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April 14, 2012

The Luckiest Man On Two Continents

After meeting George Morris (center) at the 2008 Olympic Games, Yang Fujun (left) travelled to the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival along with his boss Wang “Michelle” Qiang.

Sometimes, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Yang Fujun volunteered at the equestrian events during the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, helping on the cross-country day and checking IDs for those entering the stabling area. After his shift ended one day, Fujun took advantage of his all-access wristband and made his way to the athletes’ stand to watch the competition with Wang “Michelle” Qiang, the assistant equestrian supervisor at the Games. Before long, they had struck up a conversation with the trainer sitting next to them, an American who seemed to know quite a bit about the sport.

“I immediately liked them,” recalled George Morris of that meeting. “Michelle spoke perfect English; Yang, at that time, less. But he was very passionate about the sport, about the American system and style, and about our success.”

Several months later Fujun received a phone call from Morris urging him to come to the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., to train among the best of the best. That’s where Eric Straus stepped in. He’s been exporting U.S. standards of equestrian culture and training abroad through his consulting firm, Equine Sport Group. Straus met Qiang at an equine exhibition in Beijing, and they arranged for Fujun to take a break from teaching and riding at the Equuleus International Riding Club, which Qiang manages, and come to WEF.

“I know I’m the luckiest person. I know,” said Fujun, Beijing. “It’s all just been a dream come true.

Fujun, 31, stayed as a houseguest at Morris’ home for the two months he spent training in the United States, first with Anne Kursinski, then a month with John and Beezie Madden, with a few lessons from Morris himself thrown in for good measure.

“I had maybe four lessons from George, but in each one he gave me enough to practice for a year,” said Fujun, who got his start on ponies riding across the countryside in Inner Mongolia before switching to show jumping in 1999. “There is so much to think about and so much to practice. He’s very tough, very disciplined.

“Anne has a very similar system to Beezie and John,” he continued. “Anne taught me a lot about lightness, and we worked toward understanding the whole system. Watching John train Beezie was fantastic, especially in the big classes. One day John even had me come set jumps for her when she was schooling before the grand prix! I learned a lot about how to teach students, which is a big part of what I need to learn, because that’s a lot of what I’m doing at home. And there are so many little things, like how to read a course map properly, check the time allowed, then how to walk a course properly.”

Raising The Bar

So how does someone describe an incredible atmosphere like WEF when you’re from a culture literally half a world away?

“It’s not normal,” said Fujun, with a laugh. “But I love it here. Before I got here I’d seen pictures, and Eric had told me stories. It’s absolutely fantastic. And it’s amazing to see all the top horses and top trainers.”

But when Fujun called his boss to update her, he simply told her she had to come see for herself.

She didn’t come alone. Qiang arranged for a film crew from Travel TV China to produce a segment about the horse show and equestrian culture, which will be broadcast via satellite to 300,000,000 viewers in China.

She also brought along another EIRC instructor, Nathan Qi, and one of Fujun’s students, Meimi Zhu, who tacked on a week of training and showing in Wellington to checking out high schools in Connecticut. Zhu, 13, has set her sights on representing her country at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games in China.

All this has the ultimate goal of raising the standards of show jumping back in China. The EIRC is on the forefront of the sport in the region, hosting and funding their province’s show jumping team for the national league. The club hosts national competitions, and hopes to add Fédération Equestre International ones to the schedule. They’ve been importing warmbloods since 2004 and recently updated the footing to international standards and installed a new indoor ring. The club’s in-house farrier travels to Hong Kong for continuing education from visiting European blacksmiths, and the club’s tack shops are stocked with the latest equipment.

But Fujun knows there’s still work to be done.

This isn’t his first training trip aboard. In 2004 and again in 2006 he spent four months training in England, and he’s proud to be the first international instructor in China, riding seven or eight horses a day and teaching five group lessons at the EIRC. But coming to Wellington has opened his eyes.

“Everything is perfect here—the riding, the teaching, the stable management—and I need to learn all parts perfectly so I can take it back home,” he said. “Nathan and I will learn as much as we can, but we need more people to understand to keep raising the standard. Of course I’m coming back next year, and I’ll have more people with me, too, to start to learn how it should be.”

Exporting the American Style

For Morris, taking Fujun under his wing was nothing short of a diplomatic measure.

“Very, very few people are invited to my house, but I knew he was a class act,” said Morris, Wellington. “This wasn’t a trip for him to win ribbons but a trip for education. We want to inspire other countries to follow America’s lead—the good parts of it! Our system and philosophy and type of horse we like here would work well for China.”

“I think that George is right that the American riding style is better for Chinese people [than the European style],” echoed Fujun. “The choice of lighter, more Thoroughbred-type horses, and the emphasis on lighter seat and light hands, seems to work better for us. We tend to be smaller [stature], maybe not quite as strong [as Europeans].”

Fujun spent every moment at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, picking up whatever information he could soak in while in the stable, taking lessons, watching top riders warm up, setting jumps for Beezie before her big classes and sitting at the rail for the big classes. After the circuit, he headed up to Connecticut to spend a few days enjoying U.S. culture. 

“Eric told me that I had to focus on the horses while I was here, so I haven’t seen anything but the horse show for two months,” said Fujun. “Maybe now I can have a beer!”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of "The Luckiest Man On Two Continents" ran in the April 16, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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