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'Riding makes me free': Gazan amputee realises showjumping dream

Having one leg did not stop Hebatallah Shahin from overcoming challenges and becoming an equestrian showjumper
Hebatallah Shahin standing with her horse as she prepares for her first showjumping tournament (MEE/Mohammed Asad)

GAZA STRIP - "I have always loved watching horses, [even] without being able to ride them. Then I decided to start my journey with this amazing creature," said Hebatallah Shahin, 17, considered to be Gaza's first showjumper with an artificial limb.

Hebatallah practises during a lesson (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
Though it was a hot summer day, a large audience was watching her first showjumping tournament held on Friday 4 August.

"And now, let us all welcome the equestrian Hebatallah Shahin," said the commentator of the Friends Equestrian Club.

'They make me feel free and fast. I simply fly on the horse

- Hebatallah Shahin, showjumper

Hebatallah did not win the tournament, but the audience cheered her on with every move and jump she made with her horse. "I don't know how she controls the horse while wearing her artificial limb. She is a great model," said Sanaa Khaled, one of the spectators.

Hebatallah said she was proud to participate in the event for the first time, describing it as an amazing experience, despite the results. 

"The crowds, the journalists, my family and friends, everything was special," she said. "I'm eagerly looking forward to the next tournament. I won't give up and I won't stop practising."

Unlimited challenges

Hebatallah's life has been full of challenges. She was born in Gaza without a left leg, due to congenital amputation, the absence of a limb at birth. 

Her artificial limb is not ideal as it not an advanced model, but she is making do with it for now (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
"It's a rare case, but we accepted it as its Allah's will," said Hebatallah's mother, Taghreed Shahin, 42. 

According to Taghreed, Hebatallah began wearing her first artificial limb when she was just 11 months old.

I faced many problems to be able to balance the horse, perform jumps and control my leg muscles

- Hebatallah Shahin, showjumper

"Doctors in Gaza were surprised," she said with a proud smile. " Most children in her case need more than a year to be able to balance themselves on one leg, in order to wear the artificial limb. Hebatallah broke the rules and showed great determination."

Hebatallah dreams of having a black Arabian horse with long hair (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
The family noticed Hebatallah's love for horses at around the age of five, when she started drawing them. They decided to get her a membership at a local equestrian club.

"She was seven years old when she rode a horse for the first time. She was happy and didn't stop talking about how she felt on the horse. We used to go every weekend to that club, and every time we noticed her fondness of horses," Taghreed said.

Gaza has three equestrian clubs. Therefore, the number of children accepted is very limited and the fees range from 200-300 shekels ($55-80$) a month.   

We refuse to consider her a handicapped [person]

- Taghreed Shahin, mother

In 2007, the family moved to Norway. There Hebatallah joined a professional equestrian club, where she could ride horses in parks and forests. Yet at that stage of her life, she had never thought of showjumping.

The family came back to Gaza in 2011, after the situation in Gaza was more stable and the father secured a job as a journalist. Later in May 2016, Hebatallah decided to start taking showjumping lessons. According to her mother, Hebatallah was taught equally alongside her peers, with no special provisions. 

Taghreed Shahin, Hebatallah’s mother, provides support and gives instructions to her daughter before the tournament (MEE/Mohammed Asad)
Despite all the warnings from family and friends, Hebatallah "believed in her talent," Taghrid said. 

"Showjumping was a challenge for me. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I can do it. The feeling of jumping on the back of the horse is very similar to flying. It's more exciting than just riding," Hebatallah said.

'Everybody warned me, but I am confident in myself'

Hebatallah admits that the challenge was not easy, but she pushed herself until she could master it.

"Every beginning is hard. I faced many problems to be able to balance the horse, perform jumps and control my leg muscles, but I overcame those challenges in order to master the techniques," Hebatallah said. 

This sport is all about respect and love, and I find both

- Hebatallah Shahin, showjumper

According to Hebatallah, in order for her to ride horses, she has to exert double the effort that a person with two legs does. During her rides she must make sure her artificial limb is attached well, while simultaneously controlling the horse; but she makes it look effortless.

"My artificial limb is inappropriate for [professional] sports. It's normal. There are no advanced limbs in Gaza. We tried to bring them from outside Gaza, but they are very expensive and I need to stay in specialised centres for months in order to get a perfect limb and get used to it," she said.

"I have no choice but to keep practising using this limb. After more than one year of showjumping, I can say that my artificial limb doesn't affect me any more," she added.

'Her success will always inspire us all'

Yaqoub Louzon, 16, one of Hebatallah's friends, has always supported her. Initially, he was worried that she would not be able to jump over barriers or participate in tournaments, but he was surprised by her will and talent.

"When Hebatallah told me that she was willing to start showjumping, I was very afraid that she wouldn't have the needed will and determination," said Louzon, who started showjumping five years ago.

My artificial limb is inappropriate for [professional] sports

- Hebatallah Shahin, showjumper

"It is a very difficult and risky sport. It requires experience in controlling the horse and the body at the same time."

Louzon himself had a difficult moment when he and his horse were in an accident. The horse had to be put down following the accident, in order to "ease his pain," as he described.

"It's a part of the sport. I spent months shocked and my family was afraid for me. Such events can't be forgotten and make me afraid for Hebatallah." 

Louzon believes that Hebatallah's success can be an example for anyone who is lacking self-confidence. "She sets an example that we should encourage and appreciate. Her success will always inspire us all. I can't stop smiling while watching her on a horse."

For Hebatallah, her family and friends have played an important role in her success.

It is a very difficult and risky sport

- Yaqoub Louzon, showjumper

"My family helped me a lot. They were always caring and encouraged me to practise my hobbies. Moreover, my friends are the main reason why I'm here. They give me a lot of advice and instructions," she said.

"This sport is all about respect and love, and I find both because of my family and friends," she added.

The sky is the limit

Hebatallah has big dreams when it comes to her future. "I would like to have an Arabian black horse with long black hair. In fact, I want to have a stable full of horses. My love for those creatures is limitless. They make me feel free and fast. I simply fly on the horse."

I want to have my story published and my voice heard. I want to spread hope and ambition

- Hebatallah Shahin, showjumper

Hebatallah's hobbies are not limited to horse riding. She also plays the guitar and regularly goes to a gym with a private trainer. "I'm very interested in staying fit all the time. I do exercises for my right leg as I rely on it most of the time."

Next year will be very important for Hebatallah and her family as she will be graduating from high school. Additionally, she will also be speaking at a TED talk event held at the University of Palestine in the Gaza Strip.

"I am looking forward to next year. I want to study media and journalism, just like my father. I want to have my story published and my voice heard. I want to spread hope and ambition," she said.

"We refuse to consider her a handicapped [person]," Taghreed said. "Disability is about negativity. Look at Hebatallah, is there anything negative about her? She is a positive and ambitious girl with an outstanding future waiting for her." 

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