Polo Lady is granted an exclusive interview with Her Highness Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai.
She is an avid Polo player, patron of team UAE, and also a karate and taekwondo athlete. She represented the United Arab Emirates in the 2006 Asian Games and won the silver medal at the Women’s Over 60 Kilogram karate event. When she is not in the polo field, Sheikha Maitha devotes her time to various charity projects with Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization working to improve children’s access to quality primary education in developing countries.
Her Highness Sheikha Maitha has been instrumental in combining her love of polo with her charity work, notably with the Ralph Lauren Ladies Polo Tournament being held in association with Dubai Cares.
When and how were you introduced to Polo?
“When I was 17, during the Summer, I just decided to try it! My friend introduced me to the sport—this was my first experience with polo. I left it and came back to it 15 years later. I took up the sport seriously in December 2011, stick and balling and playing chukkas. From there I jumped straight into the medium goal.
“I had no clue what I was doing, but I think that having a riding background and being an accomplished equestrian made it so much easier just to be able to play. Once I started, I was hooked!”
You were the first to bring ladies-only polo to Dubai. How did you achieve that? Were there any challenges and/or obstacles?
“It was a small tournament. We decided to put an all-girls team in just for fun. We were told we were going to lose, we were going to hate it, don’t do it. So we did it and we won and it felt really good. At that time, Ralph Lauren happened to be there; they watched us play and suggested doing a women’s tournament.
“It was a project they had already thought about and a great vehicle to break into the market here. It is a great collaboration for a cause close to my heart, with some of the best women players in the world. And so the Ralph Lauren International Ladies Polo Tournament was born, first held in Dubai in November 2013 in association with Dubai Cares.”
Would you say it is harder for women to integrate and be accepted into the game than men?
“I think it’s harder because women have families and they have to take time out from sports. You see a lot of this happening in sports in general. The women pros can’t commit to it like the guys can. It is something that can’t be controlled. But I think that at the top level of the sport, the players don’t look at it in terms of women and men. It is gender blind.
“Of course, it’s a full-contact sport, so they have to assert themselves! Most of it is down to horsemanship and women are good riders, which really helps. In competition, I don’t think there is any real difference when it comes to skill. Sunny Hale is a good example of that.”
How many years have you been playing and what is your handicap?
“I have been playing seriously since 2011 and I am currently a 0 goal.”
Who originally inspired you to play?
“As I said earlier, a friend introduced me; at the time, I was against the sport. I didn’t like it and thought it was cruel. When she asked me if I’d ever played I had to say “No.” Then I thought, “How can you judge something you haven’t tried?” So I decided to try it and of course, I loved it.
There was no actual plan to play and commit to the sport—it was all coincidences and people I met. At that time I was into racing. I had racehorses and that was my main focus.”
Who taught you how to play?
“John Horswell at 12 Oaks & Peter Grace at Ascot Park. I left the sport for a few years and came back to it in 2012, where I played and trained with Martin Valent at Desert Palm.”
What is your training schedule on a weekly basis?
“I don’t do much for Polo. I have a lot of injuries from my career so all I do really is rehab work, mostly functional and physio-based, no high impact exercises.”
Which tournament is your favorite and why?
“It’s hard to pick a favorite because the President’s Cup is the most prestigious, and then you have the Gold Cup which is ranked and is part of the global tour—you want to be part of that, too. The President’s Cup is the season opener. I do wish it was later on in the season to have a chance to warm up with my team prior to the tournament. It’s between these two really, the President’s Cup and the Gold Cup. These are the two that you really want to be part of and you really want to win either or both.”
How many Polo ponies do you currently have at work?
“We have around 58, but you know with polo being polo, as with any equestrian sport, there are always injuries, young ones, more experienced ones. We usually have about 40 playing at any one time. It is really all about management.”
What advice would you give to women who are thinking of taking up the sport?
“I would say if you have an equestrian background, it’s a very easy transition to make, that is the most important thing. I think for people to take up polo with no prior knowledge of horsemanship, it can get a little dangerous and it is much harder. Polo is a very enjoyable sport—it can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. If you’re ambitious and you want to reach the top, then of course that’s never going to be easy. It’s a game where you can play with the best in the world even if you’re just starting. It’s one of those sports that integrates everyone, where things like age and gender don’t matter.”
Which player do you admire the most and why?
“I admire players like Pablo MacDonough who are naturally-talented and whose qualities are God-given, and players like Lucas Monteverde who are absolute warriors and leave it all on the field. The more I see and learn, the more I appreciate the skill and time that goes into this sport.
“In terms of lady players, there are so many I like. But you have to give credit to Sunny, she’s the one who started it all. She is just incredible and she is one of those people who pushes, motivates, and supports you. She is very generous with her time and information and genuinely wants to see women improving, which you don’t come across that often because it can be a selfish sport.”
Finally, how would you like to see the continuing growth of Women’s Polo in the next few years?
“I would love to see polo in general grow. Thanks to the efforts of those who love the sport and want to see it progress, we are seeing big changes in UAE Polo. New facilities and teams will be included next season. Everyone is working together and the future is looking bright.”
Watch the Youtube video where Ralph Lauren and Her Highness Sheikha Maitha Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum teamed up to host the first-ever UAE Ladies Polo tournament at Desert Palm in Dubai.
Top female Polo players from around the globe, including Sunny Hale, Lucy Taylor, and Marianela Castagnola were brought together to participate in this unique event. Her Highness Sheikha Maitha captained the winning UAE team and was presented alongside her team with the winner’s cup.