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H&H in Hong Kong: The popularity of riding

I promise I will never moan about having to wait for a lesson with my instructor, or not being able to find a show that suits my ability and availability, ever again.

Before the announcement that the equestrian competitions for the 2008 Beijing Olympics were going to be held in Hong Kong, they had an 18-month waiting list here for riding lessons. That has now grown to two, and in some schools three, years with between 2000-3000 people waiting their chance.

Such is the demand that across the border in China, a bunch of riding establishments have sprung up to accommodate the less patient. Crossing the borders is not difficult for Hong Kong residents – they just need to show their residency cards – so families go over for a weekend to use the facilities.

There are nine public riding schools in Hong Kong supporting the 1500 riders currently taking lessons. Three of these are run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), who also run a fourth private riding club at Beas River Country Club, where the cross-country phase of the eventing will be held during the Olympics.

The majority of the 30 – 40 local and international shows that take place are also held at Beas River, largely because of the space and top class facilities. Hong Kong has yet to field an Olympic rider but several local sons have won show jumping competitions at the South East Asia rounds of the World Cup series. The vast majority of riders in Hong Kong are male as, here, it is regarded as a dangerous sport and an expression of bravery and there is no PR battle to persuade riders to wear safety clothing.

Dressage used to be the competition of preference, but as abilities and courage have grown so has the popularity of show jumping. Very little eventing takes place at present, but with over 60% of Hong Kong covered in country parks and conservation areas, if the ‘legacy’ of the Olympics achieves its targets, you get the feeling it won’t be long.

The vast majority of horses are Thoroughbreds. There are, I was told, only five warmbloods throughout the country. The exception to this rule are the six Shetlands left behind by a retreating Russian circus. They are now happily ensconced in the Tuen Mun riding school, the largest of those run by HKJC, and doing their ambassadorial bit for the promotion of the horse.

In Hong Kong, horses equal racing and it is true to say that the HKJC is behind almost anything equestrian. Where public riding is concerned, this arrangement works very well as retired race horses that are healthy and potentially suitable go to riding schools to be retrained and have a purposeful new life. And those I saw at Tuen Mun are a good example of rehabilitation. There were certainly a couple there I would like to have smuggled into my excess baggage.

One was Icy Bet, an 18-year-old gelding being ridden by disabled rider Nelson Yip. Nelson, who has cerebral palsy, is a grade II Riding for the Disabled (RDA) rider, who won 1st place in the Grade II session B Freestyle and Musical Dressage at the Australia RDA National Dressage Championships in November 2005.

RDA in Hong Kong was set up in 1975 by the then UK Governor’s wife. It now supports over 170 disabled riders coming largely from local special schools and riding free of charge. Nelson is the only rider from Hong Kong, so far, who has qualified for the Olympic and will be competing in the Paralympics held between 7-11 September.

One of the concerns about the Olympics being held at Hong Kong rather than Beijing (a 3 1/2 hour flight away) is the loss of the unique Olympic atmosphere. The Equestrian Company, who are dealing with publicity and promotion of the event, are doing their utmost to build up anticipation and expectation. However, there’s a two-week gap between the Olympics and the Paralympics during which time many visiting supporters will have to go home, but local support for Nelson is such that there’s going to be no shortage of spectators should he qualify.

That’s not to say that there are no other hopefuls. On the waiting list are Jennifer Chang, Samantha Lam, Gaelle Tong and Kenneth Cheng. Watch out for these names. It’s taken a lot of commitment for them to get this far.

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