"It's not easy being a trailblazer. No one's done this before, I wanted to be able to put Qatar on the map."
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Wejdan Majed Al-Malki and her dance partner are ballerinas. They pirouette and perform, but not in tutus and ballet shoes. Wejdan is Qatar's first and only dressage equestrian rider vying to qualify for the Olympics, and her dance partner is a horse.
"Dressage is the equestrian ballet", Wejdan tells SCENES, "It's graceful, it's beautiful, but it is demanding."
In dressage, the rider and horse perform a series of intricate movements in harmony. These choreographed routines, often called dressage tests, are evaluated by a panel of judges. These equestrian experts score the competitors based on the accuracy of the performance and responsiveness of the horse, among other things.
"You have to have faith that you can do all of these movements because your horse also has that knowledge and experience," says Wejdan.
Horse Girl at heart
Hailing from a family of horse lovers, Wejdan started riding with her siblings at the age of four. She started show jumping at eight years old. This equestrian discipline involves the rider skillfully guiding their horse over obstacles, typically consisting of poles and jumps. Wejdan credits her early exposure to horses to the support and encouragement of her father, Majed Abdullah Al-Malki.
Although her passion for horse riding runs deep, even as a teenager, Wejdan knew there were limitations on her aspirations due to her gender.
"Riding as a profession was definitely not a viable option. It was not culturally acceptable," Wejdan explains, "As a Qatari woman, I wasn't officially allowed to compete."
Rather than aspiring to become a professional rider, Wejdan prepared to settle for any career that involved working with horses. However, in 2006, things took a positive turn. Qatar took the spotlight by hosting the 15th Asian Games, and the community started viewing women athletes differently.
"The whole country was behind us, very actively recruiting and supporting Qatari women and athletes to come into that competitive zone and start representing Qatar," Wejdan recalls.
Several Qatari women, including Wejdan, debuted their sports career at the 2006 Asian Games.
Go big or go home
"Getting that little taste of the Asian Games just wasn't enough. Now that we have that opportunity, I would like to seize it with both hands. I want to go all the way. I want to go to the Olympics," Wejdan says.
Ironically, to do this, Wejdan had to quit horsing around and get serious.
"There were doubts that any rider, let alone a woman, a female Qatari rider, could do it. We have never had a rider at the Olympic level or even the 5* (5-Star) international scene," Wejdan admits.
She realised that to be the best, she had to be among the best.
"I needed to move to Europe to gain recognition and exposure and to be immersed in top-quality sports amongst athletes that will challenge you," Wejdan explains, "There's just so much more available. More international shows, training, more people to compete against who are very, very good."
Practice makes perfect
To earn her stripes, Wejdan dedicates herself to rigorous training. Rain or shine, or in the freezing European winter, Wejdan is on her horse practising and perfecting her horse's pirouettes, piaffes and passages for extensive hours six days a week when it's not competition season.
"If there's a competition, guess what? It's seven days a week," Wejdan says. While training is tough and tiring, it is also rewarding. Perhaps this is what Winston Churchill meant when he said, "No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle."
"I've made it to the Grand Prix. That is the highest level of dressage," she says proudly.
This year, her second 5* (5-Star) International Grand Prix competition earned her an Olympic Games World Ranking.
"That dream of having Qatar represented in the dressage discipline at the Olympics is now so much closer to coming true," Wejdan says.
There's still a long way to go for this Olympic hopeful. The equestrian sport is gruelling. Apart from physical fitness, the sport is a test of mental fortitude that uniquely affects two athletes simultaneously.
"It's not just you as an athlete. It's also your horse as an athlete," Wejdan explains, "if I'm feeling a little tense and my breathing starts to become erratic, then my body will become a bit tense. My horse will feel it straight away."
Eyes on the prize
Wejdan's pre-competition ritual involves spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed, controlling her breathing and riding the dressage test in her head. "Dressage continues to teach me patience, determination and focus," Wejdan shares.
Wejdan has an ultimate goal, which extends far beyond the Olympics. "The whole purpose of becoming the absolute best I can be in this sport is so that I can come back home here to Qatar to give back to the people here. To give back to women especially, to show them that if you have this dream of becoming a competitive rider, it's doable." Wejdan concludes.
Being a trailblazer is not easy, but Wejdan is determined to make her mark by being the first Qatari woman to compete in dressage at the Olympics Games.