Thursday, July 20, 2006

Living a Passion

Raid Qusti | Arab News

Alia participates in her first international championship held in Dubai last year.

MANY of us did not see it coming. Others could not believe their eyes. But once again, history is generous when it comes to Saudi women who have excelled in fields traditionally dominated by their male peers.

Don?t be fooled by her fancy bag or her expensive sunglasses. She is not your typical mamma?s girl. She is Saudi Arabia?s first official female equestrian rider. And she has gone limits where other men have failed before.

Alia Al-Huwaete, 25, is a proud Saudi citizen from the city of Al-Jouf, in the north of the Kingdom. After her graduation from high school she decided to complete her college studies in Jordan where she studied business management.

Alia?s love for horses began at a very early age. When she was little, she used to ask her father or brother to take her along with them to the family?s farm so she could ride horses there. She started riding horses at the age of three.

?Everyone in the family knows how to ride horses. It is part of the family tradition,? she says.

As she grew older, the magnet in her drew her closer to the beautiful creatures. When eyes were not watching, she used to open the horse?s stables in the farm and lock herself inside, petting them and gazing at them for hours. Her dad, she says, often found her sleeping on the stable?s floor adjacent to the animals.

?My dad went crazy every time he found me sleeping in there. He told me how dangerous it was,? she said.

By the age of 10 she was already riding a horse around the farm, but practicing riding a horse was not all smooth for Alia. At 14 she was hospitalized for 10 days after jumping off a horse that was racing toward a hole. The horse was injured with a fractured leg (a virtual death sentence for horses that are built to spend most of their lives on their legs.)

?When it was time for me to be discharged the doctor told me, ?Alia, you?re forbidden from riding horses for a month,? she said.

Alia says that that the incident was tragic as it was painful. On one hand she couldn?t imagine herself not riding horses for that long, and on the other, she knew that she had to listen to her doctor?s advise because she was already enduring a lot of pain from her injuries.

After her recovery, she returned to her beloved hobby, ?but carefully?, as she describes it. She did not want to implant a fear in her from the animals that would have stopped her from getting anywhere close to them in the future.

On vacations to Jordan and Turkey during summer, she often sought areas where horse riding was available. She intensified her horse riding skills during her four-year stay in Jordan to attend college. There a professional trainer who took her to the next level instructed her.

The manager of the ?Jordanian Equestrian Club? noticed Alia?s quickness in learning the skills needed to acquire in the sport. She soon worked her way up to become a professional trainer in the club.

?Many hesitant boys put their fears aside when they saw that a girl my age could handle a horse,? she said.

While at the club, Alia enjoyed training boys and girls how to ride horses.

?Among the things I enjoyed was teaching them the relationship between the rider and the horse, as well as how to overcome their psychological fear,? she said.

Alia returned to the Kingdom after her graduation to seek work. She said she was not picky in finding a suitable job in the private sector. She tendered her resume to several places and got accepted in five. The fifth was Kingdom Holding Company where she is currently employed.

?The reason why I chose Kingdom Holding among the others was because I had heard of Prince Alwaleed?s characteristics and how much he supports Saudi women,? she said. Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal is the chairman of the company.

The prince took her under his wing when he had learned about her equestrian talents.

?He told me that if the Saudi Equestrian Association did not mind, he would see to it that I would compete as the first Saudi female equestrian in international events,? she said.

Alia said that she received the permission letter from the Saudi Equestrian Association soon after. The letter accredited her as a Saudi equestrienne for participation in international events.

The prince then provided her with a personal trainer, all the necessary equipment needed and access to some of the finest horses in the entire country.

Her first international participation as a Saudi female was in an endurance equestrian competition held in Dubai in December. The participation opened her eyes to a whole new world. There, she says, she saw things she had never seen before in her life. The riders competing were top notch participating from all over the world.

?I competed against titans,? she said. ?But I was glad that I had the prince?s confidence in me.?

The horse she was competing with, Falah, belonged to Prince Alwaleed?s stable. He was an eight-year-old purebred Arabian stallion. Alia came in seventh at the end of the race, finishing ahead of 58 other riders.

Her third and last international participation was several months ago in the endurance equestrian competition held in Qatar. She finished eighth at the end of the three-stage 120-km race.

?The horse sprained one of his legs in the final 10 kms,? she said. She was on the horse that day from 4 a.m. until 1 a.m. with only short stop in between. Alia and her colleague were the only two female riders that competed in the race.

Alia says she is satisfied with her ranks in the few international championships she has participated in so far.

?These competitions are tough. A rider sometimes can compete for ten years without finishing among the top ten,? she said. ?Not to mention that they are longer than 100 kms. So you can imagine how tough it is either for the horse or the rider.?

A rider and his horse are only given a 30-minute break after they finish each level of the race. No exceptions are made. During that period, the rider?s team must make sure the horse is inspected, hosed down with water, and drinks enough before he continues on to finish the other long kilometers in the race.

Alia?s family, be it her father, mother, or brothers, have always supported her from the very beginning.

?My dad gets so excited when he learns about my international competitions. He often decides to travel with me to cheer me,? she said.

She believes that Saudi women are ?stars? who are up for the challenges they face ahead. ?Saudi women have a bright future in the equestrian field. All they need is more confidence,? she said.

She says she is not bothered at all with some of the criticism she gets from certain sects of Saudi society for what she does as a Saudi female.

?I do not mind criticism at all, as long as it is constructive and not destructive,? she says.

She feels that some of the people in the Kingdom who criticize her have no solid ground to do so, whether it is to criticize her on the terms of religion or the terms of social norms and traditions.

?I feel that some of these people who only want to lash out are not educated. Equestrian sport has always been a part of Arab tradition, even for women, in the days of the Prophet (pbuh) and Caliphs,? she says.

Alia hopes that the equestrian sport, especially endurance championships, develops in Saudi Arabia.

?We have beautiful open areas that are suitable for these championships,? she said. ?Furthermore, it could be more developed when other competitors from foreign countries participate.?

[Arab news Article]

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