Sheikha Latifa talks to Sport360°: 'My horses are my babies'
At stables tucked away in a remote and private location at Al Khawaneej, I watched Sheikha Latifa bint Ahmed bin Juma Al Maktoum trot back and forth across a sand arena with her French trainer Eric Levallois watching intently, and giving pointers every now and then.
It’s almost 6pm and darkness has descended upon us, and there was a mild chill in the air that is quite rare to experience in the UAE and just as I was thinking how grateful I am that the weather was getting colder, Latifa, 27, tells me: “Both me and my horse are adjusting to the weather.”
She was referring to the weather being too warm having only returned from Europe a couple of weeks back after competing in several shows there to prepare for this weekend’s Global Champions Tour at Al Forsan in Abu Dhabi.
She spends almost half her year based in Normandie at Levallois’ stables. Levallois tells me he’s been working with Latifa for almost 10 years. He used to compete as well, and won the team gold medal at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez in 2002, but he had a serious car accident three years ago and was paralysed for four months.
He says he can still ride but only a little bit and can’t jump high fences, so he’s now busy training, breeding, and operating his business in France. Not only do they go way back, but Eric used to ride the father, mother and grandfather of Latifa’s oldest horse Kalaska de Semilly. “We like to keep it in the family,” she jokes.
It wasn’t long before she went to return her horse Peanuts de Beaufour to the stable to bring back a different horse to practise with. Before she left she personally introduced me to Peanuts. “I don’t know why Eric called her Peanuts. Certainly not for her size, for sure,” she laughed.
And indeed, the nine-year-old mare Latifa bought five years ago is quite massive that she does special workouts to be strong enough to control her. She returns with Kalaska de Semilly, which she refers to as ‘the boss’.
“This guy wakes up, eats half of his food, then takes a nap, then wakes up to finish the rest of his food, and I have to wait for him to finish all his rituals. But Kalaska has been with me to the Olympics, to the World Equestrian Games, everywhere. The boss can do whatever he wants,” she says.
Latifa says qualifying for the Beijing Olympics is her most prized achievement to date and she vividly recalls the day she qualified, five years ago in a competition in Qatar.
She had dropped three rails in the first two rounds but she found herself going to the jump-off as others also failed to go clear. In the jump-off, a Jordanian rider went clear with a fast timing and she says she was under extreme pressure to not only go clear, but faster than him. She went clear and three seconds faster. The Olympic dream was achieved.
This year Saudi Arabia won the team bronze medal at the London Olympics, showing that not only do they have great horses, but they have the refined skill and talent to ride them to success. When asked whether that medal earned by a neighbouring country can motivate the UAE to do the same, Latifa says: “It’s wonderful what the Saudis have done, but look how many times they competed together as a team before they got that medal.
“It’s a long process and you have to do the work. You can’t just get a horse that’s ready. You have to ride the horse and put in the hours. I can see some UAE riders now buying young horses and working with them. Abdulla Al Marri has two horses in the 2* show this weekend. So that could hopefully lead to good things in the long run.”
Having already competed at the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games, won a team bronze medal at the Asian Games in Doha 2006 before winning individual and team silver in Guangzhou four years later, does Latifa have bigger goals now?
“I don’t compete in this sport in order to achieve a certain big goal or win a specific competition,” she says. “I just love to ride every day. I love to compete. I love going through the process of bringing up a horse. Going up the classes with them. These aren’t just my horses. They’re my babies.”
Latifa took me to the stables to introduce me to the rest of her babies. Besides Kalaska and Peanuts, there are a few others including a ‘psychotic one’, which is a horse she’s obviously still preparing and New Jimmy’s, who she calls ‘Drama’. “He’s very dramatic. He’s 11. He’s been flying since he was five years old, never had a problem. And all of a sudden he kicked out of the pallet, got his leg stuck out, then fell inside. So his leg is all scratched up. It’s a superficial injury – he’s going to be fine."
She showed me her younger brother’s horses and at the far end of the stables, she points out and says: “Those are my two toys.” She was referring to two polo ponies. “I love polo. I only stick and ball, I’ve never played in a match, but it’s fun. For my head it’s good, because I have to be so serious when I ride my horses – I love horses and I don’t want it to feel like a job, I want to enjoy it. So polo is a good way for me to take the edge off,” she explains.
It’s true that while Latifa is relaxed and dons a great smile while training and outside the arena, her competition face is a serious one. She describes herself as headstrong and says that the great thing about working with Levallois is that he has strong opinions himself and can stand up to her when necessary to help reach better decisions.
It’s evident Latifa’s passion for horses and jumping has no limits, and her dedication is just awe-inspiring. She says: “I’m here every day starting 6:30 in the morning until the end of the day. I don’t have a social life. There’s no time to socialise. I just love being around horses and I love to ride. I love the fact that you can communicate with a horse without any words.”
It’s that kind of devotion that gives you the sense that she is bound to achieve more and more in the sport. Canadian jumper Ian Millar competed at the London Olympics this year at 65. I ask her if she imagines herself competing for such a long time, she says: “I hope so!”
Born: September 27, 1985
Hobbies not related to horses: Swimming
Someone who inspires her: German former Olympic champion Marcus Ehning “He’s just incredible. I love watching him ride. He comes up with a plan and then he executes it exactly the way he wants to.”
Proudest moment: Qualifying to the 2008 Olympic Games
Her earliest showjumping memories: “I remember that my first year jumping – I was 13 – I wouldn’t complete any course. Either I’d fall off the horse, or I’d be about to finish and I’d get too excited and forget to finish.”