Cristina Calin wanted to be around horses but would have preferred to be a show jumper. Instead, at the age of 12 in her native Romania, she got sidetracked into dressage and discovered that she could happily make a life out of it.
On Wednesday, the Dubai-based Calin will be representing Romania at the Hickstead International Nations Cup in the United Kingdom. But she also will be representing the UAE, or at least her horse, Webster, will. Webster, who turned 10 a couple of weeks ago, was acquired by the UAE dressage champion Reem Alabbar from the London 2012 Olympic dressage team-gold medallist Carl Hester, in January.
Alabbar has grand plans for Webster, hoping to take part in next year's Asian Games in South Korea, the 2015 Pan Arab Games in Qatar and finally, possibly, the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janiero.
Hickstead is a first opportunity for Webster to gain some big tournament experience, which is where Calin comes in.
"Because he is inexperienced and this will be his first very big competition, it is not ideal for a horse without experience to go to a big competition with a rider who is also not that experienced," Calin said.
"So, the horse needs to get experience from a more experienced rider. Reem will learn so much from watching him. It's very hard in Dubai to compete against big riders so, for her, she needs to get experience by competing against big riders, but it's not fair for her to go and compete in her first competition against so many Olympic riders. I am going with Webster this time to see exactly what judges think, what chances he has got and we take it from there."
It is difficult to imagine a more complex and intricate equestrian sport than dressage.
The International Equestrian Federation calls it "the highest expression of horse training, where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements".
It is almost a sport of manners, etiquette and appearance, but also of extreme discipline and physicality for the horse. Calin speaks with great affection of Webster, variously describing him as a dance partner or an athlete under training: "You need a special connection with the horse. To make a horse sometimes do unnatural movements, things they are not born to do, you need a special connection. It takes years of work. It's like dancing, where you have to have that connection with your partner."
Calin takes a hands-on approach in preparing her horses, training with them and making sure she feeds them herself at least once a day, functions usually carried out by stable hands. She has built a relationship with Webster.
"Horses ask very little from us, but they are willing to do a lot for us, and so if you know how to ask, they will give you so much back," she says.
"I train my horses like bodybuilders, or like any other athletes. You have to train muscle, and if he has muscles, he can do anything.
"When we got him, he was an average horse and very sweet. We saw the talent in him. He is very cool, very laid-back and very smart in that he preserves himself. He doesn't do anything that you don't ask. He will know how to use himself and, long term, he will be a very good horse. We saw how he was going and he was improving so much, it actually surprised us."
He also, it turns out, loves the heat and sun of Dubai. Calin is hoping the heat wave currently engulfing the UK stretches into the weekend.
"In England it will be a little colder than here and Webster loves sunbathing, so we're not sure how that will go. But luckily, there is a little bit of a heatwave, so I am hoping for Webster's sake that the weather stays like this, because other horses are not used to it."
Webster will be competing in Hickstead in the small tour of the event, for less-experienced horses, though many of the riders are likely to be Olympians.
Calin is cautious about Webster's immediate prospects, but not so much the longer term.
"We are going to gain some experience, but expectations are high," she said. "Everybody is there to win and I want to go there and win. But experience will be as important.
"I want to see what is happening out there. Here, Webster, Reem and myself are like big fish in a small pond. When you go to Europe, we are like big fish in a shark tank. For the Asian Games, Webster and Reem are definitely very, very good and Reem will have so much fun with him. Honestly, he will be a horse for the Olympics."
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