Women race ahead in endurance test

Story highlights

UAE riders dominate world endurance equestrian events

Young female competitors emerging as the next crop of stars

Two-time world champion Maria Alvarez Ponton of Spain led the way

Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed is reigning 2012 world champion

Purebred Arabian stallions dominate the world of endurance horse events, but it is increasingly likely that the rider guiding them to glory will be a young woman.

The United Arab Emirates is the hotbed of equestrian’s fastest growing discipline, and new entrants to the top level of the sport such as 18-year-old Fatima Al-Marri are already upsetting the established order.

“We love to challenge the men,” she told CNN’s Winning Post, while fellow competitor Mariam Mothana has another take.

“The best thing is when you see the look on their faces when they pass the finish line,” Mothana said.

“It’s nice to see that they understand that the women here can challenge the men – they can be as strong as men.”

Some 40% of registered endurance riders are now women, and the bar has certainly been set high for the likes of Fatima and Mariam.

Back in 2010, Spanish rider Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton won her second world title just seven weeks after giving birth to her first child.

Remarkable feat

Then 34, she held off an all-powerful squad from the UAE to take the endurance championship at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

Riding her Arabian wonder horse Nobby, Ponton successfully defended the title she won two years previously in Malaysia and added to her European title of 2009, becoming the first rider to achieve that triple.

Ponton could soon be facing challenges from young Emirati women from the UAE, where traditional cultural barriers are being eroded.

Shamsa Al Shamsi is typical of the emerging riders who are pushing for acceptance.

“There might be some people who are sticking to the tradition that a woman can’t be a rider, but nowadays so many of us are riding here in the UAE and the Gulf region,” the 28-year-old told CNN.

She is one of 15 women being trained at the stables owned by Sheikh Hamdan, the brother of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – so recent developments truly have royal consent.

Sheikh Mohammed is the backer of one of the highlights of the region’s endurance racing season, the Al Maktoum Endurance Cup.

The field of top international riders for the 2013 edition had a strong contingent of women entrants.

Champion’s views

“Women are getting more and more interested in this race,” Sheikh Mohammed told CNN.

And can they compete at the same level?

“Yes, yes definitely!” came the reply.

As the reigning world endurance champion, Sheikh Mohammed is certainly well placed to make that judgment.

He rode the 11-year-old Intissar – trained by Ponton’s husband Jaume Punti-Dachs – to victory at Euston Park in Britain last August.

Ponton, riding the evergreen Nobby, was relegated to fourth place as the Sheikh covered the 160-kilometer course in treacherous and wet conditions at an average speed of 22.82 kph.

According to Ali Al-Muhairi, the racing manager at Sheikh Hamdan’s stables, women have riding skills ideally sorted to endurance riding.

“Men and women are different,” he told CNN. “The girl is softer, she pulls the horse, she pulls gently and the horse will understand, ‘Oh she will not hurt me.’

“He will slow down for her, but the man when he hits the horse, pulls the horse back and horse will pull him back hard, if you pull the horse hard, you will lose energy and the horse will lose energy.”

Perfect partnership

Ponton knows the importance of forming the perfect partnership between rider and horse, in this case her beloved Nobby.

“He’s a winner, I think he was born as a winner. He’s a champion. Even if he’s tired, when another horse challenges him, he will go until the end,” she told CNN.

Her last big success at the European championships in 2011 was a particular highlight.

“There was a lot of pressure and a lot of people said that he couldn’t do it, that he wasn’t good enough for the mountains or something like this,” Ponton said.

“I don’t know why but I enjoyed it a lot when I crossed the line. I was really really happy to win.”

She and her trainer husband are already searching for the new breed of champion horses and have a growing stable of contenders.

“Flat races last minutes but top endurance races can last all day. The key is stamina and Arabians are genetically built for it,” Punti-Dachs said.

Royal family

Ponton and Nobby had been trying to match the record of American Becky Hart, who claimed the first three stagings of the world endurance championships in 1988, 1990 and 1992 riding the legendary RO Grand Sultan.

But it may well be that a young Emirati will be the next woman to impress at the highest level.

Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Futtaim won the Ladies’ Endurance Challenge race in Dubai last month, beating 63 rivals. Her brother Sheikh Ahmed won the world endurance championship in 2002 aged just 16.

Fatima Al-Marri has also been a dominant figure in the women-only events and her mentor Al-Muhairi believes she has the ability to go all the way.

“She’s tough, strong, she pushes herself over the limit, and that’s what you need in endurance,” he said.

“Fatima braved a sandstorm to win gold at last year’s Ladies’ Endurance Cup and has placed second and third key races against men.”

It is perhaps only a matter of time before she joins the likes of Ponton on the top step of the podium at the highest level.