Horse Welfare Issues in Shanghai

I was very disappointed in Shanghai recently to visit a well-advertised equestrian centre, the Hui Hang Horse club.

It’s certainly large, with a golf cart to ferry drop-in clients between stables and a sprawling restaurant complex.

But the majority of the 70 or so (mostly local breed) horses I saw have no bed to lie on. Yes, concrete floors only. I found the manager upstairs in a spacious office hung with portraits of Mao and other nationalist icons. Clearly a military buff, and dressed as a colonel of sorts, the boss was full of welcome but then had to take an urgent phone call when I told him that there’s plenty of saw mills in the Shanghai/Yangtze Delta region which would give him a good few bags of saw dust for the same price the Hui Hang charges for a lesson – an average RMB300 for a 45 minute ride.

The effects of lying on bare, cold concrete already appeared obvious in the limbs of some of the Hui Hang horses I saw.

A live-in, week long, course for teenagers at the Hui Hang promises to turn them into ‘knights’ with elegant, noble bearing and upright posture.

Local media in China’s cities tend to glamourise this approach equestrianism: I wish they’d write more about the horses’ living conditions.

Xinjiang’s First Equestrian Centre

An air-conditioned indoor arena in far-west China? Yes. Meet Zhu Jin, chairman of the board of Sheng Tai Yin Co Ltd, and founder-owner of the Shen Mu Yuan equestrian centre in the suburbs of Urumqi, the capital of China’s westerly Xinjiang region. A 30 min drive out of town near the Martyr’s Cemetry, the club was established as part of an ‘ecological’ resort of restaurants and chalet-like hotels. When I visited in July I also noted a mini-zoo including a miserable monkey in a small wire cage and a few sheep badly in need of shearing.

Staff told me Zhu Jin’s main business is coal mining. There are many photos of the man himself in the clubhouse, including shots of Zhu at showjumping competitions in Beijing. In an interview with a local magazine Zhu compares buying horses to buying a car: “you can always buy a new car but if you come accross a horse you really like you just have to buy it.”

Zhu stables 40 horses, half them imported (there’s even a two year old from Japan) and others sourced from the Yili horse breeding base on the Kazakh border, a couple of hours by plane out of Urumqi. Staff include a Russian and an ethnic-Kazakh trainer, who oversee a staff of mostly Uyghurs, the ethnic group indigenous to Xinjiang. There appeared to be a shortage of bedding for the Chinese horses when I visited. I was impressed by the teaching skills of the Kazakh trainer though and was most surprised to find an air-conditioned indoor arena, with giant blowers keeping the air well below the 33C heat outdoors.

Olympics Dreams Dashed

The Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated gave plenty of attention this year to equestrian sports, with one pre-Olympics issue in particular giving copious space to the musings of China’s eventer. Copious photos of Land Rover jeeps suggested the latter sponsored the spread. He never made it in the end to London but now the focus is on the Rio games in four years time. China wants a full time riding at those Games. Realistic?

Shanghai’s Equestrian Clubs

In the country’s richest city recently I visited somewhere I’ve long wanted to see, one of Shanghai’s very first equestrian clubs. Like Equuelus and Sheerwood clubs in Beijing, the Jialiang Equestrian Club shares its space with a large dog-kennel.

Unlike the Beijing clubs, but in common with other clubs in Shanghai, the Jialiang has a (500m) racing track. It’s for group activities and private races, I was told. I was impressed with the horse care at this small club. Grooms seem on first terms with the well-fed and well-groomed horses. Most of the Jialiang’s 21 horses are bred here at the facility on San Lu road in Pudong district.

The horses share the space with several hundred dogs – the Jialiang K-9 Kennel Shanghai Club is one of the first such establishments to cash in on a need among Shanghai’s wealthy for kenneling services. Local man Jialiang Wang opened the kennel in 1980 and today it’s clear his dog trainers and vets are in demand in a city as big as this and as rich as this.

It’s not clear if horses are also treated at the Shanghai United Animal Hospital, on another facility. My steed for the hour, six-year old Ella was born at the stables, a rambling friendly kind of place you expect of animal/horse lovers.

The facility used to in the “Pudong countryside” – there isn’t much countryside left in Pudong and the new apartment blocks are already closing in on Jialiang’s space. No chance then of the club being expanded but it seems strange not to use the several acres taken up by an apparently unused mini race track for an outdoor arena. The indoor arena is hardly big enough for more than three riders to use independently at any one time.

Riding at the same time as me confirmed what I’ve noticed often around China: local riders want speed. He seemed frustrated when he couldn’t move his mount (an Argintenean polo pony, he explained) into a canter and seemed disinterested in the trot.

Once dismounted horse was handed, valet style, to a waiting stable hand and rider went to his car. No need for grooming.

Prices range from 430 per 45 min with a Chinese speaking coach, or 530 with an English speaking trainer. Classes of three-five people cost 350 or 430, depending on if you have a local or multilingual coach.

Jialiang also caters to large groups of up to 50 people with prices ranging from 200 per person to 130 if you buy up to 8 hours. A group of 50 can use a maximum of 10 horses (groups of up to ten share a maximum of three horses). I like the small print: “Dining not included.”

China’s Polo Real Estate Dreams

Invites were apparently like golddust for a private polo tournament, sponsored by Rolls Royce, on June 9 in Tianjin. Only in China? Project with seemingly little economic sense get off the ground. The Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin being a case in point. Whereas most private member clubs tend to secure memberships before opening the Metropolitan has sold only 200 of an available 2000 memberships (around Rmb2 million a head) in the two years it’s been open.

Built by the Goldin Group, headed by Pan Sutong whose PR people say is “passionate about spreading the game of polo in China, the 222-acre facility features two finely manicured polo fields and a five star hotel/club house. All seemed very quiet on a May Saturday when I visited. The massive marble corridors were certainly empty and no one was dining at any of the restaurants – one of which is Le Pan, run by Michelin-starred chef Edward Voon. No one was buying anything in the Pro Shop either.

And while we waited for a bus to come drive us to the stables – given the scale of the Metropolitan it’s a hike from hotel to stables – we watched a few guests of the Mr Pan checking in for a complimentary five star experience. We also heard about the snow polo tournament held here during the winter, bringing 12 teams from around the world to compete on 4,000 cubic metres of snow pumped out by two snow machines and combed by two imported snow cats. “The surface was then watered for two nights to create a layer of ice,” according to an in-house magazine at the club.

Clearly no expense (or water) is spared at the Metropolitan which imported 75 horses from New Zealand and 25 from Australia to bulk its stables up to over 200 animals. Aside from over 1,000 staff the club’s residents currently include an Argentinean polo team. Yet I get the sense that there may be a lot more people living on-site in the coming years, in luxury apartments and villas. The club spends Rmb6,000 every month on each horse, and it shows: these are very well-maintained beasts living in smartly appointed stables.

One can only marvel at the political connections of the club in pulling off an event like the snow polo tournament, given political leaders in this semi-arid part of China have been pursuing a water conservation campaign for the past decade. Indeed two senior government members, bound by their Party to uphold Marxist and Leninist theory and socialism with Chinese characteristics” were full of praise for the snow polo event and the Metropolitan, which promises members they’ll be part of an “elite global network of a sport which remains “no less exclusive” than the days when polo was the pursuit of royalty and the world’s wealthiest capitalists.

It’s all about connections then. And real estate. I counted over a dozen tower blocks under construction on the club grounds, adjacent to several dozen villas also being built. Curiously the club manager insisted that Mr Pan made his money in electronics, not real estate. Yet the Wall Street Journal describes Mr Pan as chairman of Hong Kong-listed Goldin Properties Holdings Ltd. “an investment holding company that engages in property development business. Goldin will also build Tianjin’s tallest (office, mixed use) building on the Metropolitan grounds, according to Tianjin locals.

There’s no for sale sign up yet on the polo club properties but one can expect a premium can be charged for the privilege of living on the grounds of China’s most luxurious polo club.

False Advertising?: the Hero Knight Horse Club

Reading (‘Hero Knight Horse Club’) I had high expecations of the equestrian facility in Beijing’s northern hinterlands and spent two hours finding it in a taxi: I’d have ridden my bike but I find equestrian clubs and most other places in Beijing looking for business seriously underestimate the distance and time to their facility from a downtown address.

Anyway, the Yingshi we found bore very little resemblance to the photos on its website, which I now realise were simply lifted off various Chinese and foreign websites to make the Yingshi look like the first-grade international centre it isn’t. The Yingshi has 50 local horses for a local clientele of kids and bemused one-time riders demanding the thrill (and photos) of a gallop before going back to the city for dinner and drinks.

The friendly management keep the place well – though I don’t understand why every Chinese equestrian club needs a massive, invariably empty clubhouse – but surely there’s no need to be lifting photos of the Olympic equestrian event in Hong Kong to give the impression you host big-time equestrian events and horses.

A lesser offender in the imaginative website game is the Ying Chen (what is it with all the ‘knight’ fever in Beijing equestrianism?) club which is a modest facility with a large outdoor arena (and very large clubhouse) in northern Beijing.

Knight Union Riding, Beijing

Proof that equestrian patterns in China mirror those of the west: young girls form the bulk of the membership at the Knight Union riding club in Beijing, one of two clubs I visited lately which seem very busy teaching the children of China’s urban elite.

Down a dusty side road in the same part of town as two other clubs (Asgard and Equuleus) Knight Union markets itself with lots of photos of racing horses and claims vaguely have had its staff trained by a Randwick Equine Centre, Sydney. It also claims to have hired staff from numerous western countries including France and Ireland. This seems unlikely given our requests to see the imported horses referenced in our enquiry phone calls were replied with sheepish “oh they must have been moved.”

A friendly place but definitely not the “internationally renowned” equestrian centre described on its website.

Also, before you get in the saddle you’re expected to pay down RMB9,000 for the most basic riding package on offer. Without knowing what kind of horse or trainer you’re signing up for. Well, we were offer a 10 minute ‘trial ride’ but declined. But the fee model here appears familiar to VIP-price China where uninformed cash-up-front membership models appear to work, probably because of the relative lack of equine knowledge among the target audience.