Horse riding makes a comeback
“I want to ride as long as I can,” she says, patting the flanks of her mount. Yu-jin belongs to Korea Youngster’s Horse Riding Club, which specializes in lessons for elementary school children at their own schools.
She’s one of a growing number of enthusiasts here taking up a leisure activity usually associated with wealthier classes. But with families enjoying higher levels of income, horse riding is gaining popularity.
A sport for the wealthy?
There is an interesting correlation between annual salaries and leisure pursuits. When average annual income rises above $15,000, golf becomes a popular sport. What happens when it exceeds $20,000? Horseback riding. The perfect illustration is Japan where the number of riders jumped 89 percent in one year in 1989 when average income levels rose above $20,000.
“More and more people are saddling up now they have a bit of extra cash to spend,” said Kim Hyeong-tae, of the horseback riding promotion team under the Korean Racing Authority.
Courses for horses
The government is supportive of the new leisure pursuit. The Korean Racing Authority, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and some local governments are joining together to build more riding schools.
According to the KRA, 12 have been built or are in the pipeline. “People are more familiar with horse racing than horse riding but we intend to change that,” Kim said.
The KRA also plans to increase the number of riders from 20,000 to 50,000 by 2012. For that purpose, the government drastically eased rules on building riding schools and provided construction subsidies. The KRA aims to generate 2.6 trillion won ($2 billion) in sales per year and create 300,000 jobs.
“But the horseback riding industry is not very profitable so we, as a public corporation, decided to intervene,” Kim said.
According to the plan, the number of horseback riding centers is going to more than double to 500 in the country by 2012. There are currently fewer than 200 such centers.
Related laws already have been amended and schools have lowered riding fees. It costs 20,000 won for a single riding session at the school on Mount Unju, North Gyeongsang.
Man’s best friend is his mount
Interest in horseback riding is not new on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, horses are very much part of this country’s heritage.
Of course, horses were also used for transport and during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. to 668 A.D.). A breed called gwahama was exported to China. The name means a horse one can ride under a fruit tree. However, horses lost their position over time and they became hard to find except in places like the pasturelands on Jeju Island or horse racing parks. Riding became a sport for the rich and eating horse meat was considered disgraceful.
Saddle up for work
Despite all that, there are efforts to bring horses closer to our lives. The starting point is the free trade agreement signed between Korea and the United States. Observers say Korean farmers, especially livestock farmers, will be hit hardest if the FTA is eventually ratified.
So the government came up with promoting riding in the belief that it might revive tourism in rural areas. That’s why the central and local governments are gearing up together to promote horseback riding.
Professionals say horseback riding can create a lot of jobs. In Germany, which has the biggest industry in the world, over 300,000 people are employed, three jobs for every horse. Germany’s horse-related industry generates $6.3 billion in sales a year.
Riding is also in line with the Green New Deal of the Lee Myung-bak administration. The biggest related project is the revitalization of the four major rivers. Riversides can be an ideal riding location. In addition, horses are eco-friendly. Their manure can be used as fertilizer and their diet is basically grass.
Horses are usually easy to tame; there’s a common belief among horse people that horses choose people and are not actually tamed. In terms of evolution, there’s a theory that horses chose to live with humans rather than risk life among predators in the wild. Some say people don’t ride on the back of horses; rather, horses let people ride on their back.
Horseback riding is an art of communication between horse and human, which is why it’s a sport recommended for children who learn to understand others as they guide the animal. And it has health benefits. Riding is a thorough workout for the whole body for rider and horse. It’s especially good for the rider’s lower back and thighs, even though the rider is not actually running or walking.
By Son Min-ho [email@example.com]