As a true city boy who grew up in New York City and Hong Kong, horses are foreign animals to me. I'm more used to animals such as pigeons, rats and cockroaches, and more comfortable riding on a metal snake (otherwise known as the subway) than a horse. So when I was shown a dressage competition on YouTube, my first question was how that was possibly a sport; and an Olympics sport at that. It was just someone sitting on a prancing horse while it "danced" in circles. It didn't seem that difficult. My (horse-loving) editor knew otherwise and sent me off to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Tuen Mun Public Riding School to try to just get on a horse.
If anyone could open the eyes of this non-believer, head riding instructor Bee Chan Sai-kin (aka Bee Sir) was the man. He represented the Hong Kong team in numerous competitions and served as the coach for the city's equestrian team at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
After a quick tour of the stables, it was time to get on my steed of the day, Fortune Boy. I forgot to bring my stylish top hat so they gave me a very protective helmet instead. Getting on the horse wasn't too difficult as they had steps for me and all I had to do was put one foot in the stirrup, do a small jump and bring my leg to the other side while holding the saddle. Just like riding a bicycle.
But once I was on top of the horse, it was as if I were in a whole new world. It felt so strange to be sitting on top of another living, breathing thing. I had no control of where I was going because my legs were no longer touching the floor. Bee Sir explained that I could tell Fortune Boy to move, to stop, to trot with clicks of my tongue, a pull of his reins or a squeeze of my thighs. And then we were off, as the trainee riding instructor, Carson Chung King-lok, began to lead me and my mount.
Bee Sir's instructions sounded easy, but they weren't. He told me to sense what the horse was feeling - but I had no idea. He told me to relax my hands on the reins as there should be a connection between me and the horse. I felt none. Then he told me to take a turn at giving commands to Fortune Boy. I clicked and I squeezed and he listened. Eureka! For that one very, very short moment, I did feel in control of him - but if Carson had let go of the reins, I would've been clueless.
Bee Sir kept reminding me to look forward and relax. But it was hard to relax with a hulking animal between my legs! He would give me an instruction, but it seemed like being on the horse took away all control of my bodily movements, and my hands refused to do as they were told.
After my session, Bee Sir explained just how important the commands were. Dressage is a competition of perfection. Horses are judged on the execution of movements, and one slight mistake will cost them points.
It's hard to imagine having complete control of an animal and feel what it's thinking without any sort of verbal communication. It was like playing on a team with teammates who can't communicate with you. I could barely get Fortune Boy to run and stop on command; how would I have got him to lift his legs up alternately and pirouette?
Bee Sir said my session was the same as that of any beginner: I wanted to control the horse, but I couldn't even control myself.
My experience hasn't exactly turned me into an equestrian nut, but I definitely have a greater appreciation of and respect for riders and horses, and their relationship with one another.