After lull, equestrian sector back in saddle

Like many Beijing urbanites during the past weekends, logistics businessman Zhang Kai has been heading out to the suburbs early Saturday morning.

But Zhang has not been merely strolling in public parks and scenic spots or hiking in mountain trails-the 52-year-old is an equestrian enthusiast, one of many members of an increasingly popular leisure activity that had been severely disrupted by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

"Horse-riding activities, involving close physical contact, came to a virtual standstill during COVID-19 with the social distancing and other anti-outbreak measures," Zhang said.

"I'm glad the virus has been effectively brought under control. We've all been looking forward to heading outdoors with the horses again," he said.

Chinese equestrian activities and interest had been on the upswing before COVID-19 hit, with industry figures recording about 3,200 riding clubs across the country, growing more than three times in the past few years.

But as part of comprehensive anti-outbreak efforts, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Sports put out strict guidelines for the prevention and control of the operation of outdoor sports and fitness venues.

Michelle Wang, founder and CEO of Equuleus Corp, said activities at her top-tier Equuleus International Riding Club in Beijing were suspended at the end of January in line with the anti-epidemic measures.

During the outbreak, the club also strengthened employees' wellbeing and site management according to public health regulations, she said.

"Due to the special nature of the equestrian industry, even if offline activities were suspended amid COVID-19, the care of horses and the management of the stables cannot be separated from people," Wang said.

There were still many of her colleagues who stayed in the front line while employees who had taken leave to go home continued to work with the company online. All of them stood "ready to resume production at any time", said Wang, whose group has been held up as a sport industry model.

During the epidemic, Wang's club used the latest communications technologies to develop online courses. Since early February, at least six major online fee-paying courses have been rolled out at the club and within three months, nearly 50 industry groups, including equestrian clubs and schools from 20 provinces, cities and regions at home and abroad, were involved in over 1,300 courses, she said.

"As the epidemic situation became clearer, our events and activities gradually resumed," Wang said. The club hosts "Musical Rides "programs for young participants who navigate a pre-arranged dressage test, with specific movements ridden in different gaits accompanied by music chosen especially to match their ponies.

Construction is also continuing on what is touted as the area's first horse trails of their kind in the capital, where residents and visitors will be able to enjoy sustainable green paths in line with local government support to promote equestrian activities alongside urban development.

"Enriching equestrian cultural products and making comprehensive use and development of them will help expand the influence of equestrian culture and meet the spiritual and cultural needs of people," Wang said.

Wutzala, head of the China Horse Culture, Sports and Tourism Institute, said the epidemic has not affected Chinese equestrian interest, nor has it dented investment in the development of the sport.

"COVID-19 has not hindered the Chinese love for horseback riding. People want to head to the wide, open spaces, away from crowds, to get close to nature and horses."

"The epidemic has not affected local government and company investment in the horse industry. Many large-scale and comprehensive horse culture and tourism projects are in full preparation, including venues in the Xinjiang Uygur, Tibet and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions," Wutzala said.

Liu Jing, a horse stables owner in Beijing's Yanqing district known for its picturesque trail riding, said he is actually scrambling to cope with the strong, pent-up demand amid the steady resumption of outdoor recreational activities.

"We experienced a complete halt in riding trips during the peak of COVID-19, but hope the virus impact is clearly behind us. We know the measures to take to prevent any fallout from the outbreak and all of us are now raring to go," said Liu, 39, who hosts about 10 to 15 riders on busy weekends.