Alex Hua Tian

Alex Hua Tian was the youngest-ever eventer at an Olympic Games when he entered the arena in 2008 at just 18 years old. His accomplishments in dressage, cross-country and showjumping earned him a silver medal at last year’s Asian Games. He talks to Vision about putting equestrian sports in the spotlight in his native China

This is my first time in Dubai, though I’ve come through the airport many times. I was very lucky to get to visit the paddock at the last race of the Dubai World Cup. His Hightness Sheikh Mohammed was walking around greeting people and I had a moment to meet him, which was incredible. My mind was completely blown by the whole experience of the World Cup weekend.

‘China’ in Chinese means ‘middle kingdom’, but when you’re in Dubai you feel like you’re in the middle of the world geographically – it’s so multicultural. Wherever you are, you meet interesting people, and that’s the thing I’ll take away most, not just the things I’ve done but the people I’ve met.

I could probably see myself eventing at 58. It’s a hell of a lifestyle and not one that many people find easy to give up

My father likes to joke I got my passion for horses from him – he used to ride donkeys when he was a kid. He is Chinese and my mother is British, but it’s really her side of the family that has always been into horses. I grew up in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong until I was 11.I started riding in Beijing when I was very young. It was basic then but it had the essentials – passion, good horses and good instruction. I rode with the Hong Kong Pony Club, which is quintessentially British. When I went back to the UK for school, I rode there and my passion for riding just grew. Equestrian sports and the accompanying lifestyle is sewn into the fabric of British society.

I’m quite a relaxed person. My mother employed one of the top sports psychologists in the UK to help me before the 2008 Olympic Games. He told me I didn’t need him – I was a naive 18-year-old and had no idea what to expect. I was the youngest eventer on the least experienced horse, so there were fewer expectations and I couldn’t understand the mental pressure in the same way that the older riders and athletes could.

The equestrian industry in China has grown since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. There was barely anything before that. Now equestrian sports is the third largest leisure pursuit among the wealthy elite in China.

alex Hua Tian
Hua Tian at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Caen

Sometimes I feel isolated by the lack of team members, but for the first time last year at the Asian Games I competed with a team, which was a wonderful experience. I love competing in the UK for China. I like to feel different and the sport is welcoming to new nations. I haven’t just competed for myself – I’ve done as much as I can to increase the profile of the sport.

My partner and I are in slightly different sports: Sarah is a dressage rider. We set up our stable of 26 horses about 18 months ago just south of Manchester in the UK, in the countryside. We don’t really want to do much more than that – our ethos is to have a good relationship with each horse.

Like people, great horses can be difficult characters. You have to have a versatile horse capable of doing dressage, cross-country and showjumping in eventing. Dressage demands relaxation and discipline, whereas they have to be bold for cross- country. They have to throw their hearts over the fence before they jump it, then they have to get themselves up and showjump around a big track and be careful and considerate about the poles.

I would be happy to be in the top 20 at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Eventing has such a long shelf life: there were competitors aged 60 and 58 at the 2014 World Championships in Normandy. I could probably see myself eventing at 58. It’s a hell of a lifestyle and not one that many people find easy to give up.