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DURING the day, Therecia Tay is surrounded by beautiful things as the marketing manager for fashion at luxury house Chanel. But in the wee hours of dawn, she only has eyes for Hofdame - her prized Hanoverian mare - as the duo gallop the grounds of the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, breathing new life into the equestrian sport usually associated with 4D punters or snobby rich kids.
The Year of the Horse has been a good one for the likes of the Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre, Singapore Polo Club and the Bukit Timah Saddle Club - all of which report higher membership numbers as the zodiac animal and efforts to raise the sport's standard in Singapore attract more people to take up horse-riding.
At the Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre, which opened in 2009, the aim has always been to make it easier for people to try out horse-riding without making major financial commitments such as four-figure club joining fees. Senior manager Karina Lim explains that the non-membership, non-private nature of STCRC makes it more accessible and affordable, as well as less intimidating.
The club has about 1,400 local registered riders at the moment, she says, with the number growing by 400 to 500 a year. "Singaporeans are becoming more adventurous and keen to try new sports, I think that's why riding has become more popular."
On top of that, Singapore now hosts several international equestrian competitions, including the FEI World Dressage Challenge, FEI World Jumping Challenge and CSI-Y Jumping. The various riding clubs in Singapore also host friendly dressage or riding competitions monthly among themselves.
"A number of riders are also training for the SEA Games in 2015 and next ASEAN Games. One day soon we hope to produce Singapore's first Olympic rider," says Laura Richardson, chief riding instructor at the Singapore Polo Club.
The growing interest and accessibility hasn't necessarily made horse-riding cheaper, though. "When we say it has become more accessible, we actually mean it's become more visible," says Ms Tay. The price for one lesson ranges from S$80 at the National Equestrian Centre to S$130 at the Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre. A membership at the Singapore Polo Club is even more expensive at $1,701 a month.
With greater affluence, the sport has also produced a growing number of horse owners such as Ms Tay, 35, who started riding in April 2013 on a leased horse before she put down S$200,000 to acquire Hofdame - part of the Gribaldi bloodline (famous for dressage) - last March. "I knew I was serious about the sport, so it was just the next logical step."
Another reason could also be that the facilities are much improved. Audrey Njoto, who owns a saddlery retail business at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, explains, "Before the newer liveries were built, there were already people looking to purchase their own horses, they just didn't have anywhere to keep them."
Horses can cost from a few thousand dollars, for unschooled horses or ponies, to even half a million for horses with a higher level of schooling. "Usually, people buy into a horse's breed and bloodline as well. If it's related to a famous dressage or jumping horse, it's more likely to be expensive," says Ms Tay.
"It's like a car - you have your cheaper models and then your Ferraris, except horses are more expensive. You can just leave a car around, but you have to exercise your horse every day, pay for its food and livery costs," says Ms Njoto.
Ms Njoto, who is also a freelance riding instructor whose clientele includes lawyers ("For some reason there are a lot of lawyer riders!"), CEOs and business owners, cites German and Dutch Warm Bloods as being the popular breeds of the moment. Her own horse, Come Along Bustrup, is a Danish warm blood, and has won national championships.
"Europe, especially Germany, is the place to buy horses now," says Ms Njoto. "Germany is popular because it is a very strong country in equestrian sports, and is known to have good quality horses with strong breeding."
"In Singapore today, there must be about 70 privately owned performance horses across all the clubs. At the Singapore Polo Club we have 21 approved liveries - this has more than doubled over the last two years," says Samantha Parkhurst, who is a rider and consultant with the Singapore Polo Club. In turn, Anthony Lowry, general manager of the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, reports an increase of livery horses at BTSC from around 35 to 45 in the last year alone.
But you don't always have to spend a bomb on your own horse. Gina Lim, director of a real estate company who also owns a horse riding-wear distribution business, purchased Morena, a 12-year-old mare who came out of playing polo, in March last year.
"Here in Singapore, we usually get retrained horses coming out of their racing or polo career, as they would only be about seven to 12 years, young enough for a second career in dressage or jumping," says Ms Lim, who is a member of the SPC. "It's cheaper, since you don't have to pay for shipping and all, so it's good for people who aren't sure if they're willing to commit fulltime to a schooled horse."
Although the Year of the Horse is coming to an end, the equestrian craze is still on an upswing, with more working professionals drawn to it as a form of exercise. Says Ms Richardson, "It gives you better posture; it works your core and balance and tones your whole body. It's also really good for the mind. We definitely recommend it to business folk, since it forces you to concentrate wholly on the horse and the process for the whole lesson and be aware of your body and mind's connection. You start or end your day feeling totally refreshed and focused."
"Some people like travelling or cooking, I love riding," Ms Tay adds. "I'd rather my kids and I spend weekends here than in the shopping mall!"