I never believed that each one of us has a holy grail that we just have to seek after, until I met with Amna Bani Hashem, a twenty-eight-year-old Emirati award-winning show jumper, who has earned the title of the UAE championship in the 2021.
This ball of light of a woman can not only light up a room with the glow radiating from her eyes, but she can also control a bolting stallion only to harness his untamed power and to transform it into a graceful take off over a towering fence. Her energy is like a raging fire encapsuled in the body of a human being, and humbly channeling her positivity to the people who surround her.
We always hear about successful stories that begin with a young fortunate child, where privilege and fate play a key factor in his/her success in life. But this is a story unlike any other. It is an athletic success journey I’ve never ever come across.
Amna shares her humble beginnings on how she fell in love with the animal kingdom and most particularly how she found her passion and driving force through her intimate connection with horses. “I don’t have a fancy story to tell. I found my passion in the second year of university. I was always the jack of all trades and master of none. I was well rounded in all kinds of sports like snowboarding, skiing, basketball, volleyball, football, and many others” says Amna, humble, as she begins to narrate her beautiful journey into the world of horses.
Amna goes back into memory lane, recalling the start of this journey. Back in 2010, she was in college. A faint memory of a joy ride she had at the age of six visited her, where the trainer told her that she was talented. That positive statement made her contemplate trying that one sport once again. Since her first jump, she said, it was love at first ride, and that is when she knew it was what she wanted to do forever. To her, riding was a rare mix of challenge and pure love.
I asked her to tell me more about her early horseback riding beginnings because I was intrigued by her unstoppable success and felt it may guide me in my own journey towards finding my missing passion. She began to narrate the memory by describing her friend’s equestrian phenomenal skills, “I started riding with Reem al-Abbar, a professional Emirati dressage rider that can make her horse do very difficult movements, similar to ballet in human terms. In dressage, the rider asks the horse to do specific movements and it ends up looking graceful and elegant dance, if done correctly. Dressage is about control and poise and about two beings performing as one.
I did not have the support of my family either financially or emotionally when I went on this path. It took me seven years to buy my first horse and riding throughout was through my own funds and allowance savings. My father had a different traditional outlook on a female’s role in that sport, which was more as a spectator rather than a rider. I had to persevere and push through the challenge that started at home, which is where a person needed the most support. I started saving up from my allowance to pay for my lessons. I had non-competitive horses, until I got recognition from His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum in 2016 when I was invited to join his team Godolphin for a year in England and Ireland. There I learned about breeding, flat racing, training and stable management. A year later I had to sell my first horse to finance my training in France. I was riding young horses with less experience and a lot more dangerous, but I learned so much from that trip.”
Amna described horses as soul mates, and I was curious to know if she had a connection with a specific horse over others. Amna confirmed that she did have a favorite one, she told me: “I rode a lot of horses throughout my career but none of them captured my heart like this special one. His name is the Gruns, but we call him Grunsie.” She continued to explain that he is now twenty-two years of age, and that in horse years is around sixty-eight in human years. His mom is a dressage horse and his dad is Namelus- a famous show jumper and approved stallion. Grunsie is owned by Sheikh Hasan Bin Rashid al Khalifa and during lockdown, his rider was stuck in Argentina, so I was riding all their horses and that’s when I had the privilege to get to meet Grunsie.
At first, he was a horse that I did not really enjoy riding. He was stiff, strong, stubborn, feisty, and with a lot of personality. It was a challenge communicating with at the beginning, because I didn’t know as much as I knew now as a rider. Ironically, now I love him for all these traits and much more. It is just like a human relationship that evolves and progresses with time. My first competition with him was at the normal national show in the Dubai polo club, he taught me so much about myself, the sport, and being able to trust again. Horses don’t just run towards a jump, they do it because you ask them to. Grunsie loves what he does on top of that he is determined. It’s like working with someone passionate about their job. When I’m on the competition I have zero fear because he taught me not to be, I have total confidence that he will get me out of trouble and show me the way.
Every day when I ride, I can feel if the horses are upset, injured or in pain. I can’t explain, it’s an energy thing. When I ride my horses I know the steps, I know how they bend. If you spend enough time with someone, and you notice any small change in them. It’s the same as a human-to-human connection, we can feel when something is off. For example, when the doctors come to check Grunsie he puts his head on my shoulder. He’s so human-like when he communicates. When he is hungry, he kicks the door and shouts at people, and his favourite treat is watermelon. He is so smart he doesn’t eat the green part. That’s just Grunsie, he is the love of my life and he is going to retire this season. Although well past the retirement age, which happens at around seventeen to nineteen, he has been a fireball because of his positivity, fire and passion that you could see in every jump he makes. It’s going to be a difficult day parting from him. I can’t imagine going to the stables without seeing him there”
Silence fell over the room as Amna tried hard to keep her composure and fight back tears from falling. I was perplexed in the moment, how would Amna move on after his retirement and find another horse to feel so deeply connected to again, but I knew someone as deeply connected to horses will find another horse to share those same deep emotions with again.
I shared a story with Amna on how I was almost going to fall off a wild Arabian horse in Lebanon’s villages and how I controlled it back to its normal state, and that conversation led me to learn the importance of bravery in horseback riding. “Bravery is a very important trait to have when riding a horse because it is all about the energy connection with the horse. You must have a strong and brave heart. If you are confident, you translate it to the horse through your body language. There are small muscles in your body that subconsciously react to what your mind thinks, so if you’re scared your body will be tense, without you even you even knowing it, but the horse will know.”
I asked Amna what it’s like to ride a horse in general and furthermore how it feels like to be a recipient of so many awards. “Riding horses gives you the best feeling on earth. It is so therapeutic, it improves your mental health, self-development, and it’s definitely a type of meditation. People think that horse riding is a way to impress other people, but if you ride with a conscious mind and an open heart, horses are very capable of healing a lot of wounds. Riding is a sport that is heavily dependent on your mental state of mind. If you lack confidence, then you won’t be able to properly control a horse because you
simply would not believe that you can. That behaviour would embody your performance. If you are angry, you would make your horse agitated and you would have to work managing your emotions.”
I felt Amna was so connected to Grunsie in a way that I yearned to feel the same to another soul outside of my family. She told me that the connection with a horse is a very pure relationship, like that of a human to a child. Horses do not understand their power or understand how fragile humans are. Her words led me to want to explore how, in spite of all her injuries, keeps going. She said it is for the very same reason above, that horses don’t know they’re hurting a fragile being. The horse is never going to mistreat you or betray you. If a horse gets scared it will jump, so if you fall, Amna says don’t blame the horse, just get back on. Every injury taught her how to respect her body. Now, she paces herself and has realized she’s refreshed after taking a break, she explains that the subconscious mind has time to piece the information. Amna explains, “the connection between the brain and body only occurs during the during recovery. So, If you’re not recovering, you’re not making these connections.”
Through Amna’s perseverance and determination to follow what she loved the most, her love for horses and success, shifted her family’s perspective on her horse-riding journey. I asked her to share advice to those who want to follow a passion but have roadblocks their way. She said that when you do something you love, you see it in a certain way that other people may not see. The most important thing is that you can see it and show people through your actions. Only then people will start understanding your vision.
I wanted to know where Amna is taking her love for horse riding to, and how it has impacted her life. “People told me you’re playing at the stables. You are not doing anything serious with your life, but today I’m a Mechanical engineer in oil and gas, I am a horse rider with a Master’s in moral economy and sustainable development. It takes a lot to be disciplined, you have to make sacrifices, I lost a lot of people along the way, only to realize you can never really lose a friend. Only those pretending are lost, and that is not a bad thing. I ride every day before sunrise because what drives me is a genuine passion. I don’t ride horses for glory, rather I started riding horses for personal development. It’s something I will do as long as I have my health and until my last day. My dream is to go to the Olympics because I want to show people that you can do whatever you put your mind into and be whoever you want to be. Just follow your passion, work hard, dedicate your time, and take calculated risks, but do go for it.”
On the contrary, after having had a deep conversation with Amna, I wanted to see the world from her lens. “I see life as a mountain, where you’re carrying a backpack and every challenge that comes across your way triggers an emotion. You take the negative emotions represent heavy rocks that you put in your bag. However, life will force you to keep climbing regardless of the weight of the rocks. You may get an injury in your knee because your bag is too heavy for your body to bear. Maybe you’ll stop because the load is unbearable, but the mountain is never going to stop being uphill. You’re never going to stop having challenges in your life. The only way for you to move forward is if you remove the rocks. And the only way to remove those rocks is to face them by dealing with your past traumas, harbored emotions, and being truthful with yourself about what you need to change in yourself. So, when you remove those rocks, you are suddenly lighter, but you have an advantage of being more fit than someone that never had those rocks. Your muscles have been trained, your body has been conditioned and you have all those tools within your body to run as fast as you can, leaving the rest behind and that’s how I see life.”