'I Don’t Think of Any Limitations Around What I’m Doing': What It Feels Like to Be the First Saudi Woman to Compete at the World Games

by Meghan Blackburn /

Published on

Everything was just so surreal,” Dalma Malhas says excitedly as she continues telling me how events unfolded for her at the 2017 CSIO5* Roma Piazza di Siena, leading up to her qualification for the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. “I qualify for [the Loro Piana Gran Premio Citta di Roma] grand prix. We’d never jumped a five star, not me or my horse. It was amazing. We go in, have one rail, and qualify for the [2018 FEI World Equestrian Games].”

From that point forward, WEG was written in permanent ink on the calendar for Dalma and her horse Toscanini Malpic (Allegreto x Kelemm Des Marins). “I planned like I was going and [I did] everything I could to go,” Dalma says. “When the grand prix in Rome went well, I said, ‘OK, you know what? I have to take this opportunity because it’s not every day that you have a horse to jump this level. And [it's not every day that you] may qualify for WEG.’”

So, roughly 16 months after jumping in their first CSI5*, (and with only one other class at that level under their belt) Dalma and “Tosca,” arrived in Tryon as the sole athletes representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“So many Saudi girls are starting to ride [horses], and now women are driving; it’s a special time for us. It’s a new beginning and things are going to keep on moving forward.”

All at once, there were a lot of “firsts” happening. Not only would these be the first world championships for both Dalma, only 26-years-old, and her 11-year-old Selle Français gelding, but it would be the first time in history that a woman would be representing Saudi Arabia at the World Equestrian Games.

Dalma wasn’t fazed by it; not the fact that she and her horse had each jumped their first CSI 3*, 4*, and 5* classes in a period of fewer than two years, nor that she was, again, responsible for carrying out a historic moment.

“I don’t like to think about it [like that]. I like to focus on my goals and do everything I can to make them happen,” Dalma says. “So many Saudi girls are starting to ride [horses], and now women are driving; it’s a special time for us. It’s a new beginning and things are going to keep on moving forward.”

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“Of course, when you look at it all, and you see that so many women are looking up to you, it motivates you, and I’m honored,” she continues. “But that’s not why I do this. That’s not the point. In fact, thinking like that sort of limits you.”

“I am not thinking, ‘I’m a woman or a man.’ That doesn’t matter. I’m a rider. I don’t think of any limitations around what I’m doing.”

Dalma jumped onto the world stage in 2010 at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where she won a bronze medal. That was when she first unintentionally broke barriers as the first woman to represent Saudi Arabia in any Olympic competition. But despite the statement her achievements are making, she wakes up every morning feeling like any other young woman who just loves to ride horses.

After Singapore, Dalma gave horses a rest and turned to her studies. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the SOAS University of London. When she went to university, Dalma recalls thinking, "do I just ride because it’s always been there, or is it something that I really want to do?"

“While I was there, I realized that I really feel a void without it, and my life is not the same.”

A passion for the animals and the sport was introduced to her at a very young age thanks to her mother, Arwa Mutabagani. Arwa ran a riding school, and it took very little time to recognize Dalma’s talent and drive. She also recognized that if her daughter wanted to improve, she needed to ride competitively. Since girls couldn’t compete in Saudi Arabia, Arwa and a then 12-year-old Dalma moved to Italy to pursue show jumping. There, she rode with Italian equestrian legend Duccio Bartolucci.

With the discovery of some talented horses in 2016, Dalma decided it was time to put the Master’s degree she was studying for on hold and get back in the saddle. She first bought an experienced horse named Oural De La Roque.

“It flowed straight away,” Dalma says. "He’s such a good a horse, it didn’t take me long to get back into it.”

At the end of the 2016 season, Dalma ran into French champion Roger-Yves Bost. At the time, she wasn’t training with a coach and she had a light bulb moment.

“I had always seen 'Bosty' at shows and thought that he was lovely; such a nice guy. So positive and just really cool. For me, a first impression is really important. I always got along with him,” Dalma says. “I respected him as a rider, but also as a person.”

She let the idea brew. A few weeks later she felt comfortable approaching Bosty. “My issue was that I’ve never seen him train anyone, but I thought, ‘I’m going to give it a shot.’”

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From there, Bosty visited Fursan Equestrian Center in Chantilly, France, where Dalma is based. Arwa owns the facility in a partnership with fellow Saudis.

“I show him my horses, we sit, we talk,” Dalma explains. "He says, 'I think we can work this out.'"

When Bosty asked Dalma what her plans for competitions were, she did not include WEG. Then, she couldn’t have imagined that Tosca, a horse that had never jumped in a three-star class when she bought him, could be her partner for one of the largest equestrian competitions in the world.

But, it happened. And although they’d both faced plenty of obstacles getting to where they were, Dalma says the only thing she was worried about in Tryon was the open water. The pair had not jumped many of them in competition, though they were schooling them well at home.

"...If you sit and wait for the ideal situation, you’ll never do anything"

“When we first went in the ring, all of the sudden, he just shrunk. I guess it was the crowd; he got a bit shy, like, ‘what’s happening here?’ I had number two down, a silly vertical, and the water the first day. Plus, we were slow, and you had to go fast that day. But I just wanted to be safe, have a nice round, give us some confidence.”

She continues, “They say usually your first world championships or Olympics are quite something. OK, it wasn’t easy, but we both finished on a positive note. To go with a horse that you have sort of 'made', it gives you an extra sort of satisfaction. Was it ideal – to do two 5* and then go to WEG? Probably not. If I had a horse that was more experienced, it would have certainly been easier for me. But if you sit and wait for the ideal situation, you’ll never do anything.”

Those are words that Dalma Malhas lives by.

“I’m always very proud to represent my county. For me, it’s an honor; I hope it keeps happening. Are there challenges? Always…but that’s what makes it interesting as well. Yes, it is extra motivation for me to know that I’m opening the door for [Saudi] women, so they can look and say, ‘OK, it can be done.’ But at the same time, while I’m doing it, I don’t think about that fact,” she says.

“I am not thinking, ‘I’m a woman or a man.’ That doesn’t matter. I’m a rider. I don’t think of any limitations around what I’m doing.”

 

Photos by Sportfot.

Written by Meghan Blackburn

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