25 Aug 2005

Women and Horses

In an exclusive interview with HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, daughter of the late HM King Hussein I of Jordan and the late HM Queen Alia Al Hussein, and wife of HH General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Defense Minister of the of the United Arab Emirates, the Olympic equestrian shares her love of horses and the integral role they’ve played in a life dedicated to the betterment of her country and her people.

We’re greatly honored that you would accept our invitation to share some of your very personal and extraordinary experiences as a horsewoman with our readers. With a life complete with Royal responsibilities, charitable interests and social and political commitments, horses have remained an integral part in your since childhood. Describe for us that special relationship.

There is an enormous potential relationship between a human and a horse, which offers growth and maturation of an individual at every level. The miracle of a lifetime relationship with horses is that it never ceases to evolve, change and diversify depending on the horse, or horses you meet, and the challenges that life presents for you to face together.

You were attracted to horses at a young age. Do you remember your first introduction to them? Do you remember the emotions you felt as you came to bond with them as a child?

My father gave me my first horse when I was six, but before I could walk I had a small rocking horse and all I would ever do was ride it. All my life I have been fascinated by horses, their majesty, their beauty, the soft noses they have and funny whiskers, and the way their legs are dense bone and tendons like violin strings.

Are horses prevalent throughout the country of Jordan? Who owns horses in Jordan?

Yes, horses are prevalent in Jordan. We have some wild horse herds left in the country. Apart from that, the largest collection of horses would be in The Royal Jordanian State Stud (Stallion Stable), purebred Arabians that have been in the Hashemite Royal Family for generations. It is run by my sister Princess Alia. Apart from that, there are many clubs for Warmbloods and part-bred Arabian riding horses, and many private breeding farms. Also, many of the Bedouins still own horses and ride them. Are your own horses part of the Royal stable, or are they housed and cared for separately? My horses were originally part of my late father’s private stables of riding horses, and when I began to compete internationally in 1994 he created “Team Harmony”, a string of International Jumping Horses - mainly Holsteins, some Dutch Warmbloods, and two Thoroughbreds - for me to compete with in Europe. Since the sad passing away of my father, the original horses are now personally owned, and the newer ones I have registered in the names of family members and people I love so I can share my sport with them.

To compete at the Olympics Games was your father’s dream for you. You realized that dream for you both. To compete under the watch of your country and the world in Sydney, in the absence of your father, must have been a very emotional experience for you?

It was incredibly difficult not to be able to share that with him; we had shared the dream of going there together. The Opening Ceremony, where I carried the Jordanian flag in the stadium, was most difficult. But when the competition began, I went back to concentrating on my riding. When the Games were over, I had a strange feeling in my heart, like he was really there the whole time.

Tell us about leading the Jordanian Equestrian Team.

I didn’t really ever lead the Equestrian Team, we were all friends, we rode our horses and each did our best. I was mostly active in raising my voice on behalf of the other athletes. Members of the equestrian team came from rather privileged families, but other athletes did not, and getting to know them when we traveled was wonderful. It gave me a totally new insight to my country and helped me make many new friends. If I stood out it was only because my title gave me a more public voice. But I was not different from the other athletes in any way, nor would I ever want to be.

As an accomplished equestrian what has been your most rewarding achievement, and your greatest challenge? The most rewarding would definitely be the Pan Arab Games bronze medal I won in 1992 in Damascus, Syria. The greatest challenge was staying away from home for so many years while training and competing; being homesick was the hardest part.   Very high expectations were laid for you by your father, mother and country and you have certainly met those with grace, dignity and spirit. But as an elite athlete, there are always challenges, fears and disappointments. Add to that being a public figure, and one can only imagine the fortitude needed to succeed as you have. Can you tell us something about that inner strength, your heart and soul, and where that will to succeed came from, and how it carried you past your fears of embarrassment in the public arena?

My father’s expectations for me were centered around excelling in my sport to compete at a championship level and raise the flag of Jordan in international competitions. Even as a child, he saw in me a very competitive spirit, and this is what drove him to guide me towards sports.

My father and my sport taught me the true sense of sportsmanship, which I believe as an athlete has given me the will to work hard to achieve my goals, and the strength to endure my losses.

I was only three years old when my mother Queen Alia passed away in a tragic accident, so she unfortunately did not live long enough to set such high expectations. But what she did set was a remarkable example for me to rise up to, and her work and dedication to the King and people of Jordan have guided many of the objectives that I pursue in the humanitarian work that I do in honor of her dear memory.

Are you still involved in competitive riding? Since my marriage to Sheikh Mohammed, getting to know my new home in Dubai and my official responsibilities have taken a good deal of my time. I am focusing a lot of my work on health and educational issues, and I am also devoting most of my efforts to my recently announced candidature for presidency of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). I have not ridden internationally since Jerez World Championships 2002, but I have horses ready to compete and I ride them every day. I had thought to compete in Beijing 2008, but since its move to Hong Kong, I think I will miss that one, and concentrate on my family and my FEI presidency campaign. I definitely want to put my boots back on and ride in London Olympics 2012… that would be wonderful. My recent involvement in competitive endurance riding, which is my husband’s chosen sport, has also been a wonderful interlude for me, and I am looking forward to making time to Show Jump internationally from time to time in the future.

We understand that horses played a formative role in your relationship with your husband. How do you and your husband share in your passion for horses?

Sheikh Mohammed is a wonderful horseman. Horses are in his blood, very much the center of his life. He grew up with horses, and his family - the Maktoums - had some of the best horses in the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. His inherited knowledge, and his affinity with the entire animal kingdom (he brings up lions and cheetahs, loves safari, and is so knowledgeable about all desert animals), has taught me so much about studying horses as part of nature in order to understand them better. He is a hugely accomplished endurance rider, but race horses are his main love. Our love for horses is definitely something we share; it also means that we can relax together.

You stress the importance of being in touch with people at the grassroots level. Has your love of horses helped you in this regard in any way? In other words, have horses provided a shared interest or passion, among Jordanian women and children?

Horses and sports have allowed me to understand many life lessons, and have helped me get in touch with myself in a way that promoted a better understanding of other people. My sports profile with horses also raised my popularity among Jordanians in such a way that drew me even closer to them.

Among your many humanitarian efforts, you seem to be very active with the Haya Arts and Cultural Center and Right to Play program. Are there organizations that are especially close to your heart?

The Haya Cultural Center was a pioneering project in its time, and it still is a community center that joins Jordanians from all walks of life under one cultural umbrella, giving them room to get in touch with their own heritage, as well as interact with other cultures and creative arts. I also strongly believe in Right to Play’s mission and in the power of sports in positively influencing the well being of children, especially those challenged by war and poverty.

Very dear to my heart is a humanitarian project called “Tkiyet Um Ali”, which I launched in Jordan in memory of my mother, the late Queen Alia Al Hussein “Um Ali”, based on her idea to ensure that all Jordanians were provided with “Food for life”, which is the project’s motto.

Tkiyet Um Ali is the first initiative of its kind in Jordan which provides food and services to the less privileged sectors of Jordanian society through the collection of food and funds from local and regional contributions, while guiding them to supportive social relief programs for more sustainable assistance so that may become happier and more productive members of the society.

Not far from the model of American soup kitchens, the Tikyet holds eating quarters, kitchen facilities, counseling offices, shower areas, warehouse and storage areas.

Youth, health and education are issues dear to your heart as well. Please tell us about your work in these important areas?

Issues related to youth touch upon my experience as a professional athlete. I feel that I have something to offer to help provide young people and athletes with better conditions to live and work in, especially in Jordan where economic and professional challenges are bigger for athletes. My affiliation with various international organizations, and being on the International Board of Directors of Right To Play, and a member of the Athlete’s Commission and the Commission for Culture and Olympic Education of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), are major assets that I leverage on to help positively influence the future of young people internationally, as well as in Dubai and the Arab region. Building on my commitment to developing the structure of sports in the region, I have endeavoured to develop the equestrian sport of Show Jumping in Dubai.

Health and education are fundamental aspects of my work because they are the pillars that sustain the community; I grew up believing in the right of every individual to quality education and healthcare. My father dedicated a great deal of effort to positioning his country visibly on the regional health and education maps, and my mother passed away while on duty, when her helicopter crashed on the way back from a visit to a remote hospital in an underprivileged area of Jordan.

Early this year, I went on several working visits to Dubai’s vital public health institutions, and have visited a number of public schools to get a first hand overview of the situation of each sector. I communicate what I see to Sheikh Mohammed so he may tackle major issues on a top level. So far, Sheikh Mohammed and I have started a renovation project for 17 public schools in some of the underprivileged areas of Dubai, including the construction of fully equipped indoor multi sports halls and school canteens, in order to make sure that school children get their fair share of exercise and healthy nutrition.

My office has also devised a complete health strategy including specialized healthcare services, child health, continued education and medical training, and supporting the issues of children with special needs; as well as an education strategy encompassing training and communication initiatives, and supporting innovative educational programs aimed at further enabling Dubai’s educational environment with creative and leadership qualities.

You are an advocate for a balance of modernity and tradition for Arab women. Please tell us something about the way those efforts are received in your country and beyond. Also, where horses are concerned, how involved are Arab women with horses – is their involvement with horses traditional or modern in your country?

Nowadays, the modern Arab woman is recognized for her professional achievements in almost every field there is, not to mention respected for the delicate balance that she maintains between modernity and tradition. This is a quality that I truly admire about Emirati women in particular, because of their demonstrated ability to fully embrace modernity, while simultaneously holding on to, and nurturing Arab and Muslim values.

The relationship between Arab women and horses is age old – it precedes even the world monotheistic religions… so I suppose I am not very original at all! All our heroines in stories and legends always disappear into the sunset on a magnificent Arabian horse!

Horses are still very popular among women in the Arab World; those who are privileged enough to learn to ride at a young age, and there are quite a few girls who compete on the Regional circuit of late.

Horses bring balance to the lives of many women around the world. With your countless interests and commitments, do they provide this for you too, and if so, how so?

Yes they do. They very literally balance my life because of the exercise and fresh air. Getting to ride them everyday is a welcome departure from the office and meetings and audiences, which I also enjoy. But I find sitting still for a long time an incredible challenge! Horses give me a sense of peacefulness. Whenever I am with them, everything in my head and heart goes blank, and I am not aware of anything but them.

Which characteristics do you most revere in horses? Have you had a favorite horse?

Their ability and willingness to trust. They are a true embodiment of kindness. I do have a favorite horse, although saying it makes me feel guilty because I adore all my horses in different ways. But there was one who took me to Grand Prix level. He is a grey stallion called “Come On,” and there is no place in the whole world where I felt safer than when I was on his back. That horse is larger than life. He has now retired, and is breeding in North Germany.

Once known as the Sport of Kings, today horseback riding is the dream of many young girls regardless of social status. Did your connection with horses contribute to the compassionate, empathetic woman you are today?

I think my father and my family made me the person I am today. Horses keep a person well grounded, but my father was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most humble of human beings in the universe and he would not have approved of false airs and graces any more than the horses would approve of it!

But my father gave me a chance to compete on the condition that I prove myself and earn my success; that was a chance that taught me how hollow a title was. And my father’s motto was that his title and ours, were not for privilege, but only to remind us that we had a duty to serve our nation and its people.

At 31 years old, are there things you’ve learned from horses that you carry with you in your daily responsibilities as Princess?

Yes. The freedom I had to compete and see the world gave me the joy to carry out my duties better. Horses gave me that. I had a dream and I was blessed to be able to have it become a reality. I was able to live with real people in a real world, and now that I have the chance to help people I feel so lucky because I do understand what it all means.

Have horses given you anything that you as a Princess may not have had without them?

Yes, they gave me a life… they gave me a real life. And they gave me the strength, faith and confidence that I would and could never have learned in the Royal Institution.

When we think of Royalty, we don’t typically think of driving trucks, heavy machinery and going camping, all of which you do. Share with us your approach to life. These qualities are not particular to me alone, my parents, brothers and sisters are all sportspeople; that’s how we were brought up. I am the only one who learned truck-driving because I merely wanted to be able to transport my own horses when I needed to.

Camping in Wadi Rum, one of the most magnificent deserts, and spending time in the wilderness with Sheikh Mohammed to hunt, train and learn about birds and animals in their natural habitat are all part of our culture and Bedouin heritage.

My approach to life: be sincere about what I do; work quietly and with integrity and I can’t be far wrong.

A final thought. Looking into the future, what do you see for yourself? My role has taken a new dimension after my marriage to Sheikh Mohammed, and when I look to the future, I don’t look at what I want for myself anymore, rather what I would like to be able to do for the people of Dubai as well as my people in Jordan.