“I honestly don’t remember when I first got on a horse,” says Sheikha Latifah Al Maktoum. The admission is not borne out of lack of care. Quite the opposite. Sheikha Latifah – the daughter of Sheikh Ahmed bin Juma Al Maktoum and Sheikha Hessa bint Rashid Al Maktoum, sister to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai – grew up around horses and can barely remember a day in her life when she wasn’t around one. “The animals are just so deeply embedded in our culture,” she says. Right on cue, a horse ambles behind her in the stables, gently neighing as if in agreement.
This month, Her Highness traveled to Morocco for the qualifiers for Tokyo 2020. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it through, but luckily she still has memories of her first Olympics. “I qualified for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when I was 22. I was very young and didn’t really know any better,” she says, with a slight nod of her head indicating that there’s unfinished business here. She is being hard on herself, of course. Al Maktoum started show jumping at a high level only one year prior to the competition; her lack of experience ultimately saw her fall short of a medal.
It’s all a far cry from her first show jumping experience, when she was 13. “I found it very difficult,” she admits. “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist and I like things to go a certain way. I put a lot of pressure on myself.” She cites her cousin Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as a source of inspiration. “She is such an amazing athlete. She did karate, taekwondo, and jujitsu, and now she plays polo. She always gives 100% and she is so successful.” The equestrian’s mother is her driving force. “She is very tough on me and the horses,” Al Maktoum shares. “She taught me that you have to work hard and do your best. You have to represent your country to the best of your ability. You have to prove yourself all the time and don’t think that you are entitled to anything.”
Her mother’s lessons have come to fruition. Al Maktoum, who started competing when she was 18, trains and works as tirelessly as any other athlete and never uses her status to her advantage. “I know other athletes see that and respect that,” she says. The royal is also prepared to get her hands dirty, cleaning the stables and looking after her favorite teammates – the horses. “If I’m going to tell someone how to do something, I have to know how to do it too.”
Al Maktoum’s success, along with the efforts of the UAE Equestrian and Racing Federation and, of course, Sheikh Mohammed – whose Godolphin team is world-renowned – has helped raise the caliber of equestrian sports in the region. “It’s great to be able to compare the progress in the past couple of years. We have so many riders and horse competitions at the moment. Three years ago, we were scrambling for a team and now we have more than eight riders available to jump,” she says. The standards and talent are of world-class prestige, with the 34-year-old proudly adding, “For two years in a row now we’ve held a five-star competition in Dubai. My European friends were telling me that you don’t see this sort of competition anywhere else in the world.”
While her career trajectory in show jumping has been impressive, Al Maktoum, who works out every day, riding six or eight of her horses for five to six hours before hitting the gym for an hour of CrossFit, claims to have had few hurdles to overcome – other than the ones she’s jumping. “The only real obstacle is the misconception that the horse does all the work,” she says. “That’s just not true. You have to have a strong connection with your horse. You are only in the arena for a minute and you have to make split decisions. You don’t have time to think. You have to know your horse inside out. Know your and your horse’s ability. It’s a lot of work and there’s no room for error.”
Despite her success, the royal doesn’t view herself as a role model. Instead, she prefers to see herself as part of a movement of women in the UAE who are doing remarkable things. “A lot of people in Europe think Emirati women don’t take part in sport, but if you look at the past few years, we now have women-only, five-star competitions in the UAE. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world,” she enthuses. “The level is getting higher and tougher. Things are getting better in the UAE.”
Her advice for others? “Choose something you really love because then it’s never hard when you have difficult times in your career. If you love what you are doing, you’ll always have fun.” Her positive energy is contagious and it’s easy to see how effective she would be on a team. She is also mentally strong. “I know what my ability is and I know what I have to do. I just need to focus on that,” she says of coping with pressure. “You can only do what you can on the day but ultimately hard work pays off. Some days it gets difficult, but you can’t give up.”
Quitting is not on her agenda and she hopes to continue show jumping for “many, many more years,” while also working with new horses. She trains them from the age of four, continuing the work when they start competing, and taking them to training shows. “Producing them and getting them to this stage makes it so much more emotional,” she remarks. “You know them so well and they fight for you so much more. They are my kids, my babies.”
Turning her attention back to the Beijing Olympics she talks of the pride of representing her country. “It’s the best feeling in the world when they play the national anthem,” she says. “It’s amazing to be able to represent my country on such a world stage. It’s every athlete’s dream to represent their country at the Olympic Games. There’s so much drive and joy at seeing your hard work pay off, because performing well is a reflection of the effort you put in at home and not necessarily what is done on the competition floor.”
While her first horse ride might well be a distant memory, one thing is for certain: Sheikha Latifah Al Maktoum’s continuous hard work and success is one that she won’t forget in a hurry.