Saddle tales: appearances can be deceiving
As a true city boy who grew up in New York City and Hong Kong, horses are foreign animals to me. I'm more used to animals such as pigeons, rats and cockroaches, and more comfortable riding on a metal snake (otherwise known as the subway) than a horse. So when I was shown a dressage competition on YouTube, my first question was how that was possibly a sport; and an Olympics sport at that. It was just someone sitting on a prancing horse while it 'danced' in circles. It didn't seem that difficult. My (horse-loving) editor knew otherwise and sent me off to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Tuen Mun Public Riding School to try to just get on a horse.
If anyone could open the eyes of this non-believer, head riding instructor Bee Chan Sai-kin (aka Bee Sir) was the man. He represented the Hong Kong team in numerous competitions and served as the coach for the city's equestrian team at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
After a quick tour of the stables, it was time to get on my steed of the day, Fortune Boy. I forgot to bring my stylish top hat so they gave me a very protective helmet instead. Getting on the horse wasn't too difficult as they had steps for me and all I had to do was put one foot in the stirrup, do a small jump and bring my leg to the other side while holding the saddle. Just like riding a bicycle.
But once I was on top of the horse, it was as if I were in a whole new world. It felt so strange to be sitting on top of another living, breathing thing. I had no control of where I was going because my legs were no longer touching the floor. Bee Sir explained that I could tell Fortune Boy to move, to stop, to trot with clicks of my tongue, a pull of his reins or a squeeze of my thighs. And then we were off, as the trainee riding instructor, Carson Chung King-lok, began to lead me and my mount.
Bee Sir's instructions sounded easy, but they weren't. He told me to sense what the horse was feeling - but I had no idea. He told me to relax my hands on the reins as there should be a connection between me and the horse. I felt none. Then he told me to take a turn at giving commands to Fortune Boy. I clicked and I squeezed and he listened. Eureka! For that one very, very short moment, I did feel in control of him - but if Carson had let go of the reins, I would've been clueless.
Bee Sir kept reminding me to look forward and relax. But it was hard to relax with a hulking animal between my legs! He would give me an instruction, but it seemed like being on the horse took away all control of my bodily movements, and my hands refused to do as they were told.
After my session, Bee Sir explained just how important the commands were. Dressage is a competition of perfection. Horses are judged on the execution of movements, and one slight mistake will cost them points.
It's hard to imagine having complete control of an animal and feel what it's thinking without any sort of verbal communication. It was like playing on a team with teammates who can't communicate with you. I could barely get Fortune Boy to run and stop on command; how would I have got him to lift his legs up alternately and pirouette?
Bee Sir said my session was the same as that of any beginner: I wanted to control the horse, but I couldn't even control myself.
My experience hasn't exactly turned me into an equestrian nut, but I definitely have a greater appreciation of and respect for riders and horses, and their relationship with one another.
Special thanks to HKJC Tuen Mun Public Riding School
Additional reporting: YP cadet Theodora Yu
Equestrianism has always been considered as a sport of elegance and class. People have ridden horses at least since around 4,500 BC, if not earlier. Horses were used to drive chariots, to transport goods, in war, sport and agriculture.
The first Olympic equestrian event was chariot racing, held at the Ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC. At the 1900 Paris Games, there were four events, but the sport disappeared from the Olympics until 1912.
Women first competed in the jumping category in the 1956 Stockholm Games.
Equestrianism refers to sports involving riding a horse. In the Olympics, there are three categories: Dressage, Jumping and Eventing. There is an individual and a team event in each competition. In a rare twist, men and women can compete against each other as equals.
Dressage involves a series of movements the horse has to complete. A panel of seven judges gives points for both the individual movements and the overall routine. Dressage, which means 'training' in French, tests the horse's obedience, control and power.
Jumping involves leaping over obstacles such as parallel rails, water jumps and walls in a certain order and within a certain time. The horse that commits the fewest mistakes in the shortest time wins.
Put simply, eventing is a combination of dressage, cross country and jumping. Riders get penalty points for exceeding the time and jumping errors. The team or rider with the fewest penalty points after all competitions wins.
Bit: the metal mouthpiece to which the reins are attached
Bridle: a harness of straps that fits around a horse's head and holds the bit
Canter: a gait similar to, but slower than, a full gallop; it's a 'three-beat gait', where you hear three footfalls per stride, then a moment when all four legs are off the ground
Combination: a series of related jumps one or two strides apart
Fault: penalty points awarded for making a mistake, such as a refusal at an obstacle or exceeding the optimum time
Gait: a horse's movements: the main ones are walk, trot, canter and gallop
Gallop: the fastest of a horse's gaits
Knock down: when a horse or rider hits an obstacle, causing it to fall
Optimum time: the target time in the cross-country event; each second above the time carries a penalty of 0.4 faults
Resistance: when a horse refuses to continue, rears up or steps back
Run-out: a horse's attempt to escape the rider's control and avoid jumping an obstacle
Trot: a gait in which the horse moves its diagonal legs at the same time
Walk: a marching pace in which the footfalls of the horse's feet follow one another in a regular 1-2-3-4 beat.
Ones to watch
Anky van Grunsven
The Dutch rider, 44, is part of one of the best dressage teams in the world. She has taken home the gold in the past three Olympics, and will be looking to add to her total haul of eight Olympic medals this year.
Age is definitely not an issue in equestrianism. Millar, 65, will be competing for Canada in his 10th Olympic Games, a new record. He finally won his first medal, a silver in team show jumping, at the equestrian events held in Hong Kong during the 2008 Beijing Games and now has his eyes on that elusive gold.
While her competitors have years of experience, Kessler barely passed the minimum age limit of 18 to compete in her event in London. The American show jumper, who turned 18 this month, is the youngest rider ever to qualify for the US team.
Team Eventing - jumping final
July 31, 10.30am (HKT: 5.30pm)
Individual Eventing - jumping final
July 31, 2.30pm (HKT: 9.30pm)
Team Jumping: medal events
August 6, 2pm (HKT: 9pm)
Individual Jumping: medal events
August 8, 2.55pm (HKT: 9.55pm)
Team Dressage: medal events
August 7, 10am (HKT: 5pm)
Individual Dressage: medal events
August 9, 12.30pm (HKT: 7.30pm)
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Public Riding Schools
Tel: 2461 3338
Clearwater Bay Equestrian Centre
Tel: 6398 6241
Lo Wu Saddle Club
Tel: 2673 0066