A riding population of 150,000 may not sound impressive, but starting from zero less than a decade ago, Chinese equestrianism is clearly going places.
The world’s fastest growing economy has a new cash-rich middle class who, buoyed by interest from the 2008 Olympic Games, has quickly embraced “status” pursuits such as horse sport and golf.
Until recently, only a few hundred horses, mostly racers, were imported.
But in 2012, 2,000 thoroughbreds and sport horses — mostly from France, Germany, Ireland and Holland — entered China.
About 600 riding clubs cater for 50,000 serious riders and a further 100,000 ride weekly.
Li Yanyang, publisher of China’s main equestrian magazine, Horsemanship, believes growth is 15-20% a year and that £60million was spent on new facilities between 2010 and 2012.
Western breeds popular
Warmbloods, Arabs and quarter horses are favoured — barrel racing is especially popular.
“But local breeds and local crosses are cherished,” added Li Yanyang. “These horses are good doers and sturdy, their main appeal.”
China’s proud history was based on the back of warrior horses. Millions of indigenous ponies still work in rural areas, notably inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
But because China has no culture of leisure riding and suffers from harsh winters, westernised activity is based round club-style resorts with multiple indoor schools.
They are mostly around Beijing and the affluent Yangtse and Pearl River deltas, the so-called “factory of the world”.
British-based Sarah Noble speaks Mandarin and was an active intermediary and translator for Chinese interests long before her son, Alex Hua Tian, became a successful eventer.
British Horse Society (BHS) fellow Jeremy Michaels was among those she introduced to China nine years ago to devise bespoke training systems. He recently helped the Equuleus club in Beijing’s Chayang district become China’s first BHS-approved centre.
“In some parts, horse welfare is still an issue, due to ignorance about watering and feeding, but they do now understand the importance of fibre in the diet,” said Mr Michaels.
Horses eat Mongolian hay and straight grain and are bedded on rice husks.
British companies move in
Surface supplier Martin Collins and sister company Equibuild were among the first British companies to set up offices in China, having constructed a polo complex at Tianjin.
Chairman of Martin Collins, Major Malcolm Wallace said: “China is learning how to go outside for specialist help. Our company feels we have an advantage in what the Chinese call the ‘dragon solution’ — everything catered for from head to tail.”
Quarantine still a problem
Showjumping could flourish if Jan Tops succeeds in launching the Global Champions Tour in Shanghai next October.
But China still fails to meet EU quarantine requirements — which is why equestrianism at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had to take place in Hong Kong.
FEI veterinary director Graeme Cooke told H&H: “We would like to promote a disease-free zone, creating a bubble that allows horses to be transported from the airport, kept in quarantine at the event — and then back to the airport.”
This news story was first published in the current issue of H&H (31 January 2013)