China’s centuries-old tradition of horse-riding is rising again, study shows

Chinese dressage rider Gu Bing, pictured at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018. © FEI/Yong Teck Lim

Could equestrianism in China enjoy a renaissance?

Horse activities in China have a long history. China’s domestic horses were involved in establishing the foundations for commerce, communication, and state infrastructure along the old Silk Road, while also driving significant military, social, and political developments in the country.

As far back as the Yuan Dynasty, about 740 years ago, horse activities were practiced in Beijing.

China competed in equestrian sports at an Olympic level for the first time during the Beijing Games in 2008, with the three disciplines hosted in Hong Kong.

The reason for this was the lack of an FEI-certified disease-free zone on the Chinese mainland, Jiaxin Li, Enrique López Adán and Alfonso de la Rubia Riaza wrote in the journal Animals.

“Since there are no qualified disease-free zones, high-level riders from abroad can only buy one-way tickets for their horses to fly to mainland China.

“In many countries, the health authorities do not consider it safe to let those horses return home. Because of this, many riders choose to not compete in mainland China.”

This, they said, was one of the problems in China that made it difficult to develop equestrian sports, they said.

After much effort, Conghua City was established as the first certified temporary certificated epidemic-free zone for international equestrian competitions in mainland China for the Asian Games 2010. This was the prelude to equestrian competition in China.

The trio, in a just-published paper, explored the development of equestrian policies in China between 2015 and 2020.

The authors noted that policies promoting national fitness and the growth of the sports sector have been announced in recent years. Equestrianism had also received policy support.

“Along with the rapid growth of equestrian clubs, there has been a successive introduction of policies related to the sports industry and the increase in demand for equestrian sports.”

Equestrian sports are not low-cost, the authors noted. However, with the increase in income for Chinese people, there has been a rise in the number of equestrian participants.

The China Equestrian Association reports that the country’s equestrian industry grew from ¥90.9 billion (US$13.44 billion) in 2016 to ¥138.3 billion in 2019, representing a 51% increase. The market capitalization of the industry has been steady every year.

The equestrian training market’s size was ¥13.83 billion in 2019,  equating to a national penetration rate of 0.72%.

The number of equestrian clubs in China has grown steadily since the 2008 Olympics, from around 200 in early 2010 to more than 2000 in early 2019. In the last decade, there has been a 26% compound annual growth rate.

According to the latest statistics from China’s Equestrian magazine, as of August 31, 2019, out of 2272 equestrian clubs in China, 112 were closed and 2160 were open. Costs for Chinese equestrians include membership, horse boarding, lesson fees, and tack purchases.

The average annual membership fee in East China is the highest, with an average of ¥24,032 a year. Shanghai has the highest average annual membership fee of ¥38,403/year.

The statistics show that the average horse boarding fee per horse is ¥41,281/year, while the average club lesson fee is ¥488 per lesson.

It appears that there are around 420,000 equestrian club members throughout China, according to Horsemanship magazine’s survey in 2015. Club membership is dominated by teenagers, with children and teens accounting for 77% of the total – a significant increase from 2018.

On the other hand, adult members have dropped dramatically, now making up just 23% of the total. The market for teenagers has grown significantly during the last three years, the authors noted.

Club membership is female dominated, and the ratio has been steadily growing.

China does not have a local teaching system, and most clubs use well-tried foreign equestrian teaching systems. Many Chinese are taught to ride using a British Horse Society format, but since 2018 many big clubs in China have started to use other educational methods, such as the French GALOP system, the German FN system, the Australian Pony Club system, the Belgian VLP system, and the Dutch KNHS system.

Alex Hua Tian and FBW Chico at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Eventer Alex Hua Tian and FBW Chico at the 2008 Olympic Games. © Beijing Olympic Games

“Among them, the British British Horse Society system is still used the most, accounting for 75.97% by 2019 (2160 clubs), but there was a significant decline from 85.81% in 2018,” the authors noted.

Turning to horses, the authors noted that the 2019 equestrian industry research report showed that the number of imported warmbloods had decreased year-on-year since 2017, falling roughly 40% from 500 in 2015 to 300 in 2018.

Meanwhile, the number of thoroughbreds increased by 28% in 2018, the number of imported Akhal Teke horses decreased from 180 in 2015 to 30, and the numbers of miniature, Mongolian, and Orlov horses increased.

Initiatives are under way in China to build a modern horse-breeding system, they noted.

The study team said government support will be critical in the ongoing development of equestrian support in China.

“More and more young people are participating in equestrian sports. With the Chinese government introducing various policies to support the development of the horse industry, the horse breeding industry will also improve and gradually form a virtuous cycle.

“The equestrian industry’s rise is due to the repeated implementation of sports-related legislation and the increase in consumer demand for equestrian activities.”

Policy encouragement, combined with the rapid growth of China’s middle-income population in recent years, has fueled the continuous upgrading of sports consumption, and the demand for middle and high-end sports such as equestrian sports is now also increasing.

“In the future, we think equestrian sports in China will be popular and localized,” they said.

Discussing the promotion of horse sport, the researchers said China should make the best possible use of the platform for Olympic preparations to promote and popularize equestrian sports.

“Arranging a series of tournaments and training events may help raise the competition level. Vibrant equestrian events should be organized to increase public knowledge of equestrian sports.

“Second, one must aggressively promote juvenile equestrian sports. Teenagers are the future of equestrian sports in China, and the country should make more effort to integrate equestrianism into schools so that more young people acquire an interest.”

They said it was also important to encourage traditional and indigenous equestrian sports. Unique events are associated with certain locations and horse breeds in China, they said, and these should be promoted, publicized, and enhanced to keep such traditions alive.

The study team is with the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

Li, J.; López Adán, E.; de la Rubia Riaza, A. The Development of Equestrian Policies in China between 2015 and 2020. Animals 2022, 12, 1913.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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