Dana Al Gosaibi’s passion for horses has proven to be challenging in Saudi Arabia, where women’s involvement in sports is rarely valued or encouraged by its conservative society.
“There is this very weird belief that a woman shouldn’t ride a horse,” Gosaibi says, especially if she is not yet married as “she might lose her virginity”.
“It’s amazing how a lot of people believe these things,” she tells AFP ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday.
The 35 year-old, who returned to Saudi Arabia four years ago after more than a decade living abroad, says she dreams of launching her own stables.
Change is underway, she says, noting more women are now working as cashiers, in sales and in offices.
Since last year, a government plan for social and economic reforms has given more impetus to this trend.
The government wants more women in the workforce as part of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s oil-based economy, and is trying to expand sports opportunities for everyone.
Last year, in what was described as a first for the kingdom, Saudi Arabia appointed a princess to oversee women’s sports.
In February, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud in authorities would begin granting licences for women-only gyms, local media reported.
“Even (in) sport they’re really encouraging women, which is a very new thing,” Gosaibi says, taking heart that the change heralds a more favourable climate for starting her business training horses.
The kingdom also celebrated its first Women's Day in February, with a three-day convention in the capital Riyadh.
But the horse trainer, who learned her skills in Britain and the United States, says she has faced resistance - “especially with my approach” to the animals.
|Horses have been central to Saudi life for centuries, and the kingdom is famed for its strong desert-bred Arabians from which the racing thoroughbreds are descended|
Horses have been central to Saudi life for centuries, and the kingdom is famed for its strong desert-bred Arabians from which the racing thoroughbreds are descended.
The traditional way of training horses in Saudi Arabia requires “a lot of force” including spurs and whips, she says.
But Gosaibi prefers to take her time, observing the animal and learning to understand the way it thinks until she “becomes part of the horse’s herd.”
“You need to establish a certain relationship and understanding because the horse needs to trust you,” she says, whether you are preparing a horse for show jumping or rodeo.
Many Saudi women are now taking riding lessons, Gosaibi says, “but it’s so much more difficult for a woman” with social norms seeking to keep them out of the public eye.
Women rode during the time of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), she notes.
“Women are becoming stronger and they have a voice.”
The ultraconservative kingdom, which is governed according to a literalist and puritannical understanding of Islam, has been the target of much criticism from rights groups with regards to women's rights.