It is difficult to determine whether it is the time of year (back to school), the time of day (mid-afternoon and its suffocating humidity) or vanished business that makes the Hong Kong Equestrian Centre resemble a ghost town. Buried at the edge of an unnamed road in Shek Kong, between a police station and a temple, its location requires some insider knowledge. And yet it is one of only nine riding schools in Hong Kong that serves anyone interested in riding a horse. It is still open, the grooms and instructors continue to care for the 18 or so horses in the stables and there are some lessons going on. But there is scant activity. The HKEC may be a private concern but there are repercussions in the long term for the retired racehorses that live there, for newly retired horses that may arrive and, more importantly, for generating interest in equestrianism, especially as Hong Kong prepares to host the sport at next year's Olympics. It started off as a dispute between the centre's owner, Ella Law, and its former general manager, Nicky Loiterton, who clashed over the running of the stables and the reinvestment of profits. Now, one month on, Loiterton hasn't been replaced, riders have left and there are concerns about the centre's future. 'From the Jockey Club point of view, it's a great shame there has been a business dispute between these two parties,' said Gordon Sidlow, the Jockey Club veterinarian charged with looking after the welfare of all of Hong Kong's retired racehorses. 'It is in our interest and in the horses' interest if these stables do well and prosper.' The effects of the dispute are unnoticed now - the horses are being fed and their stalls mucked out - but six months on it could be another story. 'We're very concerned about the long-term future of the business because it's difficult to see how they will do, seeing as they've lost so much of the clientele over the past few weeks,' Sidlow said. Horses need daily, regular exercise but with fewer experienced riders at the stables, the horses are getting less and less. Tara Delaney, who briefly taught and trained horses part-time at the school and was the winner of the local riders' competition at the Good Luck Beijing/HKSAR 10th Anniversary Cup last month, estimated the horses needed a good hour's exercise a day, along with a couple of walks on a lead in the ring. 'They always have to be out of their stalls,' Delaney said. From the horses' perspective the shift at the centre also means that an intended expansion, which would have included another 30 stables, has been put on hold. Loiterton said she was planning a 40,000 square foot expansion. With 1,200 retired racehorses under the care of the Jockey Club - about 450 are in Hong Kong with the rest in China - the club would be supportive of additional stables, Sidlow said. Law, who has taken over the general manager duties, did not return calls seeking comment. She was not present at the stables during two separate visits to the centre. 'I get the impression the owners do genuinely want to see the stables develop,' Sidlow said. The problem, however, is that the equestrian community is small and there is not a vast pool of experienced people available to manage a set of stables. Like many sports in Hong Kong, equestrianism sits on the fringe. Unlike other sports, however, equestrianism is often incorrectly enveloped into horse racing. The two are related, no doubt, but whereas racing is understood by almost everyone, equestrianism doesn't have such luck. According to Hong Kong Equestrian Federation secretary Soenke Lauterbach, there are 1,500-2,000 riders in Hong Kong, about half of whom are under 18. The public riding schools are running at capacity and there is a two-year waiting list for a prime-time Saturday afternoon riding lesson. Lauterbach, whose organisation is about to host a series of international showjumping competitions starting in two weeks, said that despite the waiting lists he wanted to increase the number of riders and the interest in equestrian sports. A solution is not easily found. 'We can't simply say, double the number of horses,' Lauterbach said. But the more schools that stay open and prosper, the greater the number of people who will be exposed to the sport. Loiterton estimated that before she left her post in mid-August there were 300 riders at the centre. The greatest loss might not be the number of riders, but the types of new riders becoming interested in equestrianism. When Hong Kong hosted the equestrian test event last month, there were few indications that anything special was occurring. There are fears that sentiment will be repeated when the actual Olympics arrive in 11 months, but one of the best ways to quell that notion is to educate the public about the sport, especially those who might not be inclined to pursue the sport on their own. 'I wanted to create a family environment,' Loiterton said. 'I wanted to create more of an equestrian and education centre.' Partnerships were set up with some schools, including the Australian International School, which suspended its lessons at the HKEC two weeks into its third term. 'The main reason is safety,' said Suzi Vujanovic, the director of development and community relations at AIS. 'That's our paramount reason.' Vujanovic felt that with fewer staff at the centre there was a lack of supervision for the 24 students. As many of the staff left after Loiterton did, Vujanovic requested, but did not receive, the CVs of the new instructors. The programme, Vujanovic said, was successful and popular. 'It's so available,' she said of the activity which transported the students to and from the stables along with the lessons. 'If you ask parents to do it, it's a four-hour chunk out of their day. I would say five of these kids would have lessons on their own, the other 19 wouldn't have done it.' She doesn't rule out the possibility of continuing, as long as safety can be ascertained and she gets to see a few resumes. 'It's such a shame,' Vujanovic said. 'The students, whenever they see me, they ask: 'Have you heard anything? Are we doing this next term?' It's a huge shame.' Other clients, such as Susan Fitzgerald and her daughter, Ellen Docherty-Fitzgerald, have cut down on the number of visits they make to the centre and Fitzgerald has noticed a change. 'It is just soulless,' she said. Equestrianism is the only sport Docherty-Fitzgerald has taken an interest in and she rides former racehorse Highlight, whom she describes as a bit naughty but who jumps really well. 'I miss washing [the horses], grooming them, riding them,' Docherty-Fitzgerald said. With the Jockey Club caring for so many horses, the less than 20 at the HKEC make up a small percentage. 'In these terms, it's not a big deal,' Sidlow said of the centre. 'In terms of building up the interest in equestrianism, then it is a big deal.' Loiterton said she had planned to create 'Olympic fever' at the HKEC during the entire month of the games next August. Recognising that a lot of students would be unable to see the events live at Sha Tin and Beas River, Loiterton wanted to create her own competition, complete with dressage tests and medals. Those plans have also been halted. Loiterton started at the HKEC in January after a group of investors, called Silver Lining, asked her to be the general manager. Silver Lining invested in the HKEC, buying six ponies and helping to refurbish and renovate the stables. They are unsure what will happen next. 'It does not feel like what we had,' said investor Mari Hille. 'Our ponies are going to be fine. We will have to pull them out. Everything has a solution; we just have to find the right one.' Whatever the solution, it is the horses and the interest in equestrianism that is most important. After all, the centre has a purpose. 'A lot of people go there and there are only nine [schools] and they are pretty busy, weekends especially,' Delaney said. 'It definitely has a role to fill.'