Ahead of his cross-country ride in Rio later today, revisit our interview with China’s first-ever Olympic rider as he reflects on emotional cross-country experiences, Zoolander modelling moments and balancing tradition and modernity in a rapidly changing sport.
Text Susanne Madsen Photography Matthew Seed
All clothes by Gieves & Hawkes
Taken from the SS16 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal
The timber-heavy tack room at Alex Hua Tian’s yard has a terrific Twin Peaks Great Northern vibe. Hanging on the back wall behind rows of newly polished bridles are the Chinese and British flags, symbolic of a bi-empire upbringing as the son of a Chinese father and English mother. “I’ve always been very comfortable with a foot in both China and the UK and been quite secure in my identity, even though if you asked me what that was I still wouldn’t be able to give you a direct answer,” he admits. Based out of Knutsford just south of Manchester, he is one in a billion: The only Chinese event rider competing internationally.
In 2008, Hua Tian became an overnight sensation as the first-ever Chinese Olympic rider and youngest-ever Olympic eventer. The story of an 18-year-old Eton schoolboy riding in his Beijing home games was like catnip to the press, simultaneously catapulting a relatively unknown sport into the Chinese mainstream. “I think it was just the whole fairytale story that caught people’s imagination initially,” he says of the frenzy that followed. “I have to be really thankful for that. Without the opportunity that was afforded to me by my sponsors then, I certainly wouldn’t be here now,” he says, gesturing around.
Tall and elegantly limbed, Hua Tian cuts a handsome figure. He’s in dark breeches and trainers, standing under the clock-tower archway of Pinfold Stud, a beautiful old-school Cheshire yard where the horses look out on to a perfect grass circle in the middle of the square. “Normally this is beautifully manicured, with flowers in hanging baskets,” he says, being terribly English and basically apologising for the blustery weather sending straw flying everywhere. After bailing on an engineering spot at Bristol University post-Eton, he set up shop here with his girlfriend, top dressage rider Sarah Higgins. A cheekbones-for-days kind of couple, they train with Peter Storr, Team GB trainer and Carl Hester ally.
In 2014, Hua Tian took home silver at the Asian Games, and last year, he won two Olympic qualifiers and qualified two horses for Rio: his top ride, the 17-year-old Harbour Pilot C (Pye), whom he calls “Mr Solid, Mr Dependable”, and the dapper Don Geniro, known as The Don. He’s also hoping to qualify his new ride Diamond Sundance (stable name Sunny), and would be very happy to take any of them. While Rio is obviously enticing, he’s always been a fan of doing the groundwork. “Qualifying three horses at Bialy Bór in Poland in May 2008 was amazing. I’ll always remember that moment for the rest of my life – more so in a way than competing at the Games. For me the process of getting there is always much more fun and enjoyable and important.”
Is the pressure on, being the only one representing? “I’m just sort of used to it now. Although my ambition is to compete with a team, I think I’m very spoilt at the moment as it’s one thing less I have to worry about. You know, the politics that inevitably come with it.” We’ve headed inside, where Hua Tian’s Chinese homework is laid out on the table. “I’m hoping to only conduct my interviews in Chinese soon,” he says with a chuckle in reference to his frequent China press trips. China is in the grip of an equestrian boom, brought on by a growing middle class. “Social change has been enormous and with that I think comes the aspiration to be involved in sports that have previously been inaccessible. Equestrian sport is the most aspirational sport in terms of image, what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with.”
Pre-Rio, Hua Tian is on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton-style. “Ha! Hopefully Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump!” A roaring laugh ensues. “All of this press stuff is semi-selfish because obviously I have to raise funds and sponsorships myself, but also it’s good for me if the profile of the sport grows as well. And the only way for that to happen is to grow the hospitality side and draw in the sponsorships.” It was a very generous donation from a private Chinese businessman that sent Hua Tian to his first Olympics. “We suddenly had these huge amounts of funds and then it was, ‘Shit, we need the horses.’ With Clayton and Lucinda’s help, I got seven or eight of the best horses I’ll probably ever have,” he says, referring to eventing royalty Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks, his trainers and mentors since moving to the UK at the age of 11.
He was at Eton, playing cricket and doing well in science and maths, when he decided to take a year off to have a crack at Beijing. “I think everyone there probably thought I was a bit bonkers. When you’re 18, you think you’re quite grown up, when really I was very young and naive and inexperienced, which was probably to my advantage at the time.” In the lead-up to Beijing, his mum employed a sports psychologist to help him. “After the first couple of sessions, he said to her: ‘Listen, you don’t really need me. There’s no point in building up any expectations because Alex doesn’t have any. He doesn’t really know what he’s in for.’ I just went in there with a completely open mind, not thinking I needed to win gold. And once I got there it was so overwhelming. Very sadly I don’t actually remember much about it,” he chuckles. Following a lovely dressage test, he fell off at fence eight on the golf course next to the Beas River Country Club, the splendid Hong Kong Jockey Club-owned equestrian centre, where Hua Tian’s mother kept her horses and he grew up riding after spending the first part of his childhood in Beijing.
“I think I’ve been very lucky to have been able go to an Olympic Games at 18 and to now go to Rio having qualified, but I look ahead over the next 30, 40 years and at some of the heroes of the sport like Jean Teulère and Mark Todd who are still playing for medals at their age. I feel I’ve got time,” he says. The Hua Tian/Higgins daily training schedule is “ambitious but fair, without pushing the horse out of its comfort zone. I very much come from the school of Fredericks where everything is dressage-based, even hacking.” Today, for example, he’s quietly schooling Catherston Sandalwood, a six-year-old mare, in the airy indoor arena by riding loops on the long side. “We know there’s a journalist here because Alex isn’t riding in his trainers!” Higgins teases.
By Hua Tian’s own account, he’s done things the opposite way round to most riders by starting out on ‘made’ horses and then figuring out how to develop youngsters, which is what makes him tick now, like producing The Don or five-year-old Mickey, “the first horse I bought with my own money.” His riding is an emotional and technical response. “You look at somebody like Lucinda Fredericks. Her mind is amazing. She’s so technical. You walk the course with her and she has planned out every single footstep. There’s nothing left to chance. She has plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D. And then you walk the course with Clayton and it’s typically Aussie: ‘Ride what you feel, make a plan but don’t be completely fixed on it, trust your instincts.’ Personally, with my style of riding, I’ve tried to mix a bit of the two that suits me and the way I ride.”
Right now, radical changes are being made to eventing. At the FEI, they’ve proposed rebranding it as ‘equestrian triathlon’ to firmly secure eventing’s place and audience at the Olympics. “I’m a big fan,” comes Hua Tian’s immediate response. “I think I see myself as a bit of a modernist in the equestrian world. I obviously come from a completely different angle than many of the traditional competing nations, where the culture of the sport is very much sewn into the fabric of society. In China, you don’t have that foundation and people know more about me than my sport. And nobody understands what eventing means. It’s the most ambiguous term ever. It’s just utter rubbish! ‘Equestrian triathlon’ is a bit of a mouthful but it will find a natural abbreviation over time.”
The murmurings about getting rid of the top hats and tails to make eventing more mainstream and sporty, however, do not fly with the impeccably dressed Hua Tian, who competes in bespoke jackets with the national Chinese emblem from Gieves & Hawkes, the illustrious master tailors at 1 Savile Row. “I grew up there. My father has always had his suits from there and on the rare occasions he was over in the UK he always used to like to take his sons to Savile Row with him. To me it’s a temple to being a man: All of the history and the heritage and the archives.”
He illustrates the importance of equestrianism’s time-honoured dress codes with how he explains eventing in his homeland: “Chinese sports are sports for the sake of sport: to be the best, to win gold medals. When I talk to Chinese press I try to explain that equestrian sport is not just that. There’s a lot more depth to it in terms of history, people, the heritage of the venues like Badminton and Burghley. Fashion, and the elegance of equestrian sports is very much part of that, and it’s an asset to the sport that we adhere to those traditions. Eventing’s aspirational image gives the top level of the sport a value and marketability. What the sport needs to work on is growing the grassroots side, making it more accessible. Getting rid of the glamorous side won’t make it any cheaper. It just changes the image and the end spectator, which isn’t necessarily what we want.”
In between his horses, Hua Tian also moonlights as a model for Gieves & Hawkes. His first shoot for them on Lake Como was a bit of an eye-opener. “I’ve done lots of photo shoots for myself but this was the first time shooting with professional models and a whole team fussing and Oscar-winning director Mike Figgis filming. I had to pretend I knew vaguely what I was doing! In the horse world, we always think we work ten times harder than anybody else. When we were in Italy, call time was six o’clock in the morning and we were there all day. No breaks, no sympathy. I was relatively OK because this is what we do at home. But you don’t realise quite how hard these guys all work. It’s not all Blue Steel.”
Zoolander action did ensue on another Gieves & Hawkes shoot in Scotland courtesy of the chiselled model phenomenon Harvey Newton-Haydon. “Harvey is absolutely one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met. He told Sarah he had a husky and it was quite hard work having a dog like that in London. Then he went, ‘But I had to have him because he’s got eyes just like mine.’ And Sarah’s like, ‘Harvey, you’ve got brown eyes.’ We teased him mercilessly about that for forever. It’s what everybody sort of thinks about models and Harvey basically epitomised it in one sentence,” he laughs.
Modelling high jinks aside, it’s cross-country that has Hua Tian’s heart. “It’s partly the adrenaline, but for me the majority of it is how it tests the relationship between you and the horse. How much you’re relying on each other and what you know about each other.” At WEG two years ago on Pye, this was tested to the extreme. “I’d only had him four or five months. The going was appalling. Everybody was having a horrible time. My strategy was to go as slowly as I could to survive, and coming to the first fence, Pye nearly got stuck in the mud because we weren’t going fast enough. All I could think was, ‘I’m going to have to go quicker than I want to just jump these bloody fences. Jesus, I hope we survive.’ I finished and I should have been elated but actually I had the opposite emotion. I hated the fact that I had to make him do it. I was just astonished that he kept pushing for me. With horses, you get the intense emotions and not always necessarily the good ones. But you always feel like you’re living, really.”