by Xinhua writers Wang Xiaojie and Yao Yuan
BEIJING, July 8 (Xinhua) -- Holding the rein with one hand while using the other to keep balance, 2-year-old Xiong Muzi completed her first horse ride inside a bustling Chinese shopping mall.
The ride on a white pony of French pedigree inside what looks like a muddy dancing classroom was part of a class offered by an equestrian club called "Happy Pony." The 45-minute course costs 4000 yuan (116 U.S. dollars).
Though much smaller in size and devoid of the natural trappings of an outdoor ranch, this equestrian training center draws in a large bevy of children in Beijing's Haidian District.
"The best thing about indoor equestrian centers is that small children can enjoy horse riding without having to endure sandstorms or high temperatures," said the girl's father Kris Xiong.
Horsemanship, one of the "six basic skills" of ancient Chinese aristocrats, has long been viewed as a luxury hobby of the wealthy few, but it is making a comeback as a public pastime thanks to the country's increasingly prosperous population.
While most equestrian sites gobble up vast tracts of lands in the countryside, a growing number of them are marching into urban emporiums to get closer to their new customers -- middle-income families willing to shell out for their children's extracurricular activities.
According to a report by Beijing Turf & Equestrian Association and Equestrian magazine, the number of equestrian clubs inside Chinese shopping malls surpassed 190 in 2018, only two years after the country opened the first such facility in the southwestern city of Kunming.
"Emporium equestrian clubs are a new business model that mainly target small children and adolescents. This is very different from the past when most equestrian consumers were rich entrepreneurs," said Chen Che, secretary general of the Beijing Turf & Equestrian Association.
The "Happy Pony," which opened last year as the first equestrian club in a Beijing shopping complex, boasts seven ponies and a membership of 400 children.
Its founder Zhang Ying previously ran an outdoor horse ranch in the suburb of the Chinese capital, but later decided to gain a foothold in shopping malls to ratchet up the sport's popularity.
"Equestrian centers inside malls are offering the first class of horse riding to enlighten children, who will later go to larger outdoor horse ranches if they develop an interest," Zhang said.
According to the same report, China's equestrian training business in 2018 drew most trainees from adolescents and young children, who accounted for 66 percent of those who regularly spend on equestrian activities.
Many children, though, are on horseback carrying high expectations from their parents.
"I hope she will be more elegant after taking horse riding classes," said a father of a 10-year-old girl trainee at the "Happy Pony."
Zhang Yang, a mother of a 4-year-old who has taken equestrian courses in the mall for about a year, said she did not expect her daughter to become an athlete but hoped the sport could improve her overall physical quality.
Industry observers said the surging demands for youth training has become a game changer for the equestrian industry.
"Equestrianism in China has long lacked commercialization. The take-off of youth training in recent years helps the industry find a profitable model that can be repeated on a large scale," Chen said.
Despite the market enthusiasm, equestrian training institutions are faced with many challenges in China, including a lack of supervision by the government that has focused more on horse breeding and the competitive aspect of equestrianism.
The operation costs are also high. Zhang said "Happy Pony" barely made ends meet due to high costs for fodder and pony transportation. Despite this, he remains bullish about the market's long-term prospects with a plan to open another indoor training center later this year.
"Equestrian classes teach children how to communicate with animals and respect life in general. Many parents believe this is a helpful experience for their children," he said.