BRIDLE POWERIt used to be that only the privileged rode horses for recreation: Prince Charles swatting a mallet on a polo field, Jackie Onassis sitting tall in the saddle on a fox hunt, Count Somebodyorother competing for Luxembourg in Olympic dressage.
Similarly, in Korea horses have typically belonged to the upper echelon, and riding, or the sport of equestrian, was never done much by the guy who ran the corner beer hof.
Indeed, there was a saying in Korea that if you rode horses, your parents likely donated a building to a university.
Things have changed. Horseback riding has become widely popular here. It’s not quite ready to replace taekwondo, but more and more people are cantering these days.
And more and more privately owned horseback riding centers are opening across Gyeonggi and Chungcheong provinces. In the past five years, these centers have increased from 8 to 12 within two hours of Seoul. Members of the privately owned centers, or clubs, have also increased in the past half-decade, from 20,000 to 35,000.
On a recent weekday, four riders have come to the Unak Horseback Riding Club in Pocheon, Gyeonggi province, for an afternoon of exercise. At this sprawling, 3 hectare (7.7 acre) center, surrounded by low mountains, riders are getting ready for a workout. The club’s main riding oval measures 300 meters, with two smaller ovals inside. Jeon Chun-bae, the owner of the club, gives instructions as a stableman brings out the horses. “Give Alexander to that man; he’s better suited to handle a rough one.” After the members mount up, they walk for a while, then trot at about 16 kilometers per hour (10 miles per hour) around the oval, until a few members move to the another oval and begin to increase their speed.
Mr. Jeon calls out to one cantering rider, “You’re holding the reigns too tight! Don’t run when the wind is blowing so much, the horse will panic!”
The only female of the group, in her official riding habit and aboard a white thoroughbred with gray spots on its underside, shouts in mild alarm to her friends who are moving faster, “I can’t seem to control mine in this windy weather! Please don’t go so fast!” The other members slow down and the group regains their tempo.
“Some people get overly excited and want to ride fast,” says Mr. Jeon. “We don’t encourage ‘speeding’ unless we feel the member can handle the horses well. Horses can be fickle, you know.”
“It’s wonderfully refreshing,” says a breathless Hyun Sang-hwan, a computer salesman in his early 20s, as he dismounts from a half-hour ride around the oval. “Horseback riding provides exercise for the entire body. There are variables to this activity, which makes it incredibly thrilling. I mean, I’ve even been thrown off a horse and I’ve been run over by one. When you’re riding, you have to become a single entity with the horse.”
Kim Jung-gu, who runs a food business, usually brings his wife and young son to the club, but this day has come alone. He says, “Horseback riding has helped me get in shape. It makes me feel better and have a better posture. Also, it’s very addictive.”
Unak is among Korea’s oldest and largest riding clubs, with three stables and a beginner’s riding area, and includes within its grounds a fishing area, a pool and dozens of bungalows. More than 80 horses, from thoroughbreds to Mongolian ponies to Korean hybrid mares make their home here. About 30 of the horses are used for daily visitors and the rest for such activities as riding in the mountains or alongside lakes.
Unak members pay a 3 million won annual fee to belong. They have also begun a joint membership of 1.5 million per year plus 35,000 won ($30) for weekdays and 45,000 won for weekends with six other riding clubs. Nonmembers who come to take lessons pay 40,000 won per hour. Considering that the average cost of maintaining a horse is close to 500,000 won per month, the rates are reasonable. The club is something of a celebrity hangout (“The actor Choi Min-su comes here,” boasts Mr. Jeon) and 20 or so horses are regularly rented out for use at television studios.
On weekdays, the club averages fewer than 10 visitors, while on weekends, anywhere from 30 to 50 riders show up.
The Unak club also organizes excursions for advanced riders. For this, the club relocates up to 30 horses by trucks to secluded mountain areas for trekking and to lakesides. On these outdoor riding trips, horseback devotees can gallop as fast as 60 kilometers per hour.
Mr. Kim periodically takes these away-from-the-club trips. “The cost may be quite high [up to 200,000 won for the day], but when you compare that to the cost of a round of golf, it’s not that staggering. I don’t see why horseback riding should be considered an ‘aristocratic sport.’”
However, Mr. Jeon and other riding club owners feel that the business is a low margin one, particularly when considering the upkeep of the center. Mr. Jeon says, “I started this business because I loved horses so much. But after 10 years, I’m beginning to think this is not such a great business in the long run. We are seeing negative profits these days.” Oddly, one reason for slump is the popularization of the sport. “There are nearly 30 unlicensed horseback riding clubs in Gyeonggi and Chungcheong provinces. These guys charge outrageously low prices, but don’t’ pay taxes, are not insured and do not have qualified riding instructors. They are making the competition really hard.”
Jang Tae-ho, president of the Korea Equestrian Federation, agrees and says, “Even if we report these illegal centers and they get fined up to 12 million won, they continue to operate furtively as small centers, some with just 10 horses at times.”
Mr. Jeon says, “Horseback riding cannot become a sport for the masses. At least not yet. The investment costs keep climbing, and then there’s the costs of tending horses, keeping up the stables, maintaining staff and obtaining insurance.”
Still, devotees regard horseback riding as the next big thing. Chung Jin-han, a doctoral student at Seoul National University who took riding lessons with his girlfriend at a club in Ilsan, says, “I don’t think horseback riding is confined to the upper class anymore. The price is not that unreasonable. This sport is a lot more fun than just sitting down and watching a movie.”
The ride of her life was a mane event
When I was growing up, my father taught me many sports but not horseback riding. Not only was riding an expensive pastime, but he felt it was a “royal” one that we simply couldn’t afford. “It’s too bad,” he used to say, “that you weren’t born the daughter of an English duke.”
At Unak, I got my first taste of life in the saddle. The thought of horseback riding caused me to imagine myself on a stallion, riding off the beaten path, the wind at my back as we raced across a hillside.
What a rude awakening it was when my instructor directed me to a fenced-in oval for beginners, and I was given a brown Mongolian pony to ride. No riding cap, no crop, no boots. Just me and my brown pony “Nongae” (named for a famous concubine of the Joseon era).
The instructor, Ji Yong-an, rode before me in a slow walk, then after about 10 minutes, he ordered Nongae to trot. Meanwhile, I bounced up and down uncontrollably in my saddle every half second. Finally, I was able to master the rhythm of staying in the air for a split second longer than my horse’s step. I swayed left and right, felt I might fall several times, but still held tight. About half an hour into the trot, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
Reaching down, I patted Nongae’s neck. She responded by turning her head slightly. Suddenly feeling free as a skylark, I decided it was all right not to be born a lady of the manor.
― Choi Jie-ho
by Choi Jie-ho