Dreams of being a showjumper are common among horse-mad teenage girls but Sami Kettle's aspirations of life on the international jumping circuit are different in that they have the distinct possibility of being realised.
Kettle brimming with potential
ABU DHABI // Dreams of being a showjumper are common among horse-mad teenage girls but Sami Kettle's aspirations of life on the international jumping circuit are different in that they have the distinct possibility of being realised. For a start, the 16-year-old Kettle - as the daughter of Abu Dhabi-based racehorse trainer, Mike Kettle - was riding horses almost before she could walk. Secondly, she already has the benefit of a patron - something all serious showjumpers require- in the shape of Sheikh Rashid bin Hamdan, who takes an interest in her results and career, and third, she has just returned from a very successful summer campaign in Spain, having won two classes on the Moonlight Tour where she was also placed numerous times.
"I know it's not an easy career," admits Kettle from the Liwa Stable in Shahama, where she trains with her mother Caroline. Liwa Stable's primary purpose is the base from which Kettle's father prepares Sheikh Rashid's racehorses for the new season, starting this year on November 6. "I know that making it as a showjumper who competes on the international circuit involves a lot of hard work and that it's a very expensive sport, but it's something I really want to do," she adds.
The support of Sheikh Rashid has been invaluable in Kettle's fledgling career. "I took him a video of me riding and asked him if he would be interested in supporting me and pushing my career forward," says Kettle. "His passion is horse racing, but he was interested and his support has allowed me to do so much more than I could ever have achieved otherwise. "Financially this is not a cheap sport and I know I couldn't have got this far without his help."
But even if Kettle had all the money in the world at her disposal, she would not get far without a strong work ethic, and the young showjumper can be found at the stable six days a week. "I come in the evenings if it is a school day, Friday is a rest day for the horses and for me and I spend most of the day here on Saturday," she says. American International School student, Kettle, who is also supported by her parents, especially her mother who travelled to Spain with her for the summer, trains over fences which have been put up in an arena crafted from a level patch of scrub on the stable's lands.
"It's hard to strike a balance between school, social life and training," she says. "Sometimes friends don't always understand how important it is to me. I think they can often see it as more of a hobby when to me it is my future. And once the season starts that's whole weekends gone too really." Kettle, who was born in Abu Dhabi, lived in Spain for six years where her aspirations to be a showjumper really took off.
She started out doing dressage but was soon offered rides on jumping horses and caught the attention of accomplished Colombian showjumper and trainer, Luis Espinosa. "I am very lucky to have such a good trainer," she says. "While in Spain last month I watched 10 people compete on horses he had trained and they all did very well with some quite inexperienced riders. It's the sign of a good trainer, if you can produce horses that consistently perform well with any rider and that's something I'd like to be able to do."
Kettle rented a horse, Profio 10, from Espinosa and competed on Spain's Moonlight Tour, thereby avoiding the pricey fees for shipping her own horses across continents. "It was a big confidence boost really," says Kettle. "The Moonlight Tour is the smaller counterpart to the Sunshine Tour where Sheikha Latifa al Maktoum [UAE showjumping Olympian] really made her name and learned the ropes. "It takes place at night under lights because it gets hot there in the summer and while it's not as big as the Sunshine Tour, it's still a high standard. Each class attracted around 70 competitors and there were nine arenas on the go at the same time. So given the occasion, I was very pleased to win two classes and to be placed in five more."
Now back in Abu Dhabi, Kettle is ready to contest October's new UAE season where, she says, the prize money is among the best in the world. She is having to start small owing to a tendon injury to her horse Indian Gift - stable name, Lugs - which was picked up in transit from Spain to the UAE last year and the fact that her other ride, Ivoire Bai Rio - or Barrio - is a former endurance horse and just learning his way over fences.
"It's always better to jump bigger in training than you do in competition and in Spain I was jumping 1m 40cm when I was working with my trainer," she says. "And I was competing at 1m 30cm which was Group Three standard, but here I will start off in Category C this season as I need to build the horses up." With fences set at a maximum of 1m20cm and going as low as 1m5cm it will be a lesser standard than Kettle is used to, but she is happy to set the foundations for long-term success. "I'm already looking at this as a long-term career," she says.
"It's a step-by-step process with horses and in showjumping, where most of your money comes from buying and selling horses and improving them for others to compete on, I know that your ability to train a horse to a good standard and your reputation is very important." Kettle is also thinking about the future when it comes to possible endorsements. "It's important to travel and get experience in Europe," she says. "You can't rival the exposure to competition at an international level that you get in different countries, but it is also essential to make a name for yourself abroad."
She now has her eye on a new horse, currently in Spain, and if the deal can be worked out between her patron and the horse's owners, Kettle says he will do a lot to progress her career. "This is a good horse who can help me a lot," she said. "I'm having to nurse Lugs a bit this season and Barrio needs to be brought on, so I need something I can really push forward with and hopefully this horse will be just what I need."
And with the standard constantly rising in the UAE, Kettle says that while the traditional strong holds of showjumping remain in Europe and the US, it is now possible to gain important experience without leaving the country. "I can definitely get enough experience here to progress my career," she says. "People from the UAE are paying the top money for some very accomplished showjumpers and they are bringing good trainers and course designers to really grow the sport.
"The Emirates Equestrian Federation is committed to improving levels across lots of equestrian disciplines, not just showjumping or endurance riding and we are seeing higher standards across the board." The generous prize money on offer is also attracting more competitors to shows as well as helping to raise the standard. At the final show of last season, the Emirates National Championship at Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club in April, Dh15,000 in winnings were on offer to Category C riders. An equivalent class in Spain would be worth just Dh2,500 to the winner, meaning that the UAE is set up to attract high-class riders.
Category A classes carried a whopping Dh100,000 purse, with Dh 50,000 to the winner. And unlike Europe, where a single entry could set Kettle back ?180 (Dh943), the UAE is a far more affordable Dh20 for most classes. "The facilities and stabling in the UAE are also top of the range and the surfaces of the arenas are very good compared to Europe," adds Kettle. "It is really a growing sport and people are investing a lot of money. There are also some really good Emirati showjumpers on the scene now. Sheikha Latifa is one obviously and her brother, Sheikh Rashid is another.
"Ahmed al Junaibi who qualified for the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas is a really good rider too and these people are really raising the profile of the UAE showjumping scene around the world." It is not just the UAE where showjumping is taking off. Kettle is hoping to go to Bahrain to ride at the invitation of the Bahraini Showjumping Federation vice-president, Sheikh Hassan bin Khalifa. "It's excellent that I'm getting noticed and can make a name for myself in the Gulf," she says. "I hope to be in Bahrain in October and I have already ridden in Qatar. This is what I want to do 100 per cent and I'm prepared to do everything I can to make it happen."