When she’s surrounded by the serene beauty of the Abu Dhabi desert, breathing in the fresh air and passing by the occasional gazelle, horse riding is the perfect antidote to city living for Sarah Al Nowais.
“It’s so quiet and beautiful,” she says of her riding at the Al Asayl Equestrian Club. “For me, horse riding is really about getting away from the city and into nature every day. I feel like when I ride, that’s all I’m doing, nothing else is happening around me. It’s just me and my horse.” Al Nowais lives with her husband and their 17-month-old daughter Aljoud in a villa by Abu Dhabi’s mangrove plantations, which gives her another connection to nature.
“I love waking up with the water,” she says. “Now that the weather is nice, Aljoud and I wake up and we’re straight out on the terrace every morning. You don’t find many places like this in the UAE, where you can go for a walk without the noise of the cars and the pollution.”
Outdoor activity is essential to Al Nowais, and she hopes to encourage other Emirati women in the Abu Dhabi community to get active too. Last year, she co-founded #theADmovement, a series of health and fitness-themed events for ladies.
Al Nowais has been horse riding since she was 5. Although there were times when she admits that she had to be pushed by her parents, by the time she was 11, riding had become such an “obsession” that her father bought her and her older sister their own ponies to ride – “a chubby grey one called Dionysus, and a really energetic bay pony called Gospum”, she says. “I think that made us more obsessed, because we had to be there every day, grooming, tacking, untacking and giving them showers. It’s great for kids to have to be disciplined in that way.”
With their own horses, the sisters were then able to join a junior jumping team and start competing. “The competitions are what got me hooked,” says Al Nowais. “When you see that you really are capable of winning, when you see the progress, that keeps you in the sport.” By the time she was 18, Al Nowais had completed two summers of showjumping in France and won her first international showjumping competition in Dinard in 2004.
“The Emirati flag was up until the next day,” she says, beaming proudly. “It was really amazing to represent the UAE. I still have the newspaper clippings.”
But when Al Nowais moved to Paris to begin her bachelor’s degree in applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University, the nearest stables were too far out of town for her to ride regularly and her exercise routine fell by the wayside. “The only alternative was going to the gym, which I didn’t find very interesting or fun,” she admits.
“My body was so used to being active that it was a shock not to do much anymore. And then in the winter, I’d hibernate. That was a new experience.”
Al Nowais continued her studies with a master’s in international management for the Middle East and North Africa at SOAS University of London, by which time she’d put on 8 kilogrammes. “I’d completely lost my fitness, stamina and endurance,” she says.
But Al Nowais refused to give up. These days, she brings Aljoud along with her to the riding club, “so she gets to see the horses”, she explains.
“My husband and I have to show her how to be active and healthy, to lead by example.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced in 2016, and how did you overcome it?
Trying to balance my career and family life. I decided to put my career (as a senior analyst for Adec) on hold and started an online course in health and nutrition just after I’d given birth, because I felt like I needed something to challenge me mentally, even though it was tiring to do both.
What’s your favourite healthy smoothie?
I love tropical fruits. I usually add a handful of spinach, some mango, pineapple, banana and coconut milk, flakes or powder.
Where’s the best place you’ve been to on holiday?
For our honeymoon, we did a road trip down the Pacific coast in California, which was stunning. Big Sur had the most amazing views.
Where do you grab a healthy lunch in Abu Dhabi?
I love every item on Nolu’s detox menu. Detox might sound like just a few leaves, but its meals are so flavourful and demonstrate perfectly how healthy food can be delicious.
What food do you crave?
When my craving is bad – and we all have times like that – I want something really salty like crisps. My healthy craving would be for a fresh salad with some avocado and salmon.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt from your nutritional studies?
Bio-individuality. When you go to a nutritionist sometimes they prescribe one diet for everybody, but it doesn’t work that way. We all have different bodies, allergies, lifestyles and backgrounds.
What meditation techniques do you use?
I’m still experimenting with this. It’s not easy for me as my brain is very active – I find it easier in a group or a class. If I’m at home I use iPhone apps such as Headspace and Meditation. Last year, I started a 21-day meditation challenge on Instagram, figuring it would force me to meditate every day. But I got busy and it trailed off.
What’s your go-to reading material?
I love reading before bed, mainly newsletters, and I’m obsessed with health and wellness blogs. I like Instagram because you can read it so quickly. I’ve just started reading a book called Eat Fat Get Thin by Dr Mark Hyman, which is interesting.
What’s your favourite fairy-tale story?
Aladdin. It’s dreamy and I could always sing along to the songs.
What car do you drive?
A black Range Rover. Not my choice, my husband’s, but I’ve fallen in love with black cars now.
If you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?
A horse. I’m not much of an animal person, but I love horses. If you look at showjumping horses, they’re real athletes, with the same attitude, problems and training schedule that human athletes have.
What are you most looking forward to doing in 2017?
I’m excited for #theADmovement; we’re bursting with ideas. Nothing is set in stone yet, we’re still looking for support from the government or private sector.