“It all goes back to maybe a decade ago that Koreans, mostly from the wealthier class, started to take an interest in riding,” said Park Kyung-won, manager of the Korea Racing Authority’s equestrian sports promotion team. “More people are now slowly but steadily catching on, and I believe in another 10 years, horseback riding will become a prime pastime.”
The KRA is the nation’s top government organization overseeing all things horses and equestrian.
There are currently around 350 stables in Korea, according to KRA figures, an increase from the 290 stables in 2010. A few years before that, there were about 200 such facilities.
The horse-riding population also has been on the rise, now reaching around 25,000, nationwide. These are regular riders who ride at least once every week, Park explained.
Unfortunately, the number of horses has yet to catch up, as there is only about one available for every four riders. The rest are mostly race horses.
Indeed, while general riding is increasing in popularity, horse racing is still more dominant when it comes to equestrian sports, Park said, although the KRA is hoping to level the ground on the back of recent interest in horseback riding.
Park was confident about future growth, saying that the latest trend could be likened to golf, which when first introduced in Korea about 20 years ago, was seen as being too high-class for ordinary people mostly because of high prices and a lack of the right equipment and golf courses.
|Riders go for a trot at Royal Saddle Equestrian Society, a riding stable in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
“Before that, there was golf, before that, tennis or bowling. People who got bored with golf were itching to take up a new sport, and that’s when they discovered horseback riding,” said Lee Seok-heon, a marketing executive at Royal Saddle, a stable in Goyang that catapulted to fame after Psy filmed his epic music video for the off-the-chart single, “Gangnam Style” there.
Available to more people
The horseback riding trend, above all, reflects Korea’s increased wealth, according to those in the industry.
“It’s definitely a sign that Korea is moving toward the more advanced countries,” said Choi Hye-young, head of the executive office of the national horse exhibition that was held last month.
Statistics in other nations show that more people start taking up golf when the per capita GNP reaches $20,000, with the trend moving toward horseback riding when the per capita figure reaches $30,000, to culminate in yachting activities for countries with an average per capita of $40,000.
Choi said there were also notable changes in the guests and companies that flocked to the exhibition.
“The last time we held the event, it was mostly about getting the horseback riding experience, and people were just in it to get a chance to ride horses,” she said. “But this year, it was really a business to business kind of affair.”
Some of the guests were overseas manufacturers of horseback riding equipment who visited out of curiosity of how far the Korean industry had come, meaning they could all become potential customers or buyers, Choi explained.
The government is working to further deepen the trend by widening its support for people who want to open their own stables.
“The standards used to be quite strict, too strict maybe, and there were few stables that were properly registered. We’re hoping that by relaxing the rules a little, it’ll become easier for entrepreneurs to jump into the business,” said Park of KRA.
It usually takes about 2 billion won to set up a proper stable, excluding the expenses needed for employing coaches and instructors.
But regulations cannot to be too lax, Park added, due to safety concerns.
Equestrian accidents, albeit not frequent, do get reported from time to time, at times leading to major injuries.
These tragedies can be avoided as long as the students and riders have the proper equipment and uniform, with trainers and instructors supervising them, experts say.
Indoor rings and therapeutic riding
One notable trend in horseback riding and stables is the popularity of indoor riding grounds.
“It’s mostly due to geographical reasons, of course,” said Lee of Royal Saddle, where there is both an outdoor and indoor riding ground.
As the situation is pretty cramped in Korea, many choose to open indoor riding rings, and because they are smaller and can be located closer to the capital, the riders also find the indoor facilities to be ideal.
“I thought riding indoors would be a messy business, and I was concerned about whether I would get any fresh air inside, but I was completely wrong,” said Lee Hye-son, a member of Royal Saddle.
The stable manager explained that it was all about how to manage the facility, saying that if the proper sand retaining the right amount of moisture was used to cover the ground, there would be no problem with hygiene.
Many who take advantage of these riding grounds are students who have come to “heal” both inside and out.
Troubled teens and kids flock to horseback riding because of the visible benefits, which include being able to better communicate with others based on their communication with horses, and becoming more compassionate.
They also learn patience and understand the importance of following orders or instructions to avoid injuries.
“These youngsters interact with the animals, and they feel better about themselves as well because they are in a way in charge when they are in that ring,” said Park of KRA.
Concerns for the future
The treatment of horses is one of the major concerns that Park and instructors have when seeing the expansion of horseback riding.
In Korea, the prevailing thought is that horses are still little more than a sort of “tool” used to benefit humans.
This idea goes back to horse racing, where only the fittest horse gets the opportunity to be groomed and receive proper treatment. Horse racing accounts for about 90 percent of equestrian sports in Korea.
The horses that don’t make the cut are considered second rate, and it’s only recently that the industry has been taking care to tame them to use for riding, whether it be for lessons or just as a pastime.
Another concern experts have is that because the trend is spreading like wildfire, there may be a lack of attention to the proper protocol for horseback riding.
As with golf and any other sport considered more sophisticated than its peers, there are certain manners and protocol involved.
“It’s about respecting the instructors, respecting your horse, and the others who are there in the ring with you,” said Lee of Royal Saddle.
One other area of concern is the cost. Horseback riding is still on the expensive side ― it costs about 60,000 per 50-minute ride, and the price climbs when lessons are thrown in.
Instructors said it will take a while for the sport to become more affordable, but that’s also the reason why they are hoping for the industry to further open up for the public at large so that everyone and anyone who feel like going for a gallop can do so.
“It may become too publicized, but then, we always have yachting to fall back on,” said Park of KRA.
By Kim Ji-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org)