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Of Horses And Men: Inside The Evolution Of Equestrian Sports

Raw power is measured in horses, and the sport that harnesses the might of this stately beast is as elegant as it is powerful. Welcome to the thrilling, unpredictable world of equestrianism.

By Benny Teo
November 10, 2021

The connection between horse and human can only be understood by those who experience it first-hand. In the 2013 Icelandic film Of Horses and Men, writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson created a vignette of beautiful, mystifying, and quirky stories depicting the relationship that develops when horses and humans interact, giving us a peek into the sensitive nature of this powerful animal. From the viewpoint of both rider and horse, there’s a fine line between love and fear—and it’s hard to predict how nature will take its course. Trust and respect is key, and the developed closeness can result in extraordinary sporting feats. 

Photo: benny Teo

A testament to the sheer difficulty of control, equestrian sport takes on various forms including showjumping, dressage, and polo. Animal and human are together tested to the highest degree, which can lead to a great deal of drama—as happened most recently at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Germany’s Annika Schleu led after the first two disciplines of the pentathlon—the 200m freestyle swim and fencing—and looked to be the clear favourite for gold. Then, disaster struck. Unlike standard equestrian events at the Olympics, competitors in the modern pentathlon are paired with an unfamiliar horse just 20 minutes before the event. What follows is usually chaos, with some athletes forming an unlikely bond with their horse, while others struggle to stay on the saddle.  

Schleu was paired with Saint Boy, who initially refused to start before belatedly rumbling into action. The calm didn’t last long, however. The five-time world champion was reduced to tears as Saint Boy started to knock down the fences, then refused to cooperate entirely. Amidst the mayhem, German coach Kim Raisner hit the horse and was ultimately kicked out of the Olympics. Schleu eventually abandoned the discipline, ending her dreams of a medal, as she trotted through the exit dejected and downtrodden.  

Photo: Benny Teo

Showjumping, an extraordinary sport that requires a delicate combination of balance and rhythm, is perhaps the most accessible of equestrian sports. As exhilarating to watch as it is to perform, it’s divided into two main types. Some competitions are based on jumping alone, also known as puissance, whereas others test the jumping ability as a factor of time. The latter competition awards points by converting the remaining seconds or adding extra seconds for faults. 

Schleu’s situation shows us how helpless riders can be in the sport, which is what makes excelling in it such a difficult task. It isn’t just about learning how to handle the unpredictable nature of a fully conscious animal. To cajole and commandeer it to attention is one thing, but to keep its focus in competition demands complete and utter trust from the steed. 

Photo: Benny Teo

Even for seasoned equestrians riding their own horses, bad things can happen too. Also in Tokyo during the team jumping event, the French were leading the contest with only two penalties against eight from its nearest contenders, Sweden and the US. With both teams already completed, it was left to France to trot in with victory seemingly within their grasp at the Baji Koen Equestrian Park. However, Pénélope Leprevost, riding Vancouver de Lanlore, suffered two refusals and was eliminated, thereby ending her team’s championship dreams. No one knew why the stud refused its rider, but such are the vicissitudes of life as an equestrian that glory can be so near, yet so ficklishly far. 

At the opposite spectrum of the sport, there’s another more elegant aspect of equestrianism, which comes in the artistic form of dressage. Given its balletic nature, it may seem surprising that dressage originated with military equitation. While the ancient Greeks trained their mounts in some of the manoeuvres still used in dressage today, it was during the late Renaissance—with the founding of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School in 1572—that the discipline was refined and codified. 

Photo: Benny Teo

Today, this elegant sport is typically enjoyed by blue-blooded families or the newly wealthy looking to upscale their mannerisms and lifestyle. A dressage-trained horse can cost anywhere from US$60,000 to US$100,000, with the uniform alone costing upwards of US$12,000. While many showjumpers start as youths, dressage is a discipline where latecomers can blossom. There are competitions around the world for riders of all ages, and adult beginners are quite normal. But it’s hard work, not only for riders. It also takes a very special horse to succeed and make it all the way to Grand Prix events, moderated by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which is the controlling authority for horse sport around the world. 

In dressage events, riders compete by executing a series of tests in a ring marked with different letters of the alphabet at key spots. Each test requires a unique combination of movements, performed from one letter to another in a pattern. The end result is often said to look like ballet on horseback. The tests become more difficult as the tiers of competition increase, culminating in the Grand Prix level, which consists of three tests—the highest of which is the Grand Prix Freestyle, set to music. The Grand Prix tests are what spectators see at the Olympics and other major international competitions. 

While showjumping and dressage rely on rider and horse to tackle obstacles or make smart movements, polo relies on a team of four. It requires agility and a good aim, like the football of equine sports. Hard enough as it is to propel a ball into a net a distance away using your legs, polo requires you to do it while you’re on horseback as you weave your way through two teams of seven other riders in a sprint towards the goal. 

Competitors in dressage, which has been described as the highest form of horse training | Photo: Benny Teo

Known as the “sport of kings”, the concept of polo and its variants dates back to the sixth century BCE, originating from equestrian games played by nomadic Persians in modern-day Iran. As one of the world’s oldest team sports, polo’s roots, like much of equestrianism, is based in military training and excellence in horsemanship. In this case, it was the Persian courts that first defined its form as a training game for the royal guard and elite troops. It’s now played in more than 100 member countries of the Federation of International Polo (FIP), is played professionally in 16 countries, and was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936. 

A polo team consists of four players. No. 4 is typically a defensive player and the one who hits the ball the hardest. No. 3 is the team captain, who makes the strategies and passes the ball. No. 2 plays both offence and defence, making the most runs and working hard at both ends. No. 1 is an offensive player whose main focus is to score goals. Played around seven minutes per chukka (or period) and with a typical six chukkas per match, the horses are switched after each chukka in order to give them rest.  

Polo has blossomed across Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries | Photo: Benny Teo

Today, polo has become a spectator sport for high society, often supported by sponsorship at the highest level of luxury, including brands such as Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, champagne house Veuve Clicquot, and Swiss private bank Julius Baer. 

The world of polo is dominated by a handful of powerhouses in Britain, India, Argentina, and the US. However, many other countries also play the sport, including Southeast Asian nations such as Singapore and Malaysia. In China, it’s also a growing sport, with the Chinese Equestrian Association comprised of the Beijing Sunny Time Polo Club and Shanghai’s Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club. In Hong Kong, we have the Hong Kong Polo Association as well as Hong Kong Polo Development (HKPD). 

One unique aspect of polo in Hong Kong is that, following the removal of the grass polo field at Shek Kong Airfield after the 1997 handover, there are no grounds available to play the sport; today’s riders have to travel to Mainland China, Southeast Asia, or further afield. But polo has had deep roots in the city, with the late Lord Mountbatten among the luminaries to have played here. 

Lynly Fong at the Singapore Polo Club | Photo: Benny Teo

The Hong Kong Polo Association was founded in 1963 and joined the FIP in 2001. It regularly sends out teams to represent Hong Kong in global competitions such as the annual Polo Rider Cup, hosted in France by the Polo Club of Chantilly. In the June 2021 event, the Hong Kong team was second runner-up out of 12 international teams, with top-three overall scorer Brieuc Rigaux leading the charge. 

With the predominance of elite riders of European descent in the sport, lawyer Andrew Leung started HKPD to increase polo’s popularity among ordinary Hongkongers. HKPD’s annual Beginners’ Cup began in 2018 and is held each October. Every month, he takes a group up to train at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, where there are full-time Argentinian instructors and a hotel next to the polo grounds. Leung’s goal is to bring polo back to Hong Kong so it can be enjoyed by residents. The first hurdle is to find suitable land, and then to get retired racehorses from the Hong Kong Jockey Club and retrain them for polo. 

Further south, polo has blossomed as well. Introduced to Malaya in the late 19th century, polo emerged in Southeast Asia at the Royal Johor Polo Club (formed in 1884) and the Singapore Polo Club (1886). The sport was largely played by royalty and the political and business elite. Today, the sport has been incorporated into the biennial Southeast Asian Games, and the recent resurgence has seen increased popularity in cities such as Pattaya, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. 

The Julius Baer Beach Polo World Cup | Photo: Benny Teo

In Singapore, the new Atoms Polo Academy was launched last year to democratise the sport and teach polo to anyone from five to 50 years old, regardless of skill level – even for those who have never ridden a horse before. Set on the grounds of the newly renovated Singapore Polo Club, Atoms will be the first Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) accredited course in the nation. The HPA is the most prestigious polo association in the world and is responsible for creating its original rules and regulations. It’s also the governing body for polo in the UK, Ireland and other affiliated countries. 

While institutions like Atoms seek to bring the sport of polo to a bigger audience, equestrian as a whole is still shrouded in mystery by those outside of its exclusive riding or polo clubs. However, for those who desire to try the sport, it may be as simple as paying a visit to the local stables for a guided ride and seeing where it takes you.  

Whether it’s the adrenaline rush of jumping, the practised control of dressage, or the thrill of polo, equestrianism opens up a world of possibilities for social discourse—and a connection with an animal whose innate ability to sense energy gives the rider the beautiful gift of revealing their own strengths and struggles.