Horse riding has been Houda Naji’s passion since she was a six year old. Now, married with two children, she takes her passion to the next level by giving back to those that need help the most, she tells Sharon Carvalho
I’m from Morocco and we moved to Dubai 15 years ago. I’ve been riding and competing for a long time so continuing to do so when we came here was a given. I always found a way to ride at some club or the other. But it was a while ago when a friend came to me with information that changed my life,” explains Houda.
This friend told her that he worked on a farm where the owner’s son had Down’s Syndrome and he wanted to see if playing with horses would help. She went on to say that her point of view was that shewould give it a shot and take it from there. “So I went to the farm and met the young man. Initially, he wanted nothing to do with the horse or me. He was scared and wanted to be left alone,” she says,“But I had committed to visiting him once a week so when I went back, I was surprised to see that he remembered my name and came towards the horse. Slowly, we taught him to pet the horse, to saddle it, to sit properly on the horse and ride on the animal.” For Houda, it was an experience to learn that each step had to be broken down and explained to the child. It was also important for her to stay with the child at every step of the way and make sure the horse and the child were safe and comfortable. “You need one person to guide the horse and one to monitor the child because if he falls from that height, chances are he’s going to get hurt very badly,” she adds.
Working with the children and the horses is not about therapy, training or education. It is about fun. It is about giving the children an hour a week where they can play, run, scream and shout without anyone telling them to keep quiet. “We don’t do anything crazy with the horses. We feed them, pet them and ride them and this is enough to give the children self confidence, to calm them down and put a smile on their faces that reaches their eyes,” says Houda as she expresses her gratitude to the gentleman who opened his heart and his doors to the many children that now visit his farm to play with the horses on a weekly basis.
“It has been a privilege to see the children respond well to the horses over time. They have gone from not interacting with them at all so hugging and kissing them,” says Houda as she explains that dealing with a 200 kilo beast takes a lot of self-confidence even for a normal person. “Horses can sense when you are scared and they will not listen to you so you have to be confident in your ability to lead the animal and this happens over time,” she adds, “Horses are fantastic creatures. If they feel that you are not there to harm them, they will love you. I’ve ridden all kinds of horses but with the children, we use older horses. Ones that are more settled, go with the flow and are trained. You don’t want a young horse that has too much energy, you want one that listens to commands.”
But now, Houda wants to take her interaction with children with special needs and help them more. “So far, I have only been playing with them. Now I want to help them. I have been working on opening a recreation center to find solutions for these children. I want to bring existing cutting edge educational technology to the UAE that will help these children grow and learn,” she says. The way she sees it, the technology required to help children with special needs and keep them focused, informed and educated is available. For example, children with Down’s Syndrome know the alphabet but when they are given a regular keyboard, they get confused because the alphabets are not in order. So, special keyboards are made that have the alphabets in order and this will help them focus. It is just a matter of bringing these vital pieces here and imparting it with the help of educators who are trained and have expertise. “All my staff will be professionals with the right degrees and if they have the minimum degree required, I will train them. I do not believe in imparting education when you don’t have the right expertise,” she states.
Houda is also thankful to the government of UAE. “I’ve visited the Ministry of Health on numerous occasions to sort out approvals for my center and the officials have always supported and helped. They understand that while the locals are being looked after, the expatriate children have fewer options for therapy and care. It is also expensive to provide such care, which is why I’m working on gathering as many sponsors and investors as possible so I only have to charge a minimum amount to parents,” she explains.
With creating an atmosphere that is beneficial and educational, Houda hopes to change the way society views children with special needs. “I’ve heard horror stories about children who are locked in rooms and kept away from their families and the world. I want society to accept these children the way they are accepted in other parts of world. I want parents to be involved in their lives and take pride in their achievements,” she says.
Photograph by: Sarfaraz Ali Photography