Written by: Barbara Daley, Equine Concepts

What do the Year of the Horse, the White Horse Temple and the grasslands of Xinjiang have in common? They represent China’s passion for the horse that is not just centuries old, but thousands of years old.

Thumbnail for China’s Era of the Horse

Equine Concepts photo

The horse as a noble creature is embraced by more than 1.3 billion individuals who call China home. Despite its great affinity for horses and horse sport, one cannot really say that mainland China has been on the map for international competition. This includes horse racing, FEI sports and non-FEI sports. The reasons for this are complex, but they boil down to social isolation, low disposable income, and the illegality of betting on horse racing. All of that is now changing.

China now has a GDP (Purchasing Power Parity) of more than $10 trillion USD, making it the second largest national economy in the world behind the United States. China’s rapid economic growth has spawned a middle class in excess of 200 million people. This burgeoning middle class now have more disposable income and an increase in leisure time. Combine this with a deeply-rooted passion for horses, and the result is the potential growth in both participation in horse sport and ownership of horses.

Canada has expressed an interest in partnering with China in its quest for participation in horse sport and its need for up-to-date processes and infrastructure. Three trade missions have been conducted by Equine Canada’s Export Market Development Program (EC Export). “Our original trip to Beijing in the fall of 2010 was to attend the fourth China International Equestrian and Horse Industry Fair,” states Susan Stewart, who manages EC Export. “After arriving there, I discovered more about their horse racing industry – both the good and the bad – as well as interest in many other forms of horse sport. I also found out there is an appetite for excellence, coupled with a recognition that this excellence must be combined with knowledge in the form of training, coaching and general education.“

Racing Back On Track

Many looking in were skeptical about the focus on horse racing in China. A few were quick to the draw, though. In 2010, Meydan, the company owned by Sheikh Mohammad of Dubai, announced a joint venture with a Chinese investment company to develop a horse city, including a race track, which will cost a total of $4 billion. As racing in the Emirates is successful despite gambling also being illegal, it is easy to see Meydan’s faith in a possible solution for racing in China.

It appears that those who were prepared have been rewarded. On June 11, 2011, a news release was circulated on Reuters announcing the Chinese government had “lifted a 60-year ban on horse racing, allowing weekly races to be conducted in the central city of Wuhan…but no wagering will be permitted.” Wuhan was already running races on a limited basis for the past few years. With this announcement, more races will be run with more frequency. Within two weeks of the announcement, another racetrack in Mulei, Xinjiang, opened its doors, starting its first meet on July 9, 2011.

An appetite for other horse sports is strong, too. On May 19-21, the Equestrian Beijing International Grand Prix was held in the China National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, which was the largest venue of the 2008 Olympics. It was the first FEI two-star show jumping event in China, and attracted competitors such as Ludger Beerbaum from Germany, along with nine other international athletes from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and Belgium.

On July 1, 2011, an FEI one-star, 80 km endurance ride was held in Zhaosu, Xinjiang, where a team of four Canadian riders (see photo) participated. Another international rider from Britain joined the ride for the second year in a row, supporting a valued client and his colleagues who are based just outside of Hong Kong.

Horse Sources

So where is China sourcing its horses? So far, Europe has been a source for show jumpers. Australia has been a source for polo and race horses. Canada and the USA have provided barrel racing horses. Canada has provided Arabian horses, as has Britain and other countries. Japan has been a big source for Thoroughbred race horses.

China has no shortage of its own domestic breed of horse, too. This horse, which is generally raised in the massive grasslands in the northwestern parts of the country, tend to have great stamina and are as tough as nails. Historically they have been used for farming and endurance racing. Local governments see this as a potential industry. In 2011, Zhaosu County injected a sum of 19 million RBM ($3 million CAD) to a program which combines horses with tourism. Savvy horse owners from Beijing and other parts of China are leveraging off of this economic injection, and are establishing breeding operations and laying the foundation for additional racing facilities.

One of the existing race tracks found in these grasslands is located within the massive breeding operation of China’s 77th Army. Socially protected, it has run races of mixed-breed horses for many years. Racing is seen as a vital marketing activity for the Army’s breeding program, which in turn powers the local economy which is comprised of mostly farmers and herdsmen. The army’s herd, which numbers in the thousands, consists of domestic breeds which are now being combined with the bloodlines of Warmbloods for height and build, and Thoroughbreds for speed.

Doing business in China brings a whole new set of challenges for North Americans. Striking a deal is not just a plane trip, an email or a telephone conversation away. Access through internet is also limited. “The process of relationship building is slower than we experience in North America, but the turnaround on business is many times faster,” explains Stewart. “One must be equipped with a combined approach of patience, flexibility, tenacity and belief. The foundation of friendship is essential, and the promise of a long-term relationship is a key to success.”