Tue, Jan 01, 2019 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: China saddling up with riding clubs, horse towns

AFP, SHANGHAI

Riders and their horses take part in a performance in the show hall of equestrian-themed Pegasus Water Town in Jiangyin, China, on Oct. 20.

Photo: AFP

Leather riding boots are neatly lined up on a carpet, a picture shows blood-thirsty hounds on a fox hunt and a fountain spews water from the mouths of stone horses.

It might have the trappings of upper-class Britain, but this is suburban Shanghai and the County Down Club, the self-styled first exclusive membership club in China for horsemanship and fox-hunting.

The club, which takes its name from a county in Northern Ireland, was founded three years ago and owner Steven Sun said equestrian sport “has developed rapidly in China during the past five to 10 years.”

“I think it’s a change in awareness,” said the 32-year-old, whose interest in horses was triggered while studying in Britain.

Rising numbers of Chinese are taking up sports such as horse riding as the nation’s growing economy — the second biggest after the US — gives people more disposable income to pursue leisure activities.

County Down has a dozen horses and Sun wants it to be at the forefront of promoting equestrian sports in China.

The club, which also features an indoor swimming pool, gym and sparkling white piano, is just as much about networking as it is horse riding, Sun said.

County Down has about 80 members and annual membership is 58,000 yuan (US$8,400), but prospective newcomers need more than just deep pockets.

“We hope our members have good qualities and manners or are highly educated elites,” said Sun, in polo shirt and riding trousers. “That can ensure communication between our members will be at the same level. One of the benefits is that our members can meet using this platform and push each other forward.”

Sun said he has forged links outside China, too, taking members on fox hunts with European nobility. He also has four racing horses in France.

Zoe Quin recently founded WonderHorse, which provides products and services relating to horses.

The industry is “booming” for two main reasons, Shanghai-based Quin said.

“Chinese parents consider horse riding an elite education to make their kids more outstanding in this highly competitive Chinese society,” said Quin, formerly chief Chinese representative for LeCheval, which promotes the French horse industry. “As for adults, they can extend their participation in equestrian sports beyond riding into broader aspects such as ownership, investment, travel, leisure and social activities. More than a sport, it is a new experience for Chinese.”

The Chinese Equestrian Association declined to give numbers, but according to a Horsemanship magazine annual report, there were 1,802 equestrian clubs in China in July.

That is double the number in 2016, with the majority in northern and eastern China, notably Beijing and Shanghai, according to the magazine.

With the Chinese government stating in 2014 that equestrian sports were to be “strongly supported,” the trend looks set to continue.

Underlining the point, in January French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in China bearing the gift of a French Republican Guard horse for Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

However, Horsemanship identified areas of concern, primarily the lack of media coverage and a shortage of experts, such as trainers and veterinarians.

A two-hour drive from Shanghai is the horse-themed Pegasus Water Town, complete with hotels, art gallery, a mall with Venice-style gondolas, an equestrian club and the Horse Culture Museum.

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