This year, 13-year-old Aryana Singh competed in her first National Jumping Championships organised by the Equestrian Federation of Singapore and in the recent Jumping World Challenge by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). As soon as 2023, she aims to purchase a horse in Europe to compete in international competitions, such as the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup and Hubside Jumping for exposure.
Alice Shi’s focus is also on showjumping, in which a horse and its rider must jump over a series of obstacles within a set period. The 16-year-old was among the top three in Category B (110-120cm) of this year’s Jumping World Challenge. Additionally, she engages in basic dressage, in which a trained horse performs precise movements while walking, trotting, cantering, and making other specialised manoeuvres.
Rachael Leong, 18, has been riding since she was 7. Her parents have poured time and money into their only child, who has been gleaning accolades in local equestrian shows and competitions since 2019. She was the overall winner of the Jumping World Challenge that same year.
In November, Leong and Shi, alongside Tara Nur Ibrahim, represented Singapore in their first international competition at the Princess’s Cup 2022 in Bangkok, Thailand, where Shi emerged second in the individual category of the international junior show jumping competition.
Young, passionate and dedicated, the riders have what it takes to succeed at the international level. However, the barriers they must overcome go beyond the heights they need to clear in their jumps.
The challenges of competing in equestrian competitions
Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre’s (STCRC) chief riding instructor Roy Ibrahim, equestrian coach for the athletes says, “They’re very disciplined and dedicated, and constantly motivated to learn more.”
From 2010 to 2015, Ibrahim was Singapore’s national equestrian coach and trained Janine Khoo, who won gold in the individual and team equestrian showjumping categories during the 2013 and 2015 Southeast Asian Games respectively. After the 2015 SEA Games, she retired from the sport to focus on her studies and has not returned to showjumping after graduation.
He adds frankly, “I struggled then because we would build the equestrian athletes to a certain level, and they’d stop when they turned 18 to continue their studies overseas.”
In Singapore, studies are always a priority. While most parents support their children, they would tell them to finish their studies first before coming back to the sport.
That challenge remains. Singh and Shi, both Singapore PRs studying in international schools, have had to reduce training during exam periods to cope with a heavier workload as they progress through the education system.
Leong, a first-year polytechnic student, reduced her daily training sessions to four times a week when she was preparing for her N-Levels. Once crunch time is over, the trio rides at least five times a week.
“In Singapore, studies are always a priority. While most parents support their children, they would tell them to finish their studies first before coming back to the sport,” Ibrahim says wryly.
Funding required for good horses and training
As the optimal riding age is 12 years old, and competition begins at age 7 or 8, most riders reach their peak at the age of 18. “They should also be training at least six days a week, which is a rate that parents are not too keen about. Janine was very disciplined. She was very focused and knew how to divide her time. She would get up at 3am or 4am to ride before school or be at the track after school. That’s why she progressed so quickly,” shares Ibrahim.
These athletes also require funding. According to Ibrahim, a showjumping or dressage horse of international quality can cost between $3.2 and $4.8 million. While the girls have their parents’ support, which is necessary “because they are competing, and need the money to get good horses and training,” the purchase and upkeep of a good horse, even for more affluent riders, is still staggering.
As an example, Shi’s horse, an Australian Warmblood crossed with a thoroughbred, costs between AUD40,000 (S$36,400) and AUD60,000. What’s more, maintaining an animal and training it three times a week can cost at least $4,000 per month. All of these expenses are fully borne by the athletes, including airfare and fees for overseas competitions, as well as horse rental and sometimes overseas trainers.
“The easy way out is to buy a better horse which is more expensive. As they’re stronger, of better breeding, and have better qualities, it will make your life easier,” says Leong.
“The sport is getting stronger; the technicality is getting higher,” Ibrahim adds. “Many people in other countries are willing to buy expensive and better horses. Due to the high level of investment, which is largely individual, it is difficult to compete at that level. People ask themselves: ‘Do I want to spend that much money to invest on a quality horse?’”
Singapore can be a regional hub for equestrian competitions
Ultimately, he hopes to build a Singapore team that can fly the nation’s flag high on the podium, and that corporate sponsors will see the value of the sport.
Public interest in horse riding has been on the uptick. Lessons at STCRC are also in high demand, and Ibrahim is encouraged that the next generation of riders want to learn more than just how to saddle up and trot off.
“They want to learn how to care for the horses and understand the mentality behind animal welfare. It’s a good thing because they learn responsibility and see horses as partners who also feel and have their own minds.” Along with teaching them how to give and take with the horses, he is also developing a coaching programme with the FEI to formally certify local riding coaches.
Ibrahim is confident Singapore can become a regional hub for equestrian competition. For example, he says, “STCRC’s facilities are among the best in South-east Asia, with everything from riding grounds to back-end care, its own farrier, vet, and surgery room. It’s all integrated.”
In October, the FEI held regional competitions for the Jumping World Challenge in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines as part of an initiative to make competitions more accessible to riders in the region. Singapore’s athletes competed at STCRC and their results were submitted to the FEI for international rankings.
While the girls may have challenges, they are motivated primarily by their love for the sport and their horses. “I just love riding and bonding with my horse,” says Leong “It means a lot to me that my parents support me. When you’ve poured in so much, there’s no point in turning back.”