It all began with a jump.
For months he’d been mesmerised by the majestic beasts, watching their every move as they cantered around the property.
When his mother’s employer saw his interest in the animals she offered to teach him how to ride a horse and he leapt at the opportunity to learn.
Oscar Ncube has since blazed a trail: he’s the first black rider to have competed in the 1,60m event at the South African Derby – the biggest horse racing event in the country.
Now the accomplished show jumper wants to open up the exclusive sport to township kids.
“I’m trying to get kids to realise it’s not only soccer that’s a sport – there are so many things that you can do,” he says. “There are so many opportunities out there.”
The 34-year-old athlete, who is driven by his desire to help kids to have the same opportunities he had, started mentoring children a few years ago while still an apprentice.
These days he’s more established and has his own riding school, Linrowe Stables, where he teaches children the basics of horse riding and the art of show jumping. The Kyalami-based stables he co-owns with his fiancée, Catherine Macfarlane (26), also equips the youngsters with valuable knowledge on how to feed, groom and care for horses.
“The kids have never been exposed to this sport,” he tells DRUM.
“Some of them have told us they want to be jock-eys so already we’re giving them a chance to have a future and they have something to look forward to.”
But it hasn’t been a smooth ride. It costs between R1 000 and R5 000 for an amateur horse, and maintenance for each animal amounts to about R5 000 a month, so Oscar competes competitively to help to keep the school’s doors open.
He’s been riding horses since the age of seven and says the ideal age for children to start learning is from the age of eight.
He’s confident about teaching his students, who range in age from nine to 15.
“I’m a father myself so I know how to deal with children,” he says, laughing.
Oscar has three students he teaches for free twice a week in partnership with Nissan, which ferries the kids to and from the riding school. He’d love to give more free lessons but with only six horses – one a R1 million competitive horse donated by a sponsor – he can only accommodate three students at a time for free.
He also has private clients, whom he charges R4 500 for eight lessons a month and uses this money to compete in professional events and run the free school.
“It’s challenging,” he says, “but if the kids are interested, you can’t stop. It makes it easier to work with them.”
The first thing Oscar teaches them is to understand the animals and their personalities.
“It’s a partnership – you have to work with the horse,” he says.
Introducing kids to the sport teaches them patience, perseverance, humility and respect for the animals, he adds, and the kids are eager to learn.
“A lot of kids of colour are realising what this sport is and their parents are also seeing it. I’m seeing more black parents at events and at shows and they’re getting their kids involved in riding.”
Oscar, who was born in Alexandra township, knows just how tough it is to break into the sport.
“I got involved in the sport while my mom, who was a domestic worker, was working for a lady inHoughton,” he recalls.
“My mom’s employer owned horses and taught children how to ride. She saw my interest in them and invited me to try it out. That’s how I started horse riding.”
Realising just how passionate her son was about the sport, Oscar’s mother, Constance (74), signed him up to a riding school to develop and nurture his talents.
It’s there he met Linda Rose, his first riding instructor and the woman he credits with kick-starting his career. Linrowe Stables is named after his mentor, who trained him for four years until her passing.
In the wake of Linda’s death Oscar had to work extra hard to perfect his horse-riding skills.
“When she passed away I was four years into my riding and it was a bit difficult as I had to restart with someone new who could help me develop in the sport,” he recalls.
At the time he was unemployed and went door to door looking for a job and a trainer. His persistence paid off when someone took him under his wing and at the age of 22 he turned pro.
“My first big event was a World Cup qualifier in Pretoria in 2006 where we qualified to compete in Algiers the following year.”
Since then he’s made the Western Cape Eventing team, received his national colours and competed in the FEI World Cup qualifier in 2010.
His success boils down to hard work and respect for the animals, he says.
“This sport is different because you’ve got to think for two minds, yourself and the horse. Every day I start riding from 6am until 7pm, with a lunch break. That’s how much you need to put in.”
When he’s not competing Oscar is fully focussed on sharing his skills with underprivileged youth.
“This is an Olympic sport but we need to give it a higher profile in the country,” he says.
Oscar also wants to see more people of colour in various roles around the sport.
“If I’m calling a vet, I want it to be a person of colour. I want to see more jockeys of colour. I want to see more of that in 10 years’ time, all over the country.”