Long before I ever arrived in China, I had been hearing rumors from my recruiter and local officials about some "horse club" where I might get the chance to visit or even teach, if time allowed. Having been an avid horse-lover, rider and trainer for the better part of my life, I was itchy for horses since my arrival. After five and a half months of seeing neither hide nor hair of this alleged place, it was surprising to finally receive a phone call about the so-called "ma chang" (horse lot). I was excited, hearing that the machang was located in nearby Hangzhou and that I was being offered a chance to visit and possibly also a teaching/training job.
The morning of my scheduled visit, I woke up bright and early and took the bus to meet my contact in Hangzhou. He brought along a young man, maybe 14 years of age, who was actually Chinse-American. This young man would be my translator for the day.
After taking another hour-long city bus, and an hour-long rural bus, and then a 20 minute taxi ride, the three of us arrived to the machang. It looked pretty deserted as we pulled up, but as we walked in, I could see signs of some horse life lingering around. A large galloping track was located to the right of the entrance, while several shanty buildings lay scattered around the grounds, some with brightly-coloured strings of flags flying on the sunny breeze. A large, unevenly shaped riding arena with sand footing was located in the centre of the yard. As we approached, I could see a short Chinese man standing in the middle, watering the sand with a hose. Well, this appears to be a pretty normal looking place, I thought with amazement.
As the day went on, there was a lot of sitting around, which tends to be the case most of the time when you are in China. First, I was taken on a tour through the barn, which was the least attractive area of the whole place. The horses were all under-weight and they were standing on hard stone floors with no wood shavings or bedding in any of the stalls. I noticed that, shockingly, a lot of the horses were stallions and most of them seemed to be perfectly docile and good-natured, which is unusual behaviour for stallions who are generally aggressive. I was told there were two "purebreds" and the rest were "Chinese" horses, but could come to no solid conclusions as to what breeds they actually were. It was all rather lost in translation. The horses, the barn manager said, were almost entirely privately-owned, and one of the trainers shared his woes on dealing with missing-in-action rich owners who show up once a year to brag about their horses. Apparently, that is a universal phenomenon.
Later in the day, more club members showed up and people began to prepare for late afternoon riding classes. It was exciting to get my riding legs back. I hadn’t brought any riding clothes with me to China, so they gave me half-chaps to put over my jeans, a pair of crappy cotton gloves and a helmet. The horses were mostly pretty sluggish and uninterested in being ridden. I started off astride the head trainer's horse (this supposed trainer was the worst rider I have ever laid eyes on). The horse was a young stallion, but he didn't perform like a stallion at all. He was inexperienced but had a lot of raw potential. The trainer told me he'd almost sold the horse a week earlier because it "turned this way and that and didn't go straight”, which I attributed that to the horse's greenness and the trainer’s lack of experience with young horses. As soon as I got on, the young stallion was perfectly happy to float around in circles and generally go nicely.
I also rode several of the other horses, which I was assured were "better trained." This “better training” basically amounted to the horse not wanting to be told what to do and holding his head up in the air while his rider sat aboard, doing nothing.
The highlight of my day was riding one of the two "purebreds," a tall, bay gelding that was owned by the girlfriend of one of the trainers. He had been purchased in Beijing and had a background in Dressage training, a type of equine dancing where the horse and rider perform elegant movements, often to music. This was especially exciting, as my specialty is Dressage training. When I got on, it was very clear that this horse had a solid background in Dressage, and I was able to get him to perform some specially advanced movements and patterns that are only performed by horses and riders at the higher levels of training and competition. I had a huge smile plastered across my face for the entire ride, but was exhausted afterward.
Most of the riders and trainers at the stable were of Mongolian descent, which wasn't too surprising, since the Mongolians are known for their horsemanship skills and equestrian traditions. That evening, a huge meal was cooked by the stable’s house mother, including some Mongolian specialty dishes. A fire was prepared and beer was dispensed freely. As the evening wore on and drunkenness set in, one of the riders produced a guitar from his room, which was spun around the circle, each man having his musical contribution. I played a song I had written about Ireland, explaining, in Chinese, that the lyrics were about a very special place.
The facility was being renovated, so I spent the night in one of the guestrooms, which did not have a bath attached. During the middle of the night, I was attacked with a bout of food poisoning and became violently ill. With no private bath, I was forced to vomit in a back alley behind my room and spent the rest of the night in an fitful sleep, battling mosquitos.
The next day, another horse was prepared for me to ride. This gelding was extremely unhappy – he kept trying to rear up and throw his head around all the time, and also wouldn't stand still. They had outfitted him in a martingale – a type of leather strapping that goes across the horse’s chest and attaches to the bridle to keep the horse’s head down. I generally disapprove of using this type of gear, so I removed it, but the horse was still as grumpy as ever.
Admittedly, I'm pretty much a gutsy rider, but after being fallen over on and breaking my back and arm a few years ago, I now make it a policy not to ride horses that rear. Dismounting, I inspected his head and chest and realized that his bit, a metal piece that the horse bites which the rider uses for control, was too small, while his bridle was too big. He had sores on the sides of his mouth from all of the ill-fitting equipment, so I informed the groom/rider and sent him away to fix the problems.
I left for home feeling glad to have had a chance to ride, however uninterested in actually working there. The near 4-hour one-way journey about killed me, but combined with having no suitable riding clothes and basically the prospect of battling snotty horses every other weekend, combined with the intense language barrier... I decided against it.
It was fascinating, nonetheless, to see a group of Chinese people interested in horses and Dressage.