She sat on the saddle before she learnt to walk or talk and has been passionate about horses since. She understands and connects with them as she grooms them, trains them and races with them. Layla Abdul Aziz Al Redha, the only Emirati woman endurance rider for more than a decade, has raced and ridden fancied breeds in more than a hundred competitions across the globe winning prestigious championships. She tells Yasmeen Maqboolof her three decades of love for the animal, the bonding, her passion, the training, her races and what it asks of her
She’s up daily at the break of dawn at the Bin Habib Endurance Stables, Al Aweer, with her 16 endurance horses for their routine training sessions till sundown, is what Layla puts up on a regular basis. “As I train at the stables with my horses (long distance marathon runners), most of the hard long trying is done at that time and I spend many hours in the saddle,” she says. It undoubtedly is a tough call but she enjoys it to the core and is equally involved in every aspect of the care and training that needs to be put up in readying the horses for the races.
THE OBVIOUS CHOICE
Thirty years ago, Layla was given a choice to not chose and fall in love with this “marvelous creature” she says. With her father being a professional horseman and flat race jockey,she was born surrounded by horses. Even before she knew it, by four she had started to ride and learn about the importance and responsibility the sport demands.
“Riding was never forced on me at any point of my life, but if I showed interest, I had to be serious and committed to it,” she recalls was the only advice her father wanted her to take seriously. He has been her guide, teacher and mentor from day one. It was almost for a decade when she was the only woman endurance rider. And throughout these years, Layla felt extremely blessed to have her father by her side on the tracks daily, while training with her.
Fortunately for her, horses have been part of her world always. Under her mother Lynn, a riding instructor herself, Layla started off with dressage. “I entered my first dressage competition when I was no older than seven years old. As I got older, more confident and stronger as a rider, I started as a show jumper,” says Layla.
She competed in the Children’s World Championship that was held at the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Center in 1991. Shortly after, her father encouraged and trained her to participate at the entrance racing which was just taking off in the UAE, in 1999.
THE FINISH LINE
Layla vividly remembers her first race at 14 and what defeat feels like. “It wasn’t the easiest and nicest one,” she admits. “It was a 120 km race over a total of five loops, where the first loop took us through the desert from Ghantoot all the way to the area of Seih Al Salam (Marmoom).It was the longest I had ever ridden or trained by far, and before going out on the last loop my horse got tired and slightly dehydrated and was not allowed to continue. So from the very first day I had to learn what defeat felt like, in spite of the fact that I had trained and prepared well for the race,” states Layla.
But this is what has made a fighter of her today, “I am happy I lost right in the beginning because it helped me become more determined, focused and driven to get back on the track and try again.”
For the champion spirit Layla is, winning a race is more than just a sense of joy of the day or the moment. She describes it as an entire process that she goes through. As she rides, trains and nurses her horses through fitness, strains, pulls or sometimes injuries, crossing the line first or in any position is a giant achievement for the horse, herself as a rider and trainer and her team.
“Not making it to the finish line, is always a high percentage as during a race a rider is asking for full performance from the horse, so fatigue, dehydration, strains, muscle cramps, and many more such
situations are inevitable.
As long as the injury or health of the horse is not compromised (which it never should be) it just means that horse will be able to fight another day, and as a trainer and rider, I will reflect back and see what I can change to help my horse perform better next time (training routine or nutrition),” Layla points out the technical aspects of the race.
THE TEAM EFFORT
She asserts on the importance of understanding that both the rider and the horse must work as a team. “Without working as one, both horse and rider end up getting into a battle of miscommunication during the race, which can drastically affect the outcome at the end,” she points out. When a horse and rider
work together, it allows the horse to remain calm which cause less exhaustion, less stress and better performance (recovery times).
The crew makes an important aspect of the team, according to Layla. She believes they are just as important as every other part of the equation when it comes to race day.“Without a good, fast, efficient crew your day/ result could also be compromised. The crew members help the rider and horse get through the day, they follow their horse /rider and constantly give bottles of water which are emptied on the horse to keep it cool during the day.”
Speaking on being well aware of her ‘team- ate’s’ strengths and weaknesses, Layla says, “In my experience I think the main thing an endurance rider needs is patience. In all stages of training and racing a rider must know their horses, listen to them and understand them.”
THE LESSONS LEARNT
Layla’s had many falls but none serious to make her give up her passion for the sport. She has broken her left arm twice, her collar-bone, a finger and been kicked in the leg (not intentionally) by a horse and cracked her shin bone.
“My father always said to me as long as I learn from my fall and get right back in the saddle, it’s a learning opportunity,” says Layla and believes it too. He also made it clear to her that horses just like any other living beings deserve respect and caution when working with, only then can one receive the respect and acceptance from them.
And despite all these years in the saddle, Layla admits feeling nervous before a race. “It is not about a lack of self-confidence, but if you don’t get nervous it means you don’t care enough to want to fight and win.” Being nervous for Layla just means that her heart and soul have gone into it!
Photographs by: Khan