Ayesha Vardag might be known to many as ‘the Diva of Divorce,’ but it’s her passion for horses which has led to her most exciting new enterprise…
Back in 2014, ‘divorce lawyer to the stars’ Ayesha Vardag arrived in the UAE, with a life-long passion for horses and her ageing ex-event horse, Will. Now, just over five years later, Ayesha oversees a 22-horse equestrian empire spanning three countries – and is making serious plans to get her team to the Olympics in not one, but two equestrian disciplines.
“I grew up with horses, my mother had horses, my daughter… we all ride,” she says of her family. “Back in the UK, my daughter does eventing and takes it really quite seriously.”
After carefully looking at what Dubai had to offer, Ayesha chose Desert Palm as the base for her horse and family. “It’s so beautiful here, I just wanted to hack about a bit with my lovely old Will.” With Will’s big competition days firmly behind him, the pair spent their days enjoying the polo fields at Desert Palm, while Ayesha started a few jumping lessons. It was during one of these that an in-house instructor saw the horse and suggested he looked ‘just the type’ for the UAE’s premier eventing fixture, the Spinney’s Cup.
Equestrianism has always been a family affair for the Vardags
For Ayesha, the seed was sown. The suggestion launched a chain of events that led to where she is today – founder of Vardags Equestrian, an audacious enterprise for even the most seasoned horse enthusiast. Ayesha, has clearly never been one to shy away from a challenge, whether in her professional life or private capacity, and this was to be no different. Her unique combination of fearlessness and forward thinking clearly makes her as well suited to the competition yard as the courtroom. To learn more about Ayesha’s career is to hear stories of tenacity and dedication, as well as futuristic thinking.
In 1996, she worked through her training contract in city law while pregnant, going on to put in 12-hour days and become the only female trainee with a baby to complete her placement on time.Moving into family law and specialising in divorce, she launched her own law firm, Vardags, in 2005. The past 15 years have seen Ayesha rise to become Britain’s top divorce lawyer and she remains president of the multimillion-pound London-based firm. The legal profession calls her ‘fearless’ and continually acknowledges her strategic intellectual vision. She has quite literally broken the mould of what it means to be a woman in law and business, in pretty much every conceivable way.
At Vardags, she has overseen and undertaken many ground-breaking measures to improve the legal standing of her clients, and to better support her ever-growing staff. Among them, enabling flexi-hours for her 125 lawyers and helping them balance their careers and family. She has also set new legal benchmarks. In 2010, she won the Radmacher case which brought prenuptial agreements into British law. As one commentator put it, she “…created autonomy in marriage… and changed the way [British] society sees women.”
She says, “we all take risks and choose paths, some of which don’t go anywhere, but some do, and I’ve found all my life you need to take the good opportunities when they come along, and, that way you end up making your own luck. People think, oh, look at her, isn’t she lucky? But actually, it’s a whole series of little leaps of faith, little decisions and little judgements, that you make, that make big things happen.”One only needs to glance through the Times and Telegraph newspapers, at their column inches dedicated to her life and career, and it’s easy to see why Ayesha had little hesitation when the Spinney’s Cup was suggested. “I set my objective, and we did it, placing eighth,” she says triumphantly.
Ayesha competing in cross country
It was also at Desert Palm where she met Ahmad Mansour, a trainer based at the stables. Although the pair hit it off quickly, Ayesha laughingly admits, “I found him really quite scary and very stern the first time we met.He’d been an absolute junior star back in his native Jordan, but there are so few opportunities to get the sponsorship and support that even the very talented rider needs. It was really so fortuitous that we even met! It was such a synergetic relationship – he helped me immensely and he trains my daughter wonderfully. He’s just such a talent.”
Ahmed became Ayesha’s trainer when she acquired a new jumping horse, called Fluorescent Adolescent. “She was really quite challenging, so, while I trained on her, Ahmed began competing on her and he did fantastically well, she just won everything in her class!” she recalls fondly. “One day, he just said to me, ‘look, maybe we can do something together? We can get a horse, I can try and compete it, we could take this to the next level.’”
Since then the partnership has only grown stronger and the pair have not looked back – Ahmad achieving success after success, while Ayesha fulfilling her own ambitions to develop a global equestrian business. “In 2017, we decided to go to Holland and look for a horse, although we didn’t have a huge budget to buy something ready-made. We visited Ahmed’s old trainer in Holland – Jan Bauwmann – who was a former big eventer and trader and we just got her there. The decision was based entirely on her quality. We looked at a whole bunch of horses and actually bought three. The first of them being Estoril de Vardag (KWPN out of Vaillant who is by the well known stallion For Pleasure). She is our absolute star.”
“We also bought (Hungarian Warmblood) Atletic De Vardag. He’s really my horse, but he’s in England now, recovering from a suspensory tendon injury. He’s basically better now so I think he will come back here next season. And of course, Ficanka de Vardag (KWPN out of 2001 Koppany, grandsire Heartbreaker) – she’s also in England, competing with my daughter. The following year we went to the VDL sales in Holland and bought Honeypenny de Vardag, a KWPN mare by Bubalu VDL by famous Baloubet de Rouet, competing now as an 8 year old on the 145 in Dubai and Holland with Ahmad and preparing to be his second Grand Prix horse.”“But Estoril is the star and she’s been working with Ahmad on the big stage, representing Jordan in the Olympic qualifiers and even the international Nations Cup in Morocco.”
“We also bought (Hungarian Warmblood) Atletic De Vardag. He’s really my horse, but he’s in England now, recovering from a suspensory tendon injury. He’s basically better now so I think he will come back here next season. And of course, Ficanka de Vardag.
Stephen (left), Ahmed (second right) and Ayesha (right) with Estoril De Vardag
Ahmed competing at the Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club on Honeypenny De Vardag
A family affair
As Ayesha mentioned, her daughter Helena is also getting into the family business and is aiming for the top. However, her heart lies in eventing. Based in England, the 15-year-old competes regularly and, like Ahmad, has Olympic ambitions – “In a couple of Olympic cycles’ time I think,” says Ayesha. “She’s so committed to eventing. In many ways we rather wish she had gone down the showjumping route – it just seems somewhat less perilous, but she is committed to eventing, and addicted to cross country.” Ayesha’s eyes sparkle as she says, “Being out there alone, just you and your horse against the odds, it’s just all so thrilling.”
“I do think if the eventing scene had been bigger here, we might have stayed focused on that, but then so many things in life are based on happy accidents of chance, aren’t they? “
Certainly, while Helena clearly inherited her mother’s fearlessness, she also has her bold business acumen. As well as Olympic success in the discipline, she has business plans too. “What my daughter really wants to do overall is to commercialise eventing and make it something that is commercially viable.”
With her daughter completely on-side, Ayesha has even managed to encourage her husband, Stephen Bence, the Vardags law firm’s chief strategist and a man who was not initially ‘horsey’, change his ways. And, while Stephen is now a competent rider, she says he much prefers the strategy elements of the showjumping game.
“He often walks the course with Ahmad,” she says. “He loves to look at the lines and where you might lose time and what the trade-offs are, he’s massively into the strategy of it all. He’s really embraced this new equestrian life, but how could you not? Visiting the shows and seeing your horse up there, the parades, your horses with their national flags, it’s really, really, exciting. I think we all just feel so privileged to be part of it.”
Ahmed , Ayesha and Stephen with their many trophies and medals
Ahmed Mansour and Estoril De Vardag
“Meeting Ahmad has changed the course of both of our lives,” she says. “If we hadn’t moved here and met Ahmad, yes, I do think we would be concentrating entirely on eventing.” Ayesha says, “everything is so focused around people. The thing I’ve learned most in running my business, the thing that matters the most, is the quality of the people you’re dealing with, their integrity, their talent, their commitment and their drive… those are the things that lead your projects more than anything else, you have to be led by the individuals you encounter on your way.”
And, clearly she has chosen well. Ahmad and Estoril de Vardag have to date, claimed the CSI2* 135cm speed class at Sharjah back in 2018, and last year, the pair achieved second places in the Al Ain CSI3* (130cm) and the Geesteren CSI2*(140cm), third place in the Abu Dhabi CSI4* and fourth in the Tetouan CSI4* (160cm) and represented Jordan in the Olympic qualifiers.
“Ahmed’s risen so rapidly through sheer talent. Anyone who’s good can get on a fantastically expensive super-horse and do well, but he’s taken a horse which hadn’t done anything special and taken her to Grand Prix level in the space of a few years. He’s also so kind with the horses, I’ve never seen him angry with any of them. Whenever he drops a pole he always thinks about what he did wrong, never blames the horse, it’s always about his personal self-analysis. He’s constantly saying, ‘I didn’t approach this properly, or give her enough time there,’ and I think it’s this self-examination, always taking responsibility for oneself that makes people so good, because they are always looking for how they can do it better next time. I often cite these examples to my lawyers. If you drop a pole or get a refusal, look for how it’s your responsibility, how can YOU improve? I’m very conscious of this as I try to lead them and try to get them to learn continually and become better and better.”
When we put it to Ayesha, that some might simply call Ahmad lucky, her response is swift, “Ahmad made his own luck, by first of all being an absolutely brilliant trainer. Taking on my horse, competing her, being fantastic at that and then taking the initiative to say, ‘Let’s do something together." She goes on, “his integrity, his niceness… I just have absolute confidence getting into a project with him. I trusted my instinct, and it felt right.”
As talk turns to the Olympics, Ayesha says, “We always thought Tokyo was too soon, but of course it was nice that we were even in the qualifiers for that. It would be wonderful if we could be ready for Paris. And of course, we’re thinking the same for Vardags Saratoga in the eventing.’’
Helena Vardag-Walters competing in cross country in Europe
Over the space of five short years, the Vardags Equestrian team has grown to 22 horses, competing in two disciplines across three countries, with four full-time trainers. As well as Ahmad, who is based in the UAE but summers in Holland, there’s Sara Battista in Southern Italy jumping the Hungarian Warmblood Corino de Vardag and the Dutch Warmblood Ersina de Vardag. Rounding off the team is French show jumper and trainer Karine Pitard who is based in England and whose focus is on breaking and training the up-and-coming Vardag youngsters.
“Although all our horses here in Dubai are showjumpers, I just keep coming back to eventing,” she says. “We are currently working with star British rider Flora Harris who is riding in UK for Vardags. With Vardags Saratoga, she rode at Blenheim, and is aiming her at Badminton where Flora has been a regular in recent years. She’s another who’s hoping to go to the Olympics.”
“What do we want to do overall? Build something significant, for the future so my daughter has something she can take over and make her own,” she says. “The plan and vision will develop in due course, and we will have a really big impact – in breeding, producing, and in the showjumping and eventing yards. We’ve already taken a number of embryos from Ahmad’s other mare Honey Penny and we’re going to use them when the timing is right. We’ve got a surrogate in Italy, and another in England. We’ve had a couple of foals already, but they we weren’t using our top mares. We’ll start with the leading mares over the next couple of years, just trying to work on the next generation really.”
As well as the elite team of mares, future Vardag hopes also rest on their newest acquisition – a colt from the top Netherlands showjumping breeders VDL. If the stars align, Carvalho de Vardag (Carrera x Canturo) will become the first and foundation sire at Vardags Equestrian.
“He’s incredibly highly bred, so he’s the next generation for Ahmad to work with and we’ll breed from him and produce from him.” - Interview by Cursty Hoppe.
Stephen, Ahmed, Ayesha and Ficanka De Vardag