There are things we learn from sports that cannot be taught in the classroom. They can help young people develop independence, self-esteem, and a can-do attitude; you may fall or get hurt, but you have to get up and get back on track. Horseback riding teaches children exactly that positive attitude, as 8-year-old Rebecca McDeigan puts it in her own words. beijingkids caught up with her after one of her regular riding sessions at Equuleus International Riding Club.
“Sometimes the horse does not listen. You still have to get your courage back to carry on, even though you know it could rear and kick you off,” says the Cambridge, UK native. “That’s what horses do to you, but you always learn from them.” Rebecca and her 11-year-old sister, Paloma, are among many of Beijing’s young horseback riders. Though it’s a relatively pricy hobby, they reap physical, emotional, and intellectual benefits from the sport.
Horseback riding particularly fosters fitness and flexibility. To stay on the horse, the rider must constantly adjust their balance. More complicated maneuvers such as jumping over obstacles or performing dressage steps require more delicate coordination of the horse’s cadence and the rider’s hands, legs, and torso.
The different types of horses – usually European warmbloods, thoroughbreds, mixed breeds, and local breeds – used in horseback riding serve highly specialized functions. For example, warmblood horses are gifted at jumping and thoroughbred horses are renowned for their speed. Usually, horses are considered most competitive between the ages of 6 and 16.
However, riding well takes more than just good horses and skillful movements. Unlike many other sports, the rider must learn to work with a member of a completely different species. “Horses are very sensitive,” says Meimi Zhu (age 15), a competitive rider from Beijing who took up the sport four years ago. “They can feel whether you are scared, angry, or out of control, and sometimes take advantage of that and refuse to cooperate.”
Meimi’s 25-year-old sister, Kai Yuan, believes that the challenges of horseback riding have made Meimi a much more independent and empathetic person. “She used to be like a princess and liked to have people do things for her,” she says. “Horseback riding helps her concentrate on things she likes to do and teaches her to figure out ways to achieve her purpose on her own.”
Candice McDeigan, Paloma and Rebecca’s mother, also believes that horseback riding promotes responsibility and independence in children. “On the horse, you are alone as a rider. There is no one to support you,” she explains. “You have to make decisions. You have to be sensitive, safe, and follow the right procedures.”
Horseback riding also involves taking care of the horse. Before riding, the rider has to ready the equipment and take the horse to the arena. After riding, they have to take the horse back to the stable, groom it, scrub the water buckets, and clean the stable. “To do that, they have to be really independent,” said Candice. “I can’t teach them that.”
In addition, horseback riding fosters strength and discipline. Paloma has a deal with her mother: She can only continue riding if she does well in class. Candice feels that her daughter has learned how to manage her own time, as well as buckle down and be serious in order to pursue the things she likes outside of school – whether that’s horseback riding, hiking, or swimming. “Good academic achievement requires a strong mind and a strong body, and once the children are passionate about something, they do everything they need to [make it]happen,” she explains.
Horseback riding has also brought Rebecca and Paloma closer. When Rebecca was asked how her older sister has helped her with horseback riding, the girls started talking over each excitedly. “I would tell her, for example, you just kick the horse a little more and make it go more forward when you jump,” said Paloma. “Those small things were actually very big things for [Rebecca].” When I complimented Rebecca on how mature and independent she seemed, the siblings were so delighted they did an impromptu high five.
As much as Candice supports her daughters’ hobby, she notes that horseback riding is not for everyone. The person has to have a real passion for horses in order to become a consistent rider. In addition, horseback riding is considered a high-risk sport even for veterans. “Horses are dangerous, and that’s something you must never forget so you never become casual with [them],” says Paloma’s coach, Jeremy Michaels, a British Horse Society-certified trainer. “I don’t care you are with them for years; you never trust them.”
On the other hand, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll like something without trying. Four years ago, Candice was looking at an equestrian website and asked Paloma off-hand whether she had any interest in riding. “I was not really listening and just said OK,” she recalls. “A few years later, my sister started to ride as well.”
Since then, the girls’ surroundings have changed numerous times. They have lived in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and now Beijing because of Candice’s career – but horseback riding has remained a constant, and has always been a great comfort to the girls everywhere they’ve settled.
“When I first started, I never knew we would one day be together in China, riding at Equuleus,” says Paloma.
Riding Clubs: A Comparison
Equuleus International Riding Club 天星调良国际马术俱乐部
Founded in 1999, this popular riding club now houses more than 120 horses, including European warmbloods, thoroughbreds, mixed breeds, and local breeds. A member of the Chinese Equestrian Association, Equuleus is also the only British Horse Society (BHS) approved riding club on the mainland. Courses cater to beginners all the way up to national-level show jumping and dressage riders. The club has two 60 by 90m arenas and a smaller indoor arena. Currently, two additional indoor arenas and 66 stable boxes are under construction.
Training team: The Equuleus team counts more than 10 bilingual trainers who regularly participate in national-level competitions. Chief Trainer Zhang Ke is a regular medal winner in various domestic and international competitions. Deputy Chief Trainer Yang Fujun is the only BHS-approved international instructor on the mainland.
Cost: The annual membership fee is RMB 2,000 for one rider and RMB 5,000 for two to five riders. After the membership is paid, each 45-minute lesson costs RMB 296 to RMB 362. On top of that, there’s a coaching fee of RMB 50 to RMB 200 per lesson.
Address and contact: 91 Shunbai Lu (north of and parallel to Xiangjiang Beilu), Sunhe Town, Chaoyang District (8459 0236/0206, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.equriding.com (English and Chinese) 朝阳区顺白路91号香江花园北门马泉营村北
Beijing Asgard Equestrian Club 北京亚萨园马术俱乐部
Founded in 2007, Asgard houses more than 50 horses, around 20 of which are used for teaching. According to the club, their training courses are more popular with children than adults. Two 80 by 90m arenas are used for training and competition. Besides training, the club can also board horses, has fishing and barbecue facilities, and offers carriages for rent (RMB 5,000-20,000 per day).
Training team: Asgard has seven trainers. Most of them speak English and average 10 years of experience in teaching, riding, and professional competitions.
Cost: RMB 2,500/10 lessons, RMB 6,800/30 lessons, RMB 15,800/80 lessons, and RMB 38,000/200 lessons. A one-hour lesson includes 15 minutes of preparation and 45 minutes of training.
Address and contact: 31 Shunhuang Lu (just west of Danshui Restaurant), Chaoyang District (8459 5908, email@example.com) a677700259.oinsite.yh.mynet.cn 朝阳区孙河顺黄路31号
Founded last year, newcomer Mustang is a more intimate club that focuses on beginner riding skills, especially for children. So far, it has more than 100 members and most of them are kids (both local and foreign). Mustang has a 60 by 90m arena for training and 22 horses, including warmbloods, mixed-breed Orlov Trotters, and local breeds.
Training team: Mustang’s team is composed of eight coaches who are more concerned with teaching skills rather than focusing on competition.
Cost: RMB 480/lesson, RMB 6,800/40 lessons, RMB 11,800/85 lessons, RMB 25,800/185 lessons
Address and contact: South of Liulin Village, Sujiatuo Town, Haidian District (English: 5652 6388, Chinese: 5652 6385) www.mustang.org.cn 海淀区苏家坨镇柳林村南
photos by Jenny Wu and Clemence Jiang
This article originally appeared on p36-37 of the beijingkids September 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com