For 31-year-old Fatyiah El Frih, joining the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association hunt seat team at American University in Washington, DC, has been both exhilarating and a bit intimidating. A freshman pursing a degree in Communications, Economics, Law and Government, she says, “I sent almost half a dozen emails to the barn before school even started because I wanted so badly to try out for the team and not miss the first meeting. I was so worried I might not be accepted.”
She needn’t have been quite so concerned, says Eagles teammate Hannah Goldbach, an AU sophomore majoring in neuroscience. From the beginning, Fatyiah seemed to dedicate herself to fitting in. “She’s one of the most motivated people I’ve ever met,” Hannah says. “She came to our trial lesson at the start of the semester and spent most of it on the longe line. Normally, if people find out they can’t go straight into group lessons they drop out or quit. But when our coach asked if Fatyiah was OK with a few private lessons first, she said, ‘If that’s what I have to do to get to show with the rest of the girls, I’ll do whatever it takes.’”
That has been Fatyiah’s approach for nearly all of her life and it seems to have served her well. She was 6 years old when her parents fled with their seven children from Algerian political unrest. They sought asylum in western Germany and made a new home as refugees in a small town outside of Frankfurt, along the border of France.
“Overnight, we left the only home I had ever known. I still recall the refugee camps and how we had to renew an application for asylum every six months. After 10 years [in 2000], we were told there could be no more renewals.”
So the United Nations High Commission for Refugees helped the family apply for asylum in the United States. “It was a year’s process to apply. We cried when we got approval,” Fatyiah says. Her family was given six weeks to pack and move to an American city chosen by the International Rescue Committee.
“They sent us to Baltimore, Maryland” says, Fatyiah, who was 16 at the time. “A year to the day later, my parents bought a house and we started working and rebuilding our lives.”
For Fatyiah and her older sister that meant bringing their considerable sports skills to their new high school. “In the first year, we became the Baltimore City tennis and city soccer champions,” she remembers. Eventually, Fatyiah graduated and earned certification to teach English as a second language. Then she was offered the opportunity to move to Saudi Arabia as an English teacher at King Saud University and privately tutor the granddaughter of King Abdullah.
“The king’s children rode, so I started riding,” Fatyiah explains. “It was a whole other world. Since women are not allowed to drive, a chauffeured car picked me up each morning to bring me to the palace. The horses were breathtaking. I would hear that this one or that one was worth a million dollars or more. A lot of things about horse care I never had to learn because the king had people who did that for us.”
It was a luxury, indeed, but one that eventually would become a source of some consternation.
The first time AU coach Astrid “Star” Dalley told Fatyiah “to arrive 30 minutes early to prepare my horse, I was terrified to tell anyone I didn’t know what that meant. I felt like I would cry because I was so embarrassed. But I went up to another coach and asked, what does ‘prepare’ mean? For the next 45 minutes, she showed me, step by step, helping me with doing what you just won’t see Saudi princesses doing.
“I was so grateful,” Fatyiah says. “I had spent 20 years dreaming about riding and showing horses. That turned out to be the best lesson of my entire life.”
Now the dedicated collegiate rider, Fatyiah, who is also the mother of three (sons ages 6 and 10 and a daughter age 9) has no qualms about heading to the American University stable, where, she says, “Star has done a great job pairing me with a mare named Twinkles.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.