EQUESTRIANISMA growing business in China

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Historically the horse has had its place in China from the earliest days, but it’s not until in later times the horse business has shot up on the mainland. Among China’s affluent upper middle class the interest flourishes, because equestrian sports give higher status. National investment companies and private, interested parties go all out, and foreign players have jumped in on a growing market with great opportunities. There is nonetheless not very easy to get admittance and still a long way ahead to western standards.

By Sille Kasin. All photos by Stefano Grasso/LGCT

Long Horse Traditions
There are few cultures the horse has had such a strong historical position as in China. As early as under the Quin dynasty around the year of 200 BC, the first emperor of the country used horses. Under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) they went in for developing the Chinese horse breeds, but the business experienced later setbacks which resulted in fewer horses of poor quality.

Ending all Operations

When The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, it literally meant the end to the nation’s horse business. While among others the racing sport continued to blossom in Hong Kong, which didn’t come under Chinese dominion again until 1997, and in the neighbouring country Japan as well, the horses on the mainland of China were again seen purely as farm animals. Even though moves were taken to strengthen the breeding, the horse business was quiescent for a long time, and this in a nation we know today as the world’s most densely populated – and with endless resources to use, the world’s second largest economy and with about 6 million horses.

A view of the Arena during the warm-up session

Free Market Economy and Horse Business
In 1978 China went from planned economy to market economy, and commercial interests gradually got admittance in the horse business. In the last 15-20 years the foreign players have envisioned enormous possibilities, and Chinese investors have jumped in as well. Racetracks, polo fields, private riding clubs and fantastic equestrian facilities spring up as mushrooms, to the joy of continuously more prosperous Chinese who notably invest in owning a horse.

– Some buys fast cars, some nice boats and others again go for valuable jewellery, says Sima Ming who rides dressage himself. He now owns 8 horses. – To sit on an animal that is so much bigger and stronger than you, gives an enormous feeling, relates the dressage enthusiast, who has so far used big sums of money to purchase four-legged status symbols from Spain.

A whole 80 % of the Chinese riders are now attempting to do showjumping. A report the Netherlands’ embassy in China recently made public shows that dressage, western riding and polo are also popular disciplines. In addition, racing thrives as never before, especially in Hong Kong and in Shanghai as well. Gambling on horses is still prohibited on the mainland and casts a damper on the development. – As yet, but new times are coming.

Gregory Wathelet on Oh d'Eole
Gregory Wathelet on Oh d’Eole

Status, Joy and Beauty
To own a horse in China is for many not just about the joy of riding, but also about the status. – But the hunt for status, well, that may go hand in hand with genuine love for the horses. – It’s often about satisfying a need, a kind of psychological desire. It is the same with horses. There are many who buy horses, but who never ride them themselves, relates Sima.

The biggest and most important among the horse owners in China are the group of successful contractors. These perceive that the horse business in the long run may be “Big business” and personally go for horses as a hobby. They invest in buildings, staff and horses, and are happy to be able to be a part of a continuously growing horse environment stamped by social status. Foreigners who reside in China, and who really want their own horse, constitute another small owner group. In Xinjiang, northwest in China, a small number of farmers still own and use horses for agricultural purposes.
And if you own a horse; the joy of horses may really be great – especially when one can share it with others. Many inexperienced Chinese horse owners now find out it’s nice to be a part of the environment, and they gather enthusiastically together in their local riding clubs.

Hong Kong-born Reana Leung has for a long time had her base with the Leichle Stables in Germany. She also recounts about a business in development and a growing sport in her native country. Reana points out at the same time, that the need for top horses in the sport is not big enough as yet.
– There is absolutely a need for horses in China, but not as big as people think. There are still only a handful Chinese who compete in the top elite, and we are as it were no women. But the horse business is undoubtedly growing.

Michael Whitaker on Viking
Michael Whitaker on Viking

The average Chinese horse owner has nevertheless still limited knowledge about horses and equestrian sports. The thoroughbred has still a high standing, not least in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Little by little as the equestrian sports now spread, more and more warmblood horses are sold. To many owners the most important thing still is that the horse is pretty. It is supposed to be black or gray and elegant as well. In addition, the height at the withers ought to be around 17 hands high and the horse shall burst of strength and healthiness. Miniature ponies are also regarded highly with many people.

A view of the arena during the Shanghai Longines Global Champions Tour

An Important Turning Point
A turning point in the view of equestrianism came with The Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. The quarantine rules and lack of so-called non-infectious zones resulted in the exercises in showjumping, dressage and eventing were held in Hong Kong, where the agreement about keeping the capitalistic economy and system of government is still valid in several decades. Then the rulers and the many different players in the horse business undoubtedly put on their thinking caps. On the mainland of China they still lacked the necessary facilities to organize events, they were short of national athletes and professional trainers, farriers and veterinaries with knowledge of horses, last but not least they had few warmblood horses to compete with. The interest for equestrianism caught on, and with this the certainty of the horse business being Big business also in the longer term.

Horse Business as Big Business
Chinese investment companies and private, interested parties are among them who have jumped on the horse carousel, and already in 1998 the first foreign horse traders and investors were established in the Beijing area. A new report tells about big numbers: It is anticipated that the horse business will generate more than 16 billion American dollars the next 20 years. Furthermore one reckons the business will secure 3 million new jobs in the future.

The sport horses still constitute the core in the horse business of China, and reports relate about lucrative possibilities. There is nonetheless not just easy to get admittance in the Chinese market, because this is about far more than capital alone. The quarantine rules are strict and the culture is and will be different.

Focus on Shanghai Longines Global Champions Tour

Norwegian First-Hand Experience
The Norwegian Liselotte Lefdal, 21, has been a player in the horse business in the core area in Beijing via her employer Paul Schockemöhle. For two periods Liselotte, who herself is born into a professional horse family home in Norway, was the youngest part and the only woman in a male dominated horse environment in China. The class distinctions were big and the proficiency of English so-so.
Liselotte had the main responsibility for her boss’ horses in China and contributed by selling the horses further on. The young girl got experiences and friends for life, but also encountered a culture and a horse business which could not be compared with anything she had ever experienced earlier.

– The horse business in Europe still lies far, far ahead, but everything in China grows big and fast. Much will probably have changed merely within a five-year-period. The equestrian sport is undoubtedly on its way up, not least because the Chinese are willing to absorb things and they learn quickly. Many stables have associated themselves with top trainers like Beerbaum and Huck and veterinaries and farriers are frequently flown in. And the international arenas are also amazingly grand.

Fashion hats at Shanghai Longines Global Champions Tour

Another Way of Thinking

The interested parties of the West had for a long time the belief that the horse market in China was relatively simple to conquer. The capital was there, the determination present. But the culture itself created challenges few foreign players had seen coming, even though the Chinese business life is in rapid change. Many foreign and multinational companies are active in China, and young Chinese who have studied abroad bring western impulses home.

Quanxi, or to have a network of personal contacts, continues nevertheless to play an important role. This happens in the horse business as well. While the Chinese themselves still think collectively and are formal and very persevering in negotiations, the businessmen from the west want to move quickly on the good deals. For Chinese the real targets are the good, long-term relations.

– It was a particular collaboration, recounts Liselotte. –The Chinese have another way of thinking, a different way of establishing business relations. Mutual trust must be there, and that is not done in a tick. – And, yes, some did have some bad experiences in communication and trade with the Chinese, but also the Chinese have witnessed a couple of less fortunate experiences with the foreign connections.

LGCT to China
However, in spite of the challenges and cultural differences, international equestrian sports are now gradually about to include China. A real historical milestone was reached last year. After three year’s of planning Shanghai was put on the map as the organizer for The Longines Global Champions Tour, and in May 2015 the director Jan Tops, in cooperation with local organizers, again wished welcome to high-level equestrian sports with large parts of the international showjumping elite present. After the areas around the Chinese museum in Shanghai was declared non-infectious and a quarantine-free zone, the internationally well-known four-legged superstars were flown into China – and they got to depart home as well. A fly in the ointment there was nonetheless, since the national athletes still were prevented from participation based on current quarantine rules.

Happy fans celebrate with Harry Smolders signing autographs

FEI wants to Help
FEI is engaged in the attempt to help the equestrian sports in China to head in the right direction. President Ingmar De Vos has visited the country twice the last two years, and absolutely notices progress:

– On two occasions I have been present during the World Cup Jumping League in China, and both of the arrangements held high quality. Riders and not least the horses gave fine performances and the arenas are not inferior to the greatest we find in Europe.

De Vos states that he has solid belief in the development of the Chinese equestrian business and the experienced professional participants. He nonetheless takes the liberty to give some advice:

– The Chinese must have an opportunity to learn. They ought to invite international riders and other professional players to China to get support around the organization of events. To secure healthy growth and development the Chinese equestrian environment must develop their own talents, like their own trainers, judges and course designers. In this way the development will go more quickly. In spite of some challenges, the future for the equestrian sports in China is bright.

Go for It Deliberately
The Equestrian Federation of China looks upon FEI as an important collaborator, and listen to advice passed on. They have a clearly formulated strategy further on, and they go for it in a deliberate way, relates the leader Tian Hua:

– In the near future we hope the quarantine rules will be adjusted so the Chinese athletes may promote the sport, and it will be easier for the foreign and private players to be admitted. Through more international events the horse trade between Europe and China will expand and national events will at the same time receive increased attention. This will undoubtedly take some time as yet, but the equestrian sports in China are really about to bloom and become big business.


Translation and Copy-Editing by Ann-Karin Bye

Sille Kasin
Sille Kasin


Sille is a teacher, an art historian and a dedicated horse and equestrian lover as her daughter is a highly qualified showjumping rider. Sille simply loves all topics that can challenge her mind. In an elegant way she manages to combine her interest in horses and equine history with her political, cultural and historical knowledge.

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