by Margaux Fontaine
Uma Mencia Uranga, graduate student in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, is working towards her Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS). But outside of her academic career, she is a professional endurance horse racer.
“My interest in endurance horse racing began when I was a young girl,” Mencia said. “It was a sport that combined both my passion for the outdoors and my love for horses.”
Mencia grew up in a small town in the Basque country of northern Spain. Taking lessons from the endurance team at her riding school, she participated in her first race at the age of twelve and never looked back. Since 2008, Mencia has been based out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, working with the Fazza Endurance Team (now referred to as Al Aryam Endurance Team).
Her riding career has been complemented by her successful academic career as well. While in Dubai, she studied at the American University, where she majored in Fine Arts in the school of Visual Communications and completed a certificate in Middle Eastern Studies.
“The years I had spent in the United Arab Emirates and my Arabic language studies in Egypt and Morocco sparked my desire pursue the academic study of the language and region at the graduate level,” Mencia explained. “The strong focus on the Arabic language, the diverse classes taught by top faculty in the field, as well as the content courses taught entirely in Arabic is what made the Arab Studies M.A. at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies of Georgetown my top choice program.”
Though she is enjoying her time at Georgetown, riding remains a central part of her life.
“Wandering through nature’s diverse landscapes on the back of such powerful and sensible beings is an amazing feeling and has been incredibly formative,” she said. “I owe much of the woman I am today to the horses that accompanied me throughout those journeys.”
Endurance racing is a sport that requires rigorous training, with typical racing distances spanning 120-160 km and requiring many hours – or even days – to complete. Riders must prepare to race in all terrains and weather conditions.
But enduring racing is more than just a solo effort, Menica explained. The rider is assisted by a support team that helps the horse through veterinary checkpoints and provides water and other necessities.
“It’s a sport that requires concentration, endurance, and strategic thinking, all of which are key to making sure that the horse reaches the finish line in good shape,” Mencia said. “In short, what I love about endurance is that it is a multifaceted sport in which the horse is the center around which all resources – those of the team and the rider – are dedicated to ensuring that the horse reaches the finish line in the quickest time possible and in good health.”
A highlight of her riding career was participating in the 2015 Mongol Derby, which at 1000km is the longest horse race in the world.
“The Mongol Derby has been the most physically demanding yet most deeply moving and humbling experience of my life,” Menica said. “I think I felt every feeling in the spectrum of human emotion –from extreme pain to euphoria, from fear to confidence, from intense competition to friendship, from despair to hope.”
“It was the kind of adventure I had dreamed of since I was a girl riding my horse through the Basque forests.”
Inspired by Genghis Khan’s postal system, where messages would be swiftly carried across the Mongolian steppes, the 1000km derby is divided into segments of 30-40km. At each stop, the rider switches to a new horse – Mencia rode 28 different Mongolian horses over the course of the journey. Along the way, riders are hosted by families of nomadic herders.
“It was an honor to be able to ride the horses of a people who come from such a strong tradition of horsemanship,” Mencia said. “In fact, some of the most talented horse riders I have ever seen were the children of the host families who fearlessly rode their horses among the herds.”
She spoke of the Mongol Derby as relying not only on the efforts of the horses and host families, but also on fellow riders and the support team.
“While the race was competitive, there was also a pervasive feeling of camaraderie, and I witnessed fellow riders who did not hesitate to put themselves at risk in order to help a friend,” Mencia said. “And of course, the whole race would not have been possible without a dedicated crew team that organized the adventure and did everything to ensure the safety of the competitors.”
Now devoting her time to her studies, Mencia’s favorite part about being a student at Georgetown is being part of the community of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
“The constant intellectual stimulation from students, faculty and staff, and the nurturing bonds that students create at the center have made my time here truly remarkable.”
One professor who has had a particular impact on her is Arabic professor Belkacem Baccouche, whose classes she has taken for the past three semesters.
“Professor Baccouche is profoundly knowledgeable of the Arabic language – its grammar, poetics, and mechanics,” she explained. “I have found the impeccability and discipline that he instills in students studying the language to be especially useful for me as a student of Arabic and for graduate school in general.”
Her favorite class at Georgetown is the history seminar she is currently taking, “Traveling: European and Middle Eastern Encounters,” taught by Professor Judith Tucker.
“In this course we look at different travel accounts written by European and Middle Eastern travelers (mainly from the 18th to the early 20th century), paying close attention to the narratives that travelers have used to describe their encounters with the ‘foreign’ within their historical and political contexts,” she said. “As a woman passionate about travel myself, this class has prompted me to rethink the way I think and talk about travel as an experience.”
While Mencia has not decided on her plans following graduation, she hopes to continue studying Arabic.