Chinadaily / China is still a relative newcomer to equestrian sport but is already targeting podium success in international competition-specifically at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. [Photo by Cheng Jiabei/For China Daily] China ramps up its global gallop as it targets Tokyo 2020 glory

China has saddled up for a breakthrough equestrian campaign at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Horse culture may have been an prominent part of farming and warfare here in ancient times, but that has so far failed to translate into Chinese success on the equestrian stage.

A new plan, utilizing foreign-based riders and overseas training, is aimed at changing that.

After screening over 60 candidates during a three-month global talent search, the Chinese Equestrian Association has selected England-based Olympic eventer Alex Hua Tian and US-born jumping specialist Zhu Meimei to join Chinese natives such as veteran Liu Tongyan, from Inner Mongolia, and Li Yaofeng, from Guangdong province, on an initial 17-rider squad.

“The time is urgent and the task is tall. We have to utilize all possible resources to build a competitive team in time for good performances in Tokyo as a contribution to the sport’s rejuvenation in the country,” CEA chairman Zhang Xiaoning said at the team’s unveiling at Equuleus Riding Club in Beijing.

Six equestrian gold medals are up for grabs in Tokyo in individual and team events for three disciplines: dressage, jumping and eventing.

China is targeting team competitions in jumping and eventing, hoping the specialties of Hua, Zhu, Liu and Li combine successfully.

Born in London to a Chinese father and British mother in 1989, Hua was part of the debut Chinese equestrian team at the 2008 Beijing Games.

He went on to become the only Chinese rider to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games, where he finished a respectable eighth in eventing.

Having attended a series of equestrian promotions in China at the end of last year, Hua has returned to his stable in Cheshire, northwestern England, to take care of over 20 horses with his girlfriend, dressage rider Sarah Higgins, and raise funds for the 2020 campaign.

California-born show jumper Zhu, a student of German four-time Olympic gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum, has also championed China’s burgeoning equestrian scene in recent years.

The 25-year-old has been a regular competitor at FEI jumping events in China since gaining Chinese citizenship in 2009, and last year won individual bronze at the Chinese National Games.

Team China captain Liu reckons the fresh energy brought by Zhu can make a difference in Tokyo.

“I think the combination of foreign and Chinese experience coupled with support in training, horse grooming, veterinary and stable management will make it possible for us to qualify for the team event in Tokyo,” said the 48-year-old.

The riders will have a chance to gel as a team while immersing themselves in equestrian culture through long-term training programs in Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“To close the gap with the world’s best in the sport we have to first stay close to them and then get used to competing side-by-side with them,” said CEA chairman Zhang.

“The overseas training programs will pave the way for our riders to advance to higher-level events in Europe and eventually earn enough qualification points for the Olympics.”

China’s Olympic involvement has seen investment in the equine industry rise in recent years, with the country’s affluent middle class the main customers.

Chinese parents are increasingly signing up their kids for riding clubs. [Photo by Luo Yunfei/China News Service] More and more parents are encouraging their children to join riding clubs, while the sport’s public profile has been enhanced by the ubiquitous presence of celebrities trying to outdo each other in the style stakes at equestrian events.

The number of clubs increased to 1,452 by the end of 2017, with about 545 new facilities opened between 2016 and 2017, according to data from the annual China Horse Fair.

Club memberships now total around 972,000, an annual rise of 68 percent.

“The industry is galloping to new heights in facilities, making the sport more accessible than before for everyone interested to take part in,” said Liu Lina, China’s only dressage entrant at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a current national team coach.

“Leaping off a bigger and better platform than we had in the past, I believe this group of riders will deliver us surprises in 2020.”

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