A professional system needs to be built for equestrian if China wants to see the sport develop over the long term, Shanghai Equestrian Team coaches said.
Affiliated to the Shanghai Sports Bureau, the team has a training base at Shanghai Equestrian Management Center, which takes up 8 hectares of space in Jinshan District. Established in 1998, the team has 15 registered riders, some of whom also serve as coaches.
“Equestrian is a relatively new sport for China, especially its mainland cities,” said Xue Jinfan, Party secretary of the management center.
“The introduction of world class competitions like the Global Champions Tour promotes the sport and more people are aware of it. Financial support from the sports bureau enabled us to hire quality foreign coaches for the team,” Xue said.
Former Swedish national equestrian champion Ase Hellsten Thacen has been working as a coach at the center for almost a year. The 46-year-old has a wealth of experience in European tournaments. She came to Shanghai two and a half years ago with her husband and decided to help cultivate young riders for Shanghai Equestrian Team.
Hellsten has been passing on her skills of how to better understand, control and cooperate with the horses.
“To develop equestrian in China, the priority is to build up a complete system,” she said. “You need to train the horses to make them reach a competition level, and then train riders who can control the horses. They will become a team and a rider shall learn how to push the most out of the team.
“The understanding of the animal is extremely important. It’s important to make the young generation know about the sport and learn from more experienced foreign coaches. It’s also important to make horses of certain competitive level available in the country. There should be a system built by the country first.”
Equestrian is anything but a mainstream sport in China and for the most part is mainly for the wealthy who have free time.
In Shanghai, a rider selection system is yet to be built. Some Shanghai Equestrian Team members used to be horse keepers and were selected to be riders because they love and are familiar with the animals.
Anhui Province native Xia Wulun used to be a horse keeper. He first started riding a horse 17 years ago, and later became a Shanghai Equestrian Team member. The 35-year-old was the 2005 China Equestrian Championship show jumping champion. He also helped Shanghai win the event competition at the National Sports Meeting in 2009.
“It requires huge patience in the early stage to train the horses, and make them understand the orders,” Xia said. “Flexibility and coordination are also important for riders.”
Xia lives in the center and trains six days every week. Mornings are for courses by coaches. In the afternoon, Xia, like other Shanghai Equestrian Team members, tries to spend as much time as possible with the horses — feeding them, bathing them, and walking them to help the animals relax.
Xia had been sent to Germany and France for training courses. He also spends a lot of time learning from competition videos of higher level foreign riders.
“My next goal is to win an Asian Games gold medal,” Xia said. “Equestrian riders can have a long professional career. My ultimate goal is to ride in the Olympics.”
The sport is rare in the sense that both women and men compete in the same events. Shu Yuying is an 18-year-old female rider who is the second youngest on the Shanghai Equestrian Team. She will become a student of Shanghai Sports Institute in September. Shu has been training with the team for over five years. Her favorite partner is an 11-year-old Belgian warmblood gelding.
Shu said her interest in horses started with a joyful childhood riding experience in a park. As a second-tier rider in the team, Shu has to purchase her own equestrian equipment, including saddle and fittings. Her family spends 30,000 yuan (US$4,832) to 50,000 yuan every year to provide the things Shu needs.
“Equestrian helped me to become more outgoing,” Shu said. “I simply enjoy spending time with horses, learning about their habits and making progress together. They are sometimes just like naughty kids.”
Both Shu and Xia are also learning the ropes about talking with reporters.
Xue said it’s important they learn how to communicate with the public and share their stories to help promote the sport.
As a veterinarian, Xue has a good understanding of equestrian.
“For riders, one training session is like one date,” he said. “A good rider is a coach for the horse and should learn how to build up a relationship.
“A good relationship involves tolerance, compromise, and even quarrels. Both a rider and a horse can be in good or bad form, and they need to understand each other,” Xue added.
During a competition most communication is through body language. Tapping a horse’s neck is the most common way of commendation and encouragement.
Shanghai Equestrian Management Center has 76 horses. Twenty are top class European competition horses owned by the center. The rest are retired horses from Hong Kong’s equestrian clubs or privately owned animals kept at the center by their owners.
A crew of 15 people, including a nutritionist, take care of the animals. It costs nearly 60,000 yuan annually to raise one horse. Horses and riders in the center are not strictly matched. It’s not practical yet for most riders to have their own horses.
Located in the suburbs, the center is isolated from hectic city life.
“Equestrian is a lonely profession,” Xue said. “Essentially, the joy comes from the love toward the horse.”
A horse can live 25 to 30 years, and its peak form comes between 10 and 13 years of age. The most expensive horse owned by the center is a warmblood European breed worth 120,000 euros (US$134,240).
Xue compared horses to Formula One racing cars.
“Cars of different levels simply can’t compete together. A good horse makes a huge difference,” he said. “China still isn’t able to breed first class equestrian horses.”
According to the China Equestrian Association, the number of amateur riders has increased since 2009. Most of them are between the ages of 30 and 50. However, the lack of professional coaches remains an obstacle for the development of equestrian in the country.
“In better developed cities like Beijing and Shanghai, it’s usually the rich people picking up the sport as a hobby. Some ride horses simply to show off,” Xue said. “But once they have experienced it, some will become serious about the sport and pass their interest on to their children and friends.”
“We don’t expect a lot of people to take up equestrian yet as it is an expensive sport,” Xue said. “But the small number who do can still make progress and compete internationally in the future.”
Shu hopes there will be more equestrian competitions organized in Shanghai and China in the future. Though the young rider doesn’t have much competition experience yet, she has watched some high level competitions including last year’s Global Champions Tour in Shanghai.
“It’s totally different in training and in competition, for both the rider and the horse,” Shu said.