As President of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein has a very prominent role in the world of equestrian sports. And that role has never been more tested than at this month’s World Equestrian Games – a $100m equestrian extravaganza event that showcases the best of the best – which was held outside Europe (the unofficial home of the sport) for the first time in history.
The chosen destination was Kentucky in the United States and the Lexington Horse Park where the Games’ eight disciplines of dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining, vaulting and the newest addition, para-dressage were hosted, attracting competitors and fans from all corners of the world.
Princess Haya said: “You have the benefit of hundreds of years of history in this venue and for the athletes the facilities have been fantastic, they have fantastic infrastructure and it really has allowed the best horses in the world to show themselves and that’s what’s important to us in the FEI. There was so much attached to the fact that the WEG travelled across an ocean and came to America but it’s not the first time the FEI has shipped horses around the world for a competition of this level. I was never concerned about the level of professionalism in my team or the WEG team in pulling it off. It was very exciting to see the horses step off onto American soil – it was definitely proof this huge logistical exercise had been successful but there were no question marks from me.”
Princess Haya, who this month announced her intention to stand for a second term as FEI President as her four-year tenure draws to a close in November, adds: “The quality of the sport at the WEG has done huge things to popularise equestrian sport in America and the Americas and this has been an incredible stepping stone towards bringing this top sport closer to the public in this part of the world who are being exposed to it for the first time. Sport wise we have made huge steps forward and I think the aim of the Equestrian Federation was to expose American and the Americas to top level global sports.”
It is not just the Americans who are enjoying a new understanding with the sport, but also the Middle Easterns, which had a very noticeable presence at this year’s event largely due to the huge numbers of competitors that now come from that part of the world. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt all had teams at the event and the region’s medal tally was higher than ever with Arabian athlete Abdullah Al Sharbatly winning silver in the jumping event and the UAE endurance team netting an incredible three medals in the 160km endurance race. They won gold in the team race, led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai who also won silver in the individual event. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Dubai, finished third to claim an individual bronze medal.
Princess Haya was quick to point out that the Middle Eastern teams weren’t just noticed for their success, but also for their positive attitude to the sport. “I feel strongly that one of the most destructive things in sport is this medal count business, because it puts unreasonable pressure on the athletes and it actually destroys the celebration of their performances.” The princess, a former jumping athlete who first represented her native country of Jordan at the age of 13 and went on to compete at numerous shows with appearances at WEG and the Olympic games the highlight of her career.
She notes “As far as the Middle East and the UAE is concerned they have shown they have a niche in endurance and jumping and they’ve excelled in both of those areas. At the endurance event what people here on the ground were talking about was the professionalism of the crews and the athletes involved and the way the athletes presented themselves and their horses.”
Princess Haya’s long-term commitment to the sport is echoed by Rolex – the premier sponsors of the WEG’s jumping event. The luxury watch brand has been associated with the sport since 1957, because of the ‘majestic’ relationship between the horse and rider.
“Equestrian sport is the most noble sport in the world and it’s the combination of human being and animal for which we have love and respect,” says Jean-Noel Bioul, Director of Sponsorship for Rolex.
This relationship between man and horse is at the heart of the sport’s success and probably the reason why it is gaining in popularity so quickly.
So what’s next – will we see the WEG, which was first staged in Stockholm in 1990, held in the Middle East anytime soon?
“Everyone always asks me about the Middle East,” says Princess Haya, “and I have no agenda to bring equestrian sports to the region. I feel the Middle East, just like every region around the world, has a right to horse sports. I believe horse sports belong to the globe and that the FEI have a global outlook. And that means the Middle East, it means Asia, South America and it means Europe – it means everywhere and when we see equestrian sports reach as far as it can around the globe I think we will be providing value and giving opportunities to our industry.”
The Middle East aside, what the event in Kentucky has proven, is that equestrian sports have raised their profile. Princess Haya adds: “The proof that the WEG has grown stronger is that when we came out of Aachen (the 2006 WEG host) there were two bidders. This has event has generated so much interest, we have multiple bidders for 2018.”