My UAE: setting the pace with endurance horse racer Mahra Al Shamsi

Mahra Al Shamsi has been riding horses for five years. Lee Hoagland / The National
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After hours of racing through the desert, Mahra Al Shamsi recites the Quran to her horse to give it strength. Al Shamsi, an endurance horse racer from Ras Al Khaimah, will go to any length for her horse.

She competes for Seeh Al Salam stables in 80km, 100km and 120km events, a test of perseverance, strength and strategy for both horse and rider that may last five or six hours.

“I talk to my horse, I sing to my horse, and I recite the Quran to my horse during the race,” she says. “Sometimes when somebody passes by me, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, what did you say’?”

“I say, ‘No, I’m talking to my horse’. If you don’t connect with the horse, that horse is going to bound off or throw you off.”

Endurance horse racing has grown in popularity with young women since Al Shamsi, 27, took up the sport five years ago.

Training requires a minimum of two or three hours a day, four days a week. “Every season I do seven races, sometimes more,” she says.

Al Shamsi plans to return to the sport next season with her own four-year-old horse Miracle.

Born and raised in Suhaila, a desert area south of Ras Al Khaimah city, Al Shamsi remains based in her community, as an English teacher at the Hamham Secondary School for Girls and volunteer for the RAK Animal Welfare Centre outreach programme.

While camel racing remains the preserve of men, in horse racing female jockeys compete alongside men or at women-only events. Sheikhs offer generous prizes, luxury vehicles and hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

“There are a lot, a lot, especially this year, last year and the year before. There’s just so many women. We do feel very happy when a woman takes the trophy,” she says.

Preferred distance?

I like races of 80 or 100 kilometres because they’re shorter and you can go a little bit faster. If you go too fast, you’re going to wear your horse out and he’s going to stop mid-race. That’s the hardest part, holding that horse, keeping your energy.

The best type of horse?

I don’t like cuckoo horses but I like them strong. When I ride horses that aren’t competitive and they’re just slow and tripping over themselves – it’s not that I don’t like those horses, but when you’re riding a strong horse you feel the competition. So I like to ride the stronger horses, but there’s a difference between the strong and the psycho.

Favourite place in the country?

I love Dubai; it’s very diverse. There’s so much to do in Dubai. We ride in the Marmoun area, so Marmoun is my favourite area in Dubai because I’ve been riding there for so long. So many tracks, so many horses and different teams.

Favourite type of movie?

Horror movies. I’ve been watching them since childhood. I love the 1980s movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist. I love this stuff. I love getting scared.

Favourite horse?

You know the horse that Sheikha Maryam [bint Mohammed bin Rashid] rode, Trouble Maker? I rode him the race after she fell, which was a pretty scary experience for me. He was such a strong horse. He was my favourite. It was my favourite race ever because of his strength and when I went that morning I felt that I was going to be first. He’s a champion and very well known in the endurance community.

Best advice from a parent?

My father says, it’s an Arabic saying: keep an arm’s length between you and your friend. Never get close to someone. He probably meant that when you get too close to someone, you get hurt. I do believe him now, after experience and after growing up.

Best advice from a trainer?

Listen to your trainer and listen to your horse, because the only person that can feel the horse or understand the horse is the rider.

What has racing taught you?

Patience. It taught me patience and it makes you a better person, honestly. It makes you very respectful. It changes you so much.

Favourite horse breed?

Arabian. They’re pretty, they’re strong and they’re smart.

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