Oscar Bongani Ncube, a 25-year-old horse rider loaded with talent, is one of very few young black people who have developed a keen interest in the sport. And this young man from Alexandra, in Joburg’s north, has big dreams.
Dressed in riding gear and sporting a red Avis cap – his sponsors – Ncube says his love of horses began when he was a boy, when he ran around at his mother’s workplace, pretending he was riding a horse.
"I was seven years old and my mother worked for Linda Rowe, a horse riding enthusiast herself. I used to watch her ride and then play horses with her son, Carl. That’s when I really took to horses. I started riding lessons with the help of Rowe."
Ncube, at the age of five, left South Africa to visit his mother in Zimbabwe. He later moved to Botswana for a few years. In Botswana, Ncube did not get the chance to ride, even though his passion for horse riding remained strong.
His two siblings have taken different careers, but he says he is not the only member of his family who to love horses – a long time ago, his grandfather was a groom. "But after my grandfather, it seems I am the only one who really has a deep love for horses."
By the age of 16, Ncube had returned to Johannesburg and then moved to George in the Western Cape, where he started "serious horse riding" working for a Russian stunt rider. "This Russian man, called Bruce Ortav, began to teach me how to ride horses in the town. I worked for Bruce for a year and then moved to Cape Town where … Denny Sanders lent me horses to ride."
It was while in Cape Town and with Sanders’ help that Ncube began entering showjumping competitions. When Sanders left Cape Town, Ncube worked with his son, Ryan, later moving with him to George where Ryan Sanders had opened a riding yard.
"I was 19 years old and doing horse eventing called cross-country at that time, riding horses across all types or terrain in the bush. There were no major competitions that I did but this eventing taught me a lot about horse control, a skill that I came to use in showjumping."
Ncube’s big break came when he was drafted into the Western Cape eventing team. Two years later there was another opportunity; he was offered a job in Johannesburg riding with Rodger Hassen, a man he calls one of the best showjumpers in South Africa.
"Hassen taught me a lot about horses and how to ride. I worked for him as a stable hand for one-and-a-half years."
From there, he moved to work with yet another show jumper, Erika Pretorius, and later he moved to train and ride with Barry Taylor at Farnham Stables in Fourways, where he was given the best horses with which to train.
"I am proud to say I am now a professional rider," Ncube says, smiling.
The road to being a professional rider has been long and hard, fraught with uncertainty and crowned with achievement. But one thing that Ncube is proud of is his tenacity to achieve his goal. One unforgettable moment along the way was representing South Africa in showjumping and endurance in Algiers, in Algeria, at the 2007 All Africa Games.
Ncube’s team came third overall in the games.
"I have also [done] a lot of showjumping grand prix. One of the highlights of my career [has been] participating in two World Cup showjumping qualifiers. Participating in these World Cup qualifiers was one of the best moments in my life. It’s like being a soccer player and going to play soccer in Brazil."
Currently competing in the 2009 World Cup qualifiers in Durban, he has one stumbling block: he does not have a horse that he can call his own. He has got this far by "borrowing" horses for competitions.
Avis, the car rental company, lent him a horse called Paparazzi to compete in the World Cup qualifier and the Avis Derby. Held at the Kyalami Equestrian Park in Johannesburg in September and October, Ncube was the first black rider to compete in the derby. And he says he did well in the competition.
"I would love to own a good horse one day but horses [are] expensive. A real good showjumping horse can cost you between R500 000 and R1-million. Most of these good horses are imported from countries like Germany and England."
He concedes that showjumping is an elite sport mostly practised by white people. There are very few blacks who have taken an interest in it, he says. One of those is Enos Mafokate, who runs the Soweto Equestrian School in Soweto.
"I would also love to teach young kids to ride one day. Showjumping is a lucrative sport if one takes [it] as a professional career," says Ncube, leaning against his sleek two-door BMW.