When we see equines in the Gaza Strip today, it is via images of donkeys pulling large barrels of water and horses serving as life-saving ambulances.

But hidden in the midst of the urban landscape that is Gaza was once a place where horses were a source of joy and companionship.

Established in 2007, the Aljawad Club riding school was home to 36 horses ranging from up-down ponies to 1.10m jumpers. In October 2022, the facility came under new management and a younger generation of horse trainers and equestrians emerged.

One of the people responsible for their renewed vision is Ahmed Al-Reefi, a 27-year-old show jumping coach whose focus is horse health and creating unique family-friendly events for the club’s visitors.

Aljawad coaches and competitors gather for a photo to celebrate their first place winner. ©Ahmed Alreefi

Ahmed Al-Reefi describes the club as a close-knit family. Students were developed into well-rounded horse people with contagious joyfulness. They took pride in showing, creating fun horse care videos together, and galloping across Gaza’s warm sandy shores.

They celebrated the diversity within their communities by hosting events such as Breast Cancer Awareness benefits and Autism Awareness Days, which were an opportunity to collaborate with local non-profits by offering horses for therapeutic sessions that adapted to visitors’ cognitive and physical needs.

Equestrians of Aljawad Riding Club participated in Heritage Days as a way to honor their shared traditions. Children demonstrated the ancient art of archery and camel riding, while the school horses traded their martingales and bell boots for the traditional red saddle pads decorated with brightly colored tassels that are common in the region. Al-Reefi describes a night of children dancing the Dabke (traditional Palestinian stepping dance) for their parents, while still donning their jodhpurs and tall boots.

Those joyful days, however, are now behind them. Where the esteemed show jumping school once stood, now lies dust, rubble—and, perhaps unexpectedly, hope for the future.

Thundering sounds envelope the school

In early October 2023, the club was preparing for the worst. Airstrikes in the southern region of Gaza echoed throughout the city.

Staff were asked to fill water buckets to the brim every night in case water became further limited. The stress of the piercing noises took a toll on the horses. One, an 8-year-old gelding named Watan, succumbed to injuries related to his deteriorating mental state.

Ahmed Al-Reefi and 8-year old gelding Watan enjoying a bareback ride on the beach in 2022. ©Aljawad Club

By mid-October, missiles began to drop near the Al-Jawad Club riding school. Three of their beloved children’s ponies, Aliaa, Adam and Jasten, who were known for their steady demeanor in the ring, perished from various shrapnel injuries to the chest, legs, and back.

Despite the terrible losses, Ahmed Al-Reefi and his team continued to care for the remaining horses, risking their safety to make weekly trips to pick up hay and grain. As people began to evacuate their homes, caring for the horses became increasingly difficult.

The last grain and hay run Ahmed was able to make was on November 1st, 2023. He left the club to go pick up that week’s delivery, but on his way back he encountered an Israeli tank blocking the road. The soldiers advised anyone who approached to turn around.

There was no way back.

Ahmed contacted one of his fellow staff members who had remained at the barn to inform them of what happened. It was unclear when the road would be clear for travel, but airstrikes continued to drop within meters of the riding school. He instructed them to leave as much hay out as possible in case they were forced to flee the area.

Ahmed lost contact with that team member a few days later and has not heard from them since.

The weeks that followed brought grim news.

The neighbors spotted one of the school horses thin and scavenging for food. Another horse wandered further north and was treated for an injury by a friend of the club. Later, that friend informed Ahmed the injuries were beyond repair. They were forced to use the gelding to feed families who had not received food aid in over eight weeks.

Ahmed Al-Reefi and Diesel competing in a jump-off round. 

Most painfully, Ahmed received a video of two horses galloping together before being shot and killed by a tank. He recognized the dark bay as his personal show jumper gelding, Diesel.

The whereabouts of the other school horses remain unknown at this time.

Hopes for a brighter future

The tragedy that befell the Aljawad Club riding school is not what Ahmed talks about in our near-daily communications. He shares stories from the beach trail rides that were a special treat for the students after a long week of training. He reminisces about coaching little ones from shy and unsure to confident and empowered.

He talks about missing the little moments that I think we all hold dear in any part of the world: holding your pony for the farrier, grooming them in the soft light of the sunrise, watching them graze, the soft knickers when they see you coming.

Ahmed dreams of rebuilding. When we talk, it is apparent that the joy Aljawad Club created in the Gaza Strip is still burning bright within him. Like most Gazans today, he is facing immense personal losses as well as the loss of the school’s horses, but visions of rebuilding give him hope.

How soon this will come to be remains uncertain, but I know that now, I too dream of seeing this oasis rise from the ashes.

To learn more, follow the Aljawad Riding Club on Instagram at @Aljawad.Club.

For more information on how you can help Ahmed and his students rebuild, see Al-JawadRidingClubRebuildingFund.org