year of intense drought, Macodou Diop, the manager of the stud farm, exchanged rice for his family's consumption for bags of millet to feed the horses. He too was a great enthusiast. He was a customs officer and refused an assignment in Casamance because horses cannot live there. It was thanks to the mediation of Serigne Abdoul Aziz Sy that he was finally transferred to Karang (on the Gambian border) where he went, taking a horse for company with him. The Hippodrome of Thiès bears his name.

In Hebrew, the word horse means 'he who helps man to grow'. Have horses helped you to grow in your personal and professional life?

Completely. I am deeply aware of the fact that if I had not been a horseback rider, I would not have had the same academic career and maybe not even the same success in my professional life. Horseback riding is a practice that has deeply shaped me, in terms of values and passion. Horses allow you to express the greatest and most noble parts of yourself. Horses are very generous animals. They embody both strength and respect, gentleness and generosity, power and humility... And they are a real education in patience. Communication is the cornerstone in a relationship with a horse. I always find it very moving to see how young children can be excellent horseback riders. They manage to guide a horse of which they represent maybe 3% of its bodyweight... Everything is about connection and communication.

What do you think the world of management and horseback riding have in common?

When riding a horse, you learn that it is not through coercion or brute force that you make the most of its potential. This is perhaps one of the first lessons I learned. How do you persuade, convince, inspire confidence and get someone to follow you? Horses are an extraordinary education in leadership. In the wild, horses live in a herd, with a leader. The leader is followed because he is recognized by his qualities. The day he loses the trust of the group, his leadership vanishes immediately. If a horse trusts his rider, he follows him, whatever the circumstances, and gives him everything he has.

A horseback rider uses his voice to communicate, but the most essential communication is non-verbal. When you are afraid, a horse can feel it and this worries him. He becomes nervous, which reinforces a horseback rider's fear and a vicious circle is created. This is also true in human communication. We are often unaware that we communicate a lot without using language. We cannot lie to our horse as we communicate with our body and our mind. If we look at this on a human level, it can help us to understand how, rather than manipulating people for immediate but superficial and unsustainable results, it is better to build relationships based on trust.

What role do you think a horse can play in particular in supporting the professional life of an individual or a group of people?

Horses are often used in therapy. We use this approach at the CED with autistic children and have obtained impressive results. I am not a specialist but I believe that horses offer an excellent means for everything that has to do with communication - mastering one's emotions, becoming aware of oneself, one's attitudes, one's tensions... Their company is always soothing and inspiring.

Interview by Beautiful Soul

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