Al Khojai paves her own way into history books

Farah al Khojai tells Ahmed Rizvi of the challenges she faced to achieve her dreams to represent the UAE in international dressage.

Farah al Khojai riding her horse Donna Bellissimia prior to competing in the Asian Games.
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Understanding dressage, according to a popular saying, can take two lifetimes. Farah al Khojai is a good example of that.

She first flirted with the sport during her early teens, because she was scared of showjumping. Real love for dressage, however, took root 14 years later when she took her son to the equestrian centre for his first lessons in riding.

"The equestrian centre in Nad al Sheba, that's where I started," said al Khojai, who yesterday became the first woman to represent the UAE in an international dressage competition, at the Asian Games.

"My love of horses, I've always had it. I was always fascinated by horses. We are not really a horsey family. I was the only one."

But there was one problem.

"I am absolutely terrified of jumping," al Khojai said. "At the time I was growing up, if you didn't jump, you didn't ride ... almost. And then I met somebody who was a trainer at the equestrian centre and he told me there was dressage out there and I was like, 'Wow.'

"A holy door opened for me. So I could continue riding, but not necessarily having to jump. I have grown to love it. For me that's my adrenaline rush."

The door, however, was not leading anywhere. Endurance and showjumping are the dominant equestrian sports in the country. Al Khojai was one of the few, if not the only one, who had opted for dressage, an elegant sport sometimes knows as "horse ballet".

But soon, al Khojai turned her attention to other artistic endeavours. She learned the violin and took lessons in piano, which she teaches now during her free time. Marriage followed and she was blessed with a boy, who eventually proved to be her courier towards the sport. "I started as a child and then, when I was about 14, I stopped because I realised … it wasn't going anywhere for me, there wasn't really a future in it for me," al Khojai, 31, said. "So I did other things.

"I took it up again after my first son was born. I took him for a pony ride and that was horse fever again. So I started off with one lesson a week and then more, and then I decided I wanted to be competitive.

"I am a very competitive person and if I take something up I really want to go all the way with it."

Al Khojai - who has two sons, Mansour, seven, and Mohammed Fares, three, - started taking lessons at some of the world's best centres in Germany. Her progress was evident at the FEI World Challenge earlier this year, when she took second place in the Advanced Class.

"In Germany it's very difficult because there are a lot of professional riders," she said. "I think they have got 5,000 to 6,000 professional riders out there. So, as an amateur and somebody who had just taken up the sport, it's very difficult to compete against them.

"However, I was doing very well. In my last class, there were nearly 50 people in the class, and I ranked 18th. So I was very pleased with that."

Her stint in Germany was restricted just to the summer breaks because of financial reasons. Her participation in the Asian Games would have been in doubt if Dubai Duty Free had not come to her aid; the horse she will be riding in Guangzhou, China is a Hanoverian stallion named Dubai Duty Free Whisper.

"It's mainly been the summers because of the lack of funding," al Khojai said. "In the first two summers, Meydan, thank God, sent me and helped me with the payments of that. And then I got the sponsorship from Dubai Duty Free, when I most needed it, now for the last part [the Asian Games]. So I have been there [in Germany] since the summer until now with a couple of breaks.

"The [equestrian] federation in Abu Dhabi, I have just started dealing with them and they have been very good in helping me get what I need, and all the forms and formalities done with.

"Thank God, fingers crossed, everything seems to have come to plan. So I am very pleased."

Taleb Dhaher al Muhairi, the secretary general of the Emirates Equestrian Federation, said al Khojai's success could have a big impact on sport locally.

"Farah has been very active in dressage and, of course, she is the first Emirati woman to compete in the sport at the Asian Games or a competition of such a level," he said. "If she does well, it will be a big boost for the sport."

As she purses her passion for horses, al Khojai must perform a juggling act, balancing family and sport. She is also a businesswoman, but her family and husband, Fareed, have been wholesome in their support.

"I have a wonderful family, fantastic parents and a very supportive husband," she said. "So I am extremely lucky. I tell everybody, if it wasn't for them it would really be not only financially impossible, but also impossible in balancing family life.

"Unfortunately since summer, I have not seen the children much. They came with me to Germany initially, but then they came back for school … Ramadan first and then school. So it's been my parents who have really taken them all with parenting, schooling and everything.

"My husband's been backwards and forwards, keeping me company in Germany and running the business here. So it's been very difficult."

Her family has also travelled to China to support her. Al Khojai, however, does not expect to spend much time with them in Guangzhou.

"It is a good support [to have the family there], but I just have to be careful and concentrate on the riding, and not get too distracted with family and what everybody is doing, who is going where," she said. "Luckily Fareed, my husband, has got it all sorted, I think. Horse riding is an individual sport. You are not a team, but you create an enormous bond with the sport and that's your team.

"Is it a lonely life? Not if you have a family around and friends that support you. And then you obviously make friends with people within the same interest and sector.

"So not really lonely, but yes, the hour that I am riding is extremely just me, myself and that's why I like it because I can switch off from the whole world and really just think about that horse I am riding."

Al Khojai hopes she will return from China with a medal around her neck and give a boost to the sport in the country. "We are getting so close and it is getting quite nerve-wracking," she said. "Hopefully, fingers crossed, they will go according to plan.

"I can actually go through the test a lot mentally in my mind. I visualise exactly what I have to do, but I just have to keep it going and not stress too much.

"We all hope for the medal, that's what we aim for. I have a good chance, I hope it all pays off."

Al Muhairi has high hopes, both for the Asian Games and the future.

"We have not been very good in dressage for many years, but that is certainly going to change in the future," he said.

"We want to hold many competitions, in different emirates, in co-operation with the clubs because they already have all the facilities available. We also have plans to hold coaching and judging seminars. We are going to be a lot more active in dressage now."

Al Khojai does not want the Asian Games to be the end of her association with the sport on the international stage.

"I hope this is the beginning," she said. "I am hoping I can continue riding after the Games. I hope I can get the sponsorship needed. I thank Dubai Duty Free for what they have done. I am also hoping that maybe one day Meydan will be able to take dressage in and have it as important as the showjumping. I hope it becomes an official equestrian sport in the UAE.

"Dressage has come up, but it's mainly with expat women. Unfortunately there are no UAE ladies doing dressage, but I hope that will change with events.

"It's very difficult because endurance and showjumping are definitely the main equestrian sports here. So it's just bringing up awareness and telling people there is dressage out there. I am sure there is talent as well, but the funding needs to be there and encouraging young people to start taking up dressage."

UAE equestrian team

Jumping individual
Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum, Sheikha Latifah Al Maktoum
Jumping team
Ahmed Ali al Junaibi, Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed, Sheikh Majid Adbulla

Dressage individual
Farah al Khojai

Schedule and results

Dressage individual:
Farah al Khojai placed 15th in Round A of the competition and advanced to second round.

Dressage individual:
Round B.

November 21-24
Jumping team and individual competitions.