RIYADH: Organizing and managing international horse riding events on the scale of Diriyah Equestrian Festival (DEF) is no small feat.
With more than 150 competitors hailing from 17 countries and 170 horses in attendance, the logistics require precision, sharp attention to detail and unwavering passion for the sport.
Enter Maria Hernek, DEF 2019 chief steward, and her team of experts who oversee the daily running of the festival and are responsible for ensuring the welfare of riders and horses alike.
The code of conduct that Hernek follows, which ultimately defines her role, is threefold. “Help, prevent and intervene.” Simple terms, yet the impact she and her team’s actions have on an event’s success are undeniable.
“One of the responsibilities is to ensure it’s fair play for everyone, a level field of play. Everyone should have the same possibility to warm up in the same conditions. For instance, the footing needs to be the same from the first horse to the last. If there are 100 horses, it is quite difficult,” she said.
Speaking about how she navigates the policies around horses that have traveled from all around the world to participate in the competition, Hernek added: “We work with the quarantine team to support. The quarantine procedure here is different to what it is in other nations, for example, it differs in America to here in Saudi Arabia. So, for that we need to know a bit about each country and what their rules are and adjust according to them.”
Getting under the skin of different cultures and understanding their ways of operating is another skill that helps Hernek in her role as chief steward, and one she is not unfamiliar with.
Taking the top stewarding role at DEF has been a passion project for the Swede, rather than just a day job. Normally, however, Hernek can be found working out of her base at the Netherlands Space Office (the Dutch space agency) in her impressive role as a spacecraft engineer.
“One part of my normal work is to read rules of spacecraft engineering. At the space agency, I work with over 25 different nationalities, which helps me while I’m stewarding as I can catch up with different cultures quite quickly and understand different language intricacies. I’m quite accustomed to it,” she added.
No stranger to hard work, Hernek opts to forgo relaxing holidays, instead spending her annual leave traveling to competitions such as DEF to pursue her passion.
It is a hobby that has taken her to great heights over the course of her 25-year stewarding career, including stints at the Olympics in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, and an upcoming placement at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“Every time you’re appointed (to steward) at the Olympics, it’s a huge honor,” Hernek said.
Despite horses and spaceships being two dramatically different vessels, Hernek has learned that many of the core skills are interchangeable — that is being a true “people person” skilled at reading situations and being a stickler for the rules.