This Chinese eventer not only has two horses qualified for Tokyo, but is also steadfast in his aim to build the sport’s profile in China and globally, says Lucy Elder
IT’S 13 years since Alex Hua Tian went to his first Olympics, riding as an individual for China, as the youngest-ever eventer to compete at the Games.
Thirteen years on, returning as part of a team, he will still likely be among the youngest. But this is no longer the 18-year-old who took a year out of school. After two Olympics, including a top-10 finish in Rio, multiple World Championships and medal-winning Asian Games performances, Alex heads to Tokyo as part of a nation whose strength in equestrian sport is growing.
“The whole dynamic is totally different,” says Alex, 31, looking ahead to riding as part of an Olympic team for the first time.
“I really think China has the opportunity to be one of the major forces in equestrian sport in the future. To have two teams, with the showjumpers qualified as well, is such an important milestone.
“In many ways, although I represent China, I’ve been based abroad with my riding since I was six, so my riding and my sport doesn’t necessarily represent Chinese equestrianism itself. Whereas my team-mates, yes their horses are in Europe for the Olympic qualification process, but these guys are all products of the Chinese equestrian system.
“Of course we are going to lack huge amounts of experience as a team in comparison to the major equestrian nations, but if you look at the Japanese team, two Olympic cycles ago they crashed out of London, and now they are going into an Olympic Games as potential medal contenders having finished fourth at the World Championships.”
HORSES have always been a part of Alex’s life. His “very horsey” British mother would make a beeline for a yard in whichever city in the world she was working at the time. He remembers he and his brother would tag along, and started riding in Beijing on a “very naughty little white fluffball Chinese native pony”, whose name translates to “Little Gourd”.
“My father always claimed that my horsiness has come from him learning to ride donkeys during the Cultural Revolution, but I’m not quite sure that’s the case,” he says.
Alex moved from Beijing to Hong Kong for school aged six and his formative riding years were spent with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Pony Club and at Lo Wu Saddle Club.
“Nobody in Hong Kong had their own ponies,” he remembers. “It was a great way to learn to ride. We started riding on the ponies and, because they only had a limited number, as soon as we were competent enough we were stuck straight on to the horses.
“Some of my best friends come from that time: Tom Ho, who is based in the UK now riding for Hong Kong and qualified for the Olympics, and Kenneth Cheng, a Hong Kong showjumper who rode at Beijing.
“It produced a lot of top riders from Asia and I guess the first sort of generation of top championship riders for Asia.”
It was in Hong Kong that the family met Lucinda and Clayton Fredericks, who were so formative in Alex’s career, and he was packed off on a “riding holiday” to their Rosegarth base in Wiltshire aged 10. This turned out to be less pony rides on Salisbury Plain, more cantering around the school on eventers, and was the start of the partnership that would continue when Alex returned to the UK for prep school in Salisbury, followed by Eton.
His first proper event horse, Chance Bid, owned by his mother, was based with the Fredricks. Each holiday, Alex would hop on a train to Westbury and ride lots of horses, before he was packed off back to class.
“Looking back on my first Olympics now, the whole thing was surreal,” he says. “When I took a year out of school I was still 17, it was a big decision to make and we still hadn’t secured funding. To be fair to my parents, it was never a decision they made. They gave me the opportunity and allowed me to decide.”
Alex qualified four horses for Beijing 2008 in the space of four months, made possible by “unparalleled” financial support from the “very generous” Mr Jiang. The Games itself didn’t go to plan, with Alex and FBW Chico parting company at fence eight. But it was this, in a way, that set him on his career path.
“I think if I’d had a respectable result, there’s a chance I would have felt that I’d ticked that off the list, gone back to school, gone to uni and done something else with the rest of my life,” he muses. “I certainly felt like I had unfinished business.
“Having grown up at Rosegarth, having seen how hard Clayton and Lucinda and other riders had to work every day and the emotional toll this sport takes, I was fully aware of how hard the eventing life was. Even in the lead-up to the Olympics, even post-Games, I wasn’t certain that this was what I wanted to do.
“It wasn’t until the point when it was starting to be taken away that I realised how much I really wanted to do it and that I was willing to make the sacrifices necessary. That meant I had a really uncomfortable conversation with my parents two days before I was supposed to go to uni, which demonstrates just how supportive they are.”
THE run-up to London 2012 was a very different experience. The backing from Beijing was gone and he missed out on qualifying for the Games by 1.6 penalties. So he sat down with his family, made a plan and moved forwards.
“In all honesty, Don Geniro was not the horse we wanted to take to Rio,” he says. “We wanted to take Harbour Pilot C, but ‘Pie’ was 17. He was sound post-Badminton and in our final preparations for Rio he was never lame or injured, but I just knew that his wheels were starting to rust.
“He was such an aggressively ambitious horse, I knew that it would be very easy to take liberties with him. At that stage, Don had done catastrophically badly at Chatsworth [in May 2016], then turned it all on its head and won Bramham a month later, and was feeling in great form, so we took the risk.”
It paid off. The then nine-year-old gelding finished eighth and while that inexperience made Don an “unknown quantity” at Rio, he is now going into this delayed Games aged 14 as a horse in his prime.
The pair had a 100% double clear record in 2020 and we speak just after Aston CCI4*-S, where they finished eighth.
“He is terribly affectionate and just wants to do really well for you. He’s a real people pleaser,” explains Alex, who describes him as a phenomenally talented “complex character”.
The British-bred Hanoverian was originally bought as a dressage horse for Alex’s partner, Sarah Higgins, by her mother Pippa.
“He might lack a bit of his own self-motivation, but if you overpush him, he then starts lacking confidence as well. He is quite a sensitive person,” he adds.
Alex’s other qualified ride, the “super little firecracker” PSH Convivial (Spike), couldn’t be more different, with his “can-do” attitude at times leading him to be spicy on the flat.
“But you can go into the showjumping and relax because you absolutely know he will do everything he can to stay away from the poles,” he says. “He is very affectionate in the stable, but he can be very naughty.”
Spike was being ridden by Loretta Joynson for breeder Gary Power when Alex spotted him in an intermediate at Catton in 2017 and spent the next six months trying to buy him.
“He’s the only horse on the yard I’m pretty certain will dump me at some point,” he laughs. “Sarah called me the day before he left for the airport [to join Alex in Jakarta for the 2018 Asian Games, where they won bronze], saying, ‘Do you really want to take Spike as I can’t explain how naughty he’s been today.’
“We got there and he was really well behaved until the final dressage warm-up. Something in the distance caught his eye, his tail went in the air and we ended up reversing. I actually hadn’t got him on the bit before we went into the main arena and I just thought, ‘Look up, smile and it will be all right.’ That’s his personality, everything is on his terms.”
ALEX talks passionately about his horses, meticulously detailing their individual characteristics. As well as his Tokyo contenders, his string includes four-star gelding Jilsonne Van Bareelhof and rising star Hamlet, for whom he has Paris 2024 in mind. He is speaking from the Cheshire yard he shares with Sarah and Chinese dressage rider Sarah Rao. While his base is in the UK, Alex is passionate about building the sport both in China and globally.
He co-founded the Horsemanship Movement in 2017, a programme for children of all backgrounds in China that teaches the values of horsemanship: respect, responsibility and compassion. Challenging the elitist perception, accessibility and building industry standards are key aims, particularly as individual wealth, and in turn, access to horses, is developed in China.
This leads our chat to the future of global eventing.
“We don’t want to lose the essence of the sport but we do have to be open-minded with some structural things to make sure the sport is able to develop and flourish in areas that don’t have the enormous stately home parkland we have here in Europe,” he adds.
“You have countries like India, China and Hong Kong where the finances to host any sporting event are within the urban areas. If we can’t find a way to package eventing in a more progressive way, then the sport will always be a sport for a few nations.
“You can have a discussion about the Olympics being, or supposed to be, for the best of the best, which I’m totally supportive of, but you then have to question whether it really is if the sport is not accessible to 80% of the world.”
He is supportive of the direction the FEI is taking, while reserving judgement on the new Olympic eventing format, and stressed the Games are a vital way of encouraging nations to invest. And, as a sportsman, it’s also the Olympics that drives him.
“I love the idea of it, its values, going to it, competing in it, aiming for it. To me, the Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports,” he says.
“Of course Badminton and Burghley is the pinnacle for eventing, but as a sportsman, being part of the Olympic movement is extremely special.”
Olympic gold and five-star wins are in his aims, but for him, the lifestyle, the sport and the balance between his life and horses here and equestrianism in China are as important.
“I’m a slow-burner and I’d like to be competing at Olympic Games in 10, 20 years down the road and still enjoying it.”
This interview can also be read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale date 24 June 2021
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