Barrel racing, cowboy cool gaining popularity in China

Horse-riding fans in China are increasingly taking to barrel racing, attracted mainly because of its cool cowboy outfits. Yang Feiyue reports.

Horse riders who prefer cowboy outfits instead of the formality, pomp and circumstance of classic equestrian events now have an option.

They can try barrel racing.

The sport, which entered China in 2008, is becoming increasingly popular.

All it needs is a small arena, with three barrels, typically gasoline drums placed in a triangle.

Racers need to get around them in a certain pattern in the fastest time possible.

"Barrel racing needs just a few things to start and is easy for newbies," says Chu Wen, owner of Beijing-based Yihe Farm, which focuses on the sport here.

He says that the sport, which originated in the western part of the United States, allows riders to express their individuality.

Many Chinese riders choose the sport for its cool cowboy outfits, he says.

Zhang Jing, 35, has eight cowboy shirts and four jeans, as well as other gear in her closet, exclusively for barrel racing. "I'm attracted to the cowboy attire and culture," she says.

The gear cost her approximately 20,000 yuan (US$3,100 or S$4291).

"I saw the panache of two female riders doing barrel racing a year ago, and it was cool and filled with passion," says Zhang, a private business executive in Beijing.

"If they could do it, I should too," she says.

Compared with classic equestrian show jumping, dressage and cross-country events, Zhang feels barrel racing is more suitable for people like her.

While the three equestrian events evolved mainly from war and royal activities, barrel racing grew from daily work of cowboys, says An Tao, head of the American Quarter Horse Association's China branch.

Barrel racing is done on flat ground and doesn't involve jumping, which goes against the natural instincts of horses, and thus is safer for riders, he says.

"The sport has seen lots of development as far as competitions and recreational activities go, after a century of development," says An.

National barrel racing competitions are held every year in the US, particularly in Las Vegas and Oklahoma.

In China, the US National Barrel Horse Association held two international competitions, one in Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in 2013 and one in Shanghai in 2014, says Chu.

Dozens of domestic competitions have also been staged since 2009.

However, unlike fans of equestrian events in China, who mostly are professionals and set their sights on winning competitions, lovers of barrel racing are in it mostly for fun, says An.

There are only 40 to 50 professionals doing barrel racing in China now, but the numbers are growing.

"We've seen 30 per cent annual increase in the number of riders since 2013," says An.

Now, there are approximately 20 clubs that are home to more than 600 members across China, according to Chu.

They are mostly in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in Shandong and Hebei provinces.

More than 200 members have their own horses, and a total of 150 horses for riding, mostly quarter horses from the US, have been imported since 2009.

"Quarter horses are the best for barrel racing," says Chu, adding that domestically bred Ferghana and Arabian horses are also good for the sport.

Most Chinese barrel racers are people around 30, each with an annual salary of more than 300,000 yuan (S$65,000), says Chu.

In group training, it usually takes riders three to six months before they can join barrel racing competitions if they can manage five to 10 sessions per week, says Chu.

Training costs 3,000-5,000 yuan per month, depending on the type of horse. The domestic breeds cost less.

It took Zhang Jing, who has been riding for six years, about six months to get familiar with barrel racing.

She completed her first event in 22 seconds, soon after she did three training sessions each lasting 45 minutes.

Zhang's record stands at 15.1 seconds. She joined professional competitions last year.

"My goal is to get my time below 15 seconds," she says.

Riders in China are usually divided into three levels-15-16, 16-17 and 17-18 seconds-to encourage participation, says Chu.

The key is to steer clear of the barrel. One bump into them causes five seconds to be added to the score or even spells the end of the game.

Contrary to trends in the US, where barrel racing is mostly enjoyed by women, male racers greatly outnumber female participants in China.

Barrel racing was originally designed for cowboys' wives and children to keep them from getting bored while waiting for their men to finish taking part in other sports competitions, says An.

Zhang Hao, 40, got into barrel racing in 2010 after doing endurance horse riding for three years.

Zhang, a private business owner in Beijing, used to love English riding gear, but he began to grow interested in barrel racing after his friends got into the sport.

"I'm taken with the cowboy image, and I believe eight out of 10 barrel racers get involved because of it," Zhang says.

He spent a year learning the sport and now considers himself pretty good.

Barrel racing has become a part of his life. He rides his own horse almost every day and takes part in six to eight domestic competitions every year. His record is 16.4 seconds.

He says he owns too many cowboy clothes to count. Each outfit costs 2,000-3,000 yuan.

A cowboy hat, pants, a shirt and boots are required when practicing the sport, and there are specific rules for attire. But riders can choose the colors they like.

Yang Yonggang, who owns a cowboy shirt manufacturing business, says: "The attire is based on cowboy clothing." He currently sells 400 cowboy shirts to clubs a year.

"Around 10 per cent of riders are particular about their race outfits and they want to look great," says Yang.