My work is my passion, and my lifestyle. When I left school at age 16, in 1987, I had no qualifications. I never really thought about money or having a job to guarantee me a good salary. It was the opposite: horses were my passion, what I wanted for my life. I was born in Biarritz, in south-western France, and started riding when I was seven or eight. I'm now 38. I don't know where my love of horses came from. No one else in my family rode.
I now work as the senior riding instructor at the Royal Stables in Abu Dhabi, and I manage all the horses there. We have about 100 altogether, including 40 liveried horses that we stable, feed, groom and take care of for a monthly fee. My father died in a car accident when I was seven, leaving just my mother and me. He had taken out insurance through his work, so we received an income every month until I turned 18. My mother put the money into a savings account for me. It was with this money that I was able to go to riding school near Paris at 16 and pay the monthly fees of about Dh840.
There I learnt everything about horses: grooming, riding, and basic equestrian medicine. After my studies, I found a job working for a grand prix show jumper, Brice Pozzoli. Mr Pozzoli was famous in France at the time and had won many national competitions. I was paid 300 (Dh1,665) a month, and was given room and board in Mr Pozzoli's house. The money was not very much, but it was just pocket change really, as everything else was paid for. I have never had to pay rent or electricity bills, and only a small amount of tax.
I learnt a lot from grooming for Mr Pozzoli and going with him to competitions. He was a very kind employer, and if there was an event at my level at any of the competitions we attended he would load another horse on our truck and pay for me to enter. It wasn't a lot of money, but he didn't have to do it. We competed nationally and in Europe. After Mr Pozzoli I worked for a year with another famous show jumper, Fabrice Dumartin. He had a huge stable and paid me about Dh4,200 a month. The job was similar to the one I had with Mr Pozzoli.
I've never been very extravagant with money. Weekends I would be competing; otherwise I would be up early, working outside and working hard. When the weekend came, I just wanted to go out for a drink with a friend. I didn't really have opportunities to spend money, so I could save. Competing was fun, but quite lonely, so I became more interested in teaching. In 1992, my boyfriend at the time asked me to help him run his father's stables and riding school - which was my first school, in Solers, near Paris. We were very busy. We were teaching and managing the horses and running a livery service, as well as competing in showjumping competitions and three-day events. In addition to the stables, we had a bed and breakfast business, for which I did the cooking, hired out rooms for weddings and held summer camps for children.
I was very involved in the finances of the business, and it was very important to me to be financially independent. Although we were running the business together, I made sure I had a salary. We didn't enter competitions to win lots of prize money; we did it for fun, and it was a good advertisement for the stables and a great opportunity to sell horses: you would show them competing and then sell them to people who saw them.
Depending on the quality of the horse, the ones we sold cost anywhere from Dh8,400 to Dh84,000. The prize money was not very much, but as long as we could cover our food, petrol, feed for the horses and hotel stays, we were quite happy. It was a tough decision, but when I was 26 I decided to move on and see the world. I was fortunate to be selected to attend the Haras du Pin, the biggest and oldest stud farm in Normandy. It's a prestigious farrier and riding school, and I rode and broke in young horses.
Approximately seven students are admitted to the school each year, and I was paid a small stipend of about Dh3,000, which was enough because I was given room and board at the school. I had two horses in Solers. I didn't sell them when I moved to Normandy, partly because I didn't need the money. I decided to take the mare with me; I couldn't keep her where I worked in Normandy, but she was happy in a big field near Mont St Michel, about a two-hour drive from Haras du Pin.
When I moved to Abu Dhabi, in October 1998, I gave her to a friend of mine. She is still with her. I remember all of my horses - their faces, their names, what it felt like to ride them. A few of them I spent time with are difficult to forget, just as some people are. While in Normandy, I started investing from time to time in a plan d'epargne logement, a savings scheme intended for people who want to buy a house.
It was a fixed-term deposit of about seven or eight years and the interest rate was good, around 4-5 per cent. After the term you could use the savings for a house deposit, or anything you wanted, really. I didn't save a fixed percentage a month, I just paid into it whenever I could. It was probably my mother who influenced me to invest in the plan; she was always saying, "Money is important in life. Do this just in case, then you have something to rely on."
At the end of the year in Normandy, a friend called me and said they had received a fax at their stables advertising a job in Abu Dhabi. At the time, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and I thought, "why not?". I had no idea where Abu Dhabi was, but I knew it was quite sunny, and I was fed up with the rain in Normandy. So I sent in my CV. The job was to teach Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa's children how to ride and train endurance horses at the Al Asayl stables.
I've been very lucky in my life - my mother says I have a lucky star. It turned out that the Sheikh had a stud farm in Normandy, just five minutes from where I worked, so I met with the manager there and soon thereafter accepted the position. The job started three weeks later. I thought I would work in Abu Dhabi for a year, but that was 11 years ago. My monthly salary started at Dh6,500, but everything else was included, so I started to save more money for my future. The exchange rate at the time was very good. I don't send anything back to France now because the exchange rate is so bad.
I moved to the Royal Stables in 2002. They were Sheikh Zayed's private stables, and were used mostly for breeding, but about three years ago we opened to the public, brought in new ponies and started a pony club, which teaches children how to ride. They raised my salary, and it is fine, although it's not a lot compared to some other types of jobs. I am still riding competitively, but the main thing is that I am doing what I want. I have a salary, but I don't feel as if I am working. If tomorrow I wake up and don't enjoy what I do I will have to think about doing something else.
Someone once said this to me: "If you find a job you like, you'll never work again." I'm very happy. I realise how lucky I am to do what I love. * As told to Jo Wadham