Chinese riders tall in the saddle

Horse riding is a pursuit that is captivating a rising number of participants in Shanghai. It's a sport where men and women can compete on an equal footing.

Filmed by Yang Yang. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Translated by Yang Yang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

Horse riding is becoming increasingly popular in Shanghai with nearly 20 clubs coaching young riders. Those in the business say that if enough land is approved for equestrian activities, the possibilities of more such clubs emerging are even more. Shanghai Daily reporter Yang Yang talks to two young riders to find out how their involvement in equestrianism has enriched their lives.

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Kiki Dong and her coach Hendrik Maarten Dijkerman

Kiki Dong

Kiki Dong looks like an Oriental version of Natalie Portman, speaks fluent English and is in her late 20s. She quit her job as an air traffic controller at the Pudong International Airport and while looking for a new job became enchanted by all things equestrian when the first Longines Global Champions Tour hit Shanghai in 2014.

“I heard that there was a Dutch guy here in Shanghai,” she said. “I needed a coach, and I wanted to learn from the best. Just like if you want to learn table tennis, you would like to find a Chinese coach. So I went to the Dutch.”

Dong, who is from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is a member of the Shanghai Haoqiyun Equestrian Manor in Chongming District.

The “Dutch guy” Dong referred to is Hendrik Maarten Dijkerman, 62, a lifelong rider and coach currently based at the same equestrian center. Dijkerman visited China for the first time in 2012 and met Dong two years later. The pair are now mentor and apprentice.

Dijkerman is from an equestrian family with his grandfather, father and children all riders. He started out on a pony when he was 8 years old, and has been riding ever since.

A professional rider and coach for 45 years in Holland, Dijkerman has won many prizes, among them a European Championships gold medal. At the 2015 Shanghai Longines Global Champions Tour, he broke the Shanghai record for a jump over a hurdle height of 1.93 meters on Fritz, a German horse he had tamed and trained.

Students under his guidance are also winners. Zhang Xingjia, one of his students, achieved a top 10 score at China’s National Games in 2017.

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Kiki Dong takes care of the horse.

Dong, who didn’t even know how to put a saddle on a horse at the beginning, now can do everything, thanks to Dijkerman.

“Riders only get on the horse, and they finish the competition. But people never see what happen after the rider gets off the horse,” Dong said.

As Dijkerman’s groom, she takes care of everything about the horse‚ bandaging the legs for protection over jumps, applying clay after hard work to reduce swelling, grooming after an event and even applying some massage to relax the animal. “The horse is your whole world,” she said.

Dijkerman feels the same.

“The horse is a very special animal,” he said. “It is a very sensitive one. It can feel your moods. If you are in a bad mood, the horse knows,” he said.

Dijkerman regards horsemanship as a symbol of social progress since “men and women can compete at the same level, in the same class, even at the Olympics.”

“Like at the riding schools in Holland, most of the kids are girls, maybe from 10 girls, one boy. And some kids even have some problems, but the horses are their friends. The kids have problems, the first thing they do is not to go to mom and dad, they go to their favorite pony, then they cry. They tell their pony all their problems, and they are happy again,” Dijkerman said.

He remembers that when his first pony was sold because he had outgrown it and needed a horse, he cried like a baby.

Yang Yang / SHINE

Hendrik Maarten Dijkerman gets his horse ready.

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A photograph of Hendrik Maarten Dijkerman as a child was an early indication of how his life would turn out. 

Sun Kexin

Eton-educated Hua Tian is of Chinese and British descent, a genteel rider whose horsemanship can make an observer’s heart beat faster. His name may not be familiar to most adolescent girls, but not for Sun Kexin.

“Hua is a superb rider. He won the eighth place for China at the Rio Olympics in 2016,” said the star-struck 15-year-old.

Hailing from Taicang city in Jiangsu Province, Sun is now a horse rider like her idol. She began taking lessons at the Summer Palace Equestrian Club in Jiading District three years ago.

She has already won several prizes. In 2016 she won top prize at the Shanghai Youth Equestrian Open Tournament, and took top spot in the 2017 Shanghai Youth Equestrian Championships on Tun Tun in a time of 41.78 seconds.

“Kexin went to an amusement park one day with us and rode a horse for fun,” said Tang Yuqi, 41, her mother. “My daughter looked cool on a horse and she was fond of riding a horse, then I found a nearby equestrian club and Kexin has trained there ever since.”

“There’s English dressage and American Western riding,” Sun explained. “The former consists of jumping and dressage, whereas the latter is about barrel racing. At the Olympics, riders compete at jumping, dressage and eventing. In eventing, which lasts for three days, you use the same horse to compete throughout the competition, which is very demanding.

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Sun Kexin clears a jump. Her ambition is to clear 1.2 meters, considered the dividing line between amateurs and professionals. 

“I think horse riding in China is faced with two big problems,” she said. “The one-child policy left most of China’s doting parents feeling afraid of their children falling from a horse and getting hurt.

“And secondly, a horse costs millions. An ordinary imported horse with a height above 1.5 meters costs roughly 2 million yuan (US$317,556), whereas a good horse may cost tens of millions of yuan. China spends lots of money importing good horses from other countries for it hasn’t had a systematic horse breeding mechanism.”

Sun is well aware of the dangers of horse riding. “One friend of mine got her collarbones broken, and I once fell from the horse and had a slight cerebral concussion and fainted,” said Sun.

But as frightening as that might sound, Sun was back in the saddle as soon as she recovered. “Becoming a rider, you have to accept your fate of falling from a horse,” Sun joked.

Baohasi Tuliguer, an Inner Mongolia former rider and now a coach at the Summer Palace Equestrian Club, said Sun is a diligent and persistent student who also has talent.

“She is one of those teens that are extremely fond of equestrianism and horses. We nickname that group of people ‘horse nuts.’ Kexin would spontaneously offer to groom the horses when she came to visit the club,” Tuliguer said.

“When I am with slow horses, I exert more; when I am with high-spirited horses, I control more,” said Sun. “I think through horse riding people can become more cheerful, optimistic and kind to others.”

With the original plan to give her daughter some respite from her stressful school studies, Tang has no ambitions for Sun’s riding. “I just hope horse riding can be an alternative way of living besides her busy school study, something she can look forward to at the end of a school week,” Tang said.

Tuition fees vary at different clubs. Some charge learners 300 yuan per 45 minutes. As a learner builds up their skill, the fee may rise accordingly.

Sun is hoping to clear 1.2-meter jumps. “The 1.2-meter hurdle is the divide between amateurs and professionals. I hope I can jump that high,” she said.

“Though there are more girls at my age studying horse riding at the club, top adult riders are mostly male,” she added. “But I heard about one Australian female rider who won championships one or two months after she delivered a baby, that’s astounding.”

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Safely over, Sun Kexin can relax as she prepares for the next hurdle. 

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Sun Kexin rises in the saddle as she tackles one of the more difficult jumps. 

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