Don’t Fence Me In is an article I wrote a couple of years ago about how jumper Taru Tuomela has lit up China’s equestrian circuit
BEIJING, SEPT 2005 The blonde European stood out on the victor’s platform, standing beside a half dozen Chinese men. She was the only westerner and the only woman at last year’s national horse jumping finals in Beijing. But Taru Tuomela edged out her male rivals to come first in the individual competition. The Finnish rider’s team came second, beaten to first place by a group of Tibetan show jumpers.
Tuomela is becoming a familiar face on China’s equestrian scene. Already at last year’s national championships in Beijing she came third in the individual class. “I was the only foreigner and only woman. Everyone was busy doing their own thing so after a while it wasn’t such a big deal… But I was really nervous that first time. I’d only ridden that horse three times before.”
Tireless preparations and training go into Tuomela’s jumping. In each competition she has to go through two rounds, with fifteen jumps in each. “When you get to a jumping competitions you need to tack and clean. Then there’s a warm up time – you have to be careful not to warm up too early. In the warm up area there’s a couple of small jumps. Five minutes before start up time you are allowed to enter the arena and walk around the entire perimeter. You measure the distances between jumps to figure out how many strides you take between jumps.
Formerly a Marketing and Communications manager for a software development company, Tuomela moved to China last year with her husband, who was transferred to Beijing by his company. Her husband doesn’t share her passion, but worries about the knocks and tumbles of Tuomela’s chosen sport. “He’s scared of it and worries about me!” Finding an equestrian club was a top priority however when the couple moved to China. “We came to Beijing a few months before moving here and I looked at several stables then. Once we moved I immediately joined the equestrian centre I’d chosen.”
Tuomela, who left Finland at 18 to study and worked in Germany and London, rides four times a week at Equuleus, an equestrian club on Beijing’s northeastern outskirts. “I’ve been riding more than 20 years. As a teen I rode a lot and I was jumping from a young age. I got serious about it again only after moving to Singapore and I took a break from my career.” An avid animal lover, Tuomela believes horse jumping is a unique combination of man and beast in sport. “…No other sport can offer the harmony that riding can. No matter how skilled you are dependent on another living being. You can only do what you want if you ask that other being nicely. It’s a harmony you achieve with another living being that’s big and powerful. You can’t impose your will on it.”
A fall while riding in Singapore left Tuomela with a broken arm and kept her from competing. Her ambition wasn’t dented however. She’s competed twice since coming to China. The country has an ancient horse tradition but equestrian sports are relatively new to the Chinese. The Chinese Equestrian Federation began selecting teams to compete internationally for the first time only a few years ago. “Most of the structures or infrastructure isn’t in place,” says Tuomela. “There’s very short notice for competitions, and then only in Chinese. I have to rely on word of mouth to find out what’s going on. The Federation doesn’t advertise. It’s a very small circle, mostly of professional riders and stable hands and there’s very few amateurs.”
There are signs of professionalism however. “Already since last year the local level has improved. But the scene is missing qualified instructors and horses. Almost everyone is using former racehorses but they’re not suited for jumping or dressage events. By breeding they’re hot blooded and nervous at competition. European equestrian horses They’re usually a mix between thoroughbreds and other breeds that aren’t so hot blooded. If they’re experienced they can carry a nervous rider through.”
Breeding has to be improved in China to produce good jumping horses. “All the horses in Chinese clubs are from Australia and New Zealand and raced in Hong Kong or Macao. Local horses are heavy for jumping or dressage. If they’re crossed with Arab thoroughbreds you get a nice small horse. But local breeds like the Mongolian horse are very small and have short necks. Dressage horses need to have a lot of elevation. Arab horses have this elevation.”
Riding four times a week, Tuomela takes lessons for jumping and dressage from instructors at Equuleus. “I need someone to give me good exercises. I know when my position is wrong. The rest of the time I take the horse out and do my own thing… I take lessons for jumping but unfortunately finding a dressage teacher is harder.” For her first competition in China, last July, only one horse was suitable for dressage.
China could yet develop an equestrian scene to be proud of, predicts Tuomela. “In Finland it’s also relatively new. In the 1970s equestrian sports began to take off.” The world equestrian body, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), last year for the first time brought its jumping and dressage exam system to China. “It’s a useful ranking, a way of finding your standard. It motivates you to go up a level.”
Even in winter Tuomela is looking to the summer season and more jumps. “There’s not a lot happening on the Chinese scene between November and May, because the ground is too hard.” But she’ll be back in the ring come summer. “The ideal is to have your own horse and develop with it.” Tuomela left her horse behind in Singapore when she moved. “Taking it to Beijing would have been too expensive. Right now I ride four different horses and I gain experience of different temperaments.”