Eric Straus’ equestrian sport experience is multi-dimensional and international, which will serve him well in his role of helping the Chinese Equestrian Association ramp up its efforts to become part of the equestrian mainstream. The businessman has done everything from serving as executive director of the old American Horse Shows Association and the Washington International Horse Show, to working as the FEI’s honorary reining steward general and heading the search committees for the U.S. show jumping, eventing and dressage chefs d’equipe. Eric also is a trustee of the American Horse council and serves as secretary to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation.
Eric, president of the consulting firm, the Equine Sport Group, was recently appointed as managing director of Sai Ma Sports LLC, a company focused on linking Western equine expertise with leaders in China who are intent on revitalizing the national equine industry.
What is China’s interest in equestrian sport?
ES: The origins of polo come back to China, so there is a tradition of sport and horses. The Chinese are very committed to the Olympic ideals and international sport, so in terms of equestrian, they are looking at what appeals in the Games. They want to participate internationally and they want to be competitive.
Why is show jumping number one?
ES: It’s the largest of the Olympic disciplines in China. It’s the most easily recognized because of its TV exposure internationally. Of the three disciplines at the Olympic Games, it’s the one that seems to appeal to Chinese riders. Although eventing and dressage do have small communities, equestrian in general in China is small. But it’s growing rapidly, from a very low base.
What do you think the time frame will be for them to become competitive?
ES: My crystal ball is a little cloudy. We know for a fully developed nation with a strong base of riders and lots of equine talent, it’s always a challenge to get qualified for major competitions. For a developing nation (there are so many variables) you have a factor of ‘something’ times ‘x’ in the challenge but it can be done. It is a question of commitment financially and administratively and by athletes and owners. It’s early days, but over time, it’s going to happen.
What does the Sai Ma initiative mean for China?
ES: The Chinese federation, known as the Chinese Equestrian Association (CEA) has determined, and has the support of the government, that it wishes to expand its expertise in equestrian sport, so they have engaged Sai Ma Sports to help them to that end. That includes putting on competitions.
The CEA will be the organizing committee for two-star CSIs in Beijing in June and September. They also want to develop a knowledgeable staff for management of competitions. We will assist them with that and through a marketing effort, develop awareness of equestrian sport in China so international competition grows, along with domestic growth in competition. The funding from the government is limited for equestrian sports in China because equestrian is considered a minor sport, along with cycling and triathlon. They have enough money for an administrative function but they don’t have any money for having a planned program.
How do you handle that?
ES: Through the sponsorship we hope to sell, we earn a small management fee, with the balance going into the CEA’s programmatic funding, so they can develop the cash to establish training programs. This will hopefully allow four cities in China in the next two years to hold CEA-designated events. There are other show jumping events in China right now, but they are basically private.
For horses coming from outside China, there is the challenge of quarantine. The only two options are to borrow horses or bring a horse and leave it there. European riders brought horses in the past, with hopes they can sell them, because they can’t bring them home.
How close are we to getting a protocol that will enable people to bring their horses home from China?
ES: If we say in America or the west “We’re close,” you and I would take that to mean a reasonably short period of time; 30 to 90 days is what “close” might mean.
In China, “close” can mean two to three years, or longer. Time has a different value, and the word has a different meaning. When you’ve got the oldest culture in the world, time moves differently. The quarantine problem is multiple; that’s why the Olympics were held in Hong Kong.
China is not the only country that has a veterinary issue. This is an issue that affects other parts of the world. How do you create a bubble-to-bubble type environment? It’s not an easy problem to solve, but I think given the desire of more than one nation to think of a solution, there’s going to be one developed; when is certainly the key question.
(Editor’s Note: Recently, the FEI embarked on a three-year plan with the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) to bring about fundamental changes as quickly as possible on issues involving the international movement of sport horses.)
Didn’t riders get to bring their horses home from the 2010 Asian Games in China?
ES: When the Asian Games were held in Guangzhou, that was an area that was equine-free, so diseases that would affect horses didn’t exist in the area. It took 90 days to get into the stable area, that’s how they made it work. If you were clean on the 90th day, you were in. That was an exceptional protocol in an exceptional geographic location.
Will foreign riders attend the CSIs scheduled for this year?
ES: The invitation indicates the shows will take up to eight foreign riders, a reasonable number to accommodate on the borrowed horses that the CEA has available to foreign riders. Invitations were sent to nearby Asian countries, because (while) we want to encourage participation from America, most riders have most of their summers plotted out.
Do you see China as a new horizon for the show jumping world?
ES: It’s on the horizon line, it just needs to ascend. The awareness is there. You can have short-term successes which we expect, but when you want to look in terms of positive growth in sport you need to take a longer view. You have to look back in terms of where we were two years ago, and see where we are now.
Is it fair to say that this is one of the world’s biggest opportunities for growth on the equestrian scene?
ES: It’s right up there. Here’s a country with a huge population base, the economic wherewithal, and the government’s desire to promote development and growth. Veterinary, equestrian education and training infrastructures, all need to be developed but many of the parts you need are there.
Do you think there could be a Chinese show jumping team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio?
ES: They would love to be in Rio, but it’s impossible to qualify. We don’t even have five riders to send to a competition outside China in the next six months. So it’s hard to think in terms of Rio until we can do that first.
Are they importing a lot of horses?
ES: The last set of numbers I saw for total horse imports, but not broken out by discipline, was between 2,500 and 3,000. Most are private purchases, with a number of stables buying horses. In that number are some Quarter Horses for barrel racing, which is very popular. Some race horses have also come in. Some have aspirations there will be pari-mutuel betting in mainland China and want to be ready to go with good Thoroughbred bloodstock when that happens. There is limited racing now, but not legal gaming, except in Hong Kong and Macau.
What is the next move for your partnership?
ES: We want to make sure the two-star CSIs are organized correctly, so we can start to make a template with CEA on how a well-run international show jumping event should be done. We ultimately want to teach CEA how to manage and operate these events on their own. Additionally we want to move on parallel tracks and timing to build up their programmatic funding in order to bring in opportunities for training in China and abroad.
We are also interested in improving general horsemanship knowledge, which is desperately needed in China, from nutrition to what to look for when you’re buying a horse – really soup to nuts. The knowledge they have gained is not in an organized, structured form. If someone goes abroad, they bring it (information) home, but they’re getting just a sliver of the presentation and not something that’s comprehensive.