Hitting the trail with young Chinese riders

FOR the fourth straight year, Shanghai staged a spectacular equestrian event at a makeshift venue in front of the China Art Museum.

The three-day 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour attracted over 20,000 spectators. LGCT President Jan Tops described the Shanghai leg as the flagship event in LGCT calendar, and praised its organization, including the rich and colorful venue-side activities.

“Compared with four years ago, there was more public and more engagement this year,” the Frenchman said. “I have a lot of hope that the sport will grow rapidly here in China, especially in Shanghai, in the next few years.”

Despite the successful staging of the glamorous five-star show jumping event, is China truly ready to promote the sport and its related industries?

According to former Olympic rider Huang Zuping, Chinese riders can’t be compared with their international counterparts as equestrian was introduced to China only 10 years ago.

The Europeans, on the other hand, have a 100-year history of the sport.

“Equestrian won’t enjoy a rapid growth in the near future,” Huang said at the Sino-Europe Equine Industry Exchange Seminar in Shanghai last week.

“China lacks an equestrian culture. If we promote the sport simply by introducing more competitions and inviting top riders, we will miss the right development path and the true value of the sport,” he said.

“The most important value of equestrian, which is different from any other sport, is responsible for another creature. It’s about courage and cooperation. However, currently we are sensing utilitarianism in the development of the sport here, especially among the younger generation,” Huang added.

“It’s the general social phenomenon … Parents just wanted their children to win competitions rather than spend more time with the animals and working with the horse farm staff. No good rider can be groomed that way.”

Huang was among the first batch of Chinese riders to take up the sport at the age of 36 in 2002. Before that, he had worked as a government official in Beijing and later as the president of a company. He spent years learning the sport in Germany and had four-time Olympic gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum as coach.

Huang competed for China at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. It was also the first time China had sent participants in this discipline to the Olympics.

Along with Zhang Bin, Zhao Zhiwen and Li Zhenqiang, they finished 16th in the show jumping team competition, but were eliminated from the preliminary round in individual events.

Huang became the national team coach in 2013. He also has an equestrian club in Beijing.

Huang said it was impossible for China to produce strong, competitive riders immediately as most of them were children from wealthy families who were just being introduced to horse riding.

“In Germany, I saw how hard foreign children worked on a horse farm to learn the sport. It would be too tough an experience for our children, who only regard it as a hobby.

“Apart from the business aspect, I hope equestrian culture is groomed among youngsters before they learn the skills of the sport. The Chinese always seem to be able to find a way to win gold medals, but it would be meaningless if we don’t learn the spirit of the sport.”

This year’s LGCT event in Shanghai featured eight of the world’s top 10 riders, as well as four Chinese entries. For the Chinese riders, it was a rare chance to learn from the world’s best riders — and see their horses. Most Chinese riders are not able to compete abroad due to quarantine issues.

China’s mainland is not a member of the International Equestrian Federation. But Shanghai has an agreement with the agriculture committee of the European Union, which declares Shanghai a temporary non-epidemic area for a certain period every year to ensure the event goes through.

According to Shanghai Equestrian Sport Management Center, there are currently some 20 equestrian clubs and over 160 registered riders in Shanghai.

Over 10 equestrian competitions are held in Shanghai every year featuring young riders from the Yangtze River Delta region. Shanghai is also the only city in the country to have equestrian events at its sports meet.

The Shanghai Equestrian Center’s future plans include building a registration system for horses and an evaluation mechanism for riders.

“The sport has enjoyed a fast growth in China despite the fact that there were no equestrian events here 10 years ago,” said veteran German rider Ludger Beerbaum. “But the administrators have to be knowledgeable and be able to provide the enthusiasm and energy necessary to sustain the interest in the sport. The federation has to build a development structure for the clubs.

“Free trade of horses and open boarders are other issues,” Beerbaum said.

His thoughts were echoed by LGCT sport director Marco Danese.

“In the past two years in China, we have seen a rising number of not only riders, but also companies that are capable of producing tracks and obstacles for competitions,” said Danese. “For the development of the industry, knowledge of breeding is crucial as well as the welfare of the horses.

“China’s current situation is very similar to what it was in the Middle East 10 years ago. Now there are a large number of clubs and riders in that regions,” he said.

Currently, equestrian is just a hobby for young Chinese riders. Like other sports, its contribution in building strong personalities among youngsters is obvious.

“It has taught me to be more patient and mature as it takes time and effort to communicate with horses,” said 20-year-old Qiqimule, who won an event at last year’s National Equestrian Show Jumping Youth Tournament.

His father, Ha Datie, is a well-known rider from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. “I became tougher and more responsible after taking up the sport, as I always have to worry about the horse’s well-being.”

A student of Communication University of China, Qiqimule said she has yet decided whether to make equestrian a career.

“Before high school, academic study was always my priority. I stopped riding for half a year before the national college entrance exam. I will see the future development of equestrian in China and then decide whether to become a professional. Currently, it’s still a hobby.”