When I first ring Alex Hua Tian, one sweltering afternoon during England’s uncharacteristic heatwave, he apologises for running late and asks if he can call me back in an hour. He’s stuck on a horse, you see – which is exactly what one wants from China’s most famous equestrian. (Imagine the disappointment if he’d been stuck in an Uber instead.) As China’s top eventer, Hua represents his country in eventing, essentially an equestrian triathlon that comprises dressage, cross-country and show jumping.
Born in London to a Chinese father and a British mother, Hua grew up in Beijing and Guangzhou before moving to Hong Kong when he was seven. “Basically, I had a very traditionally British upbringing with horses,” he explains. “As a baby, I spent half my time at the stables because my mum is from a very horsey family.” At the age of 11, Hua moved with his family to Wiltshire, England, where he attended Chafyn Grove School and then Eton College.
Yes, Eton. It seems you can’t read a profile of the youngest-ever Olympic eventer without mentioning his alma mater. It’s also impossible to look back at photos of Hua from the 2008 Summer Olympics and not think of Prince Charming. There’s one image, where he’s riding the dressage test at Sha Tin and his horse has the stars of the Chinese flag stencilled on its hindquarters. Hua is wearing white breeches and the traditional top hat and tails of the sport. When faced with that visual catnip, how could the media resist labelling him One in a Billion?
Hua laughs, and says (with Hugh Grant levels of self-deprecation and charm), “I’m not sure how that one came about. [But] horses keep you pretty humble. You can’t spend your day being arrogant around them, so you just get used to having your face in the dirt half the time.”
When it isn’t in the dirt, Hua’s face can be seen front row at Gucci or in campaigns for Gieves & Hawkes as their first-ever brand ambassador. Or hosting media events such as The Asia Horse Week in Hong Kong, where he spoke at length about horsemanship. It’s a subject that’s understandably close to his heart.
“For me, horsemanship is the core of our sport,” Hua explains. “It’s the set of values that all riders need to have to be able to develop a partnership with the horse. In China, what I always find is that many new families coming into the sport have a misconception of what the sport is about. They are taking part because it is very aspirational, and because it has this very elitist image.”
“But for me, I wanted to try and communicate that, actually, equestrianism is accessible. Everybody is on a level playing field when it comes to a horse, whether you’re a child from a rich background or a child from a poor background. A horse really doesn’t care how rich you are, they just care about the time you spend with them.”
“I think as a Chinese athlete based in the UK, in a sport that is not traditionally Chinese, I’ve always felt a degree of guilt that – although I’m flying the Chinese flag at the highest level –I’m not necessarily that connected to the Chinese equestrian industry. Certainly up until Rio, I was very focused on myself and my horses in the UK. What Rio gave me was not just a level-up in terms of my support, but it’s given me the time, the resources and also the profile to do other things that I’m passionate about, which is the growth of equestrianism in China.”
“It wasn’t a difficult decision at all for me [to ride for China]. The best way I can rationalise it is when I’m in China, my British half of me feels very British. And at the time when I made the decision to ride for China, I was at school at Eton (the most British of British institutions), and for me my Chinese half was my defining thing. So at 15, when I was asked to compete at my first international show, it was very natural to represent China. I think riding for China has given me a thousand times more opportunities than I would have had riding for GB, but that’s not really why I did it.”
It must be an unusual position, being in Hua’s shoes. If he didn’t have horses, he says, he’d 100 percent be living in China. As it stands, he’s based in England and flies to China once a month for a few days of media work. “Actually, I find the balance quite refreshing. Living with the horses is a wonderful way of life, but day in, day out it can be pretty gruelling. I have to say, I have a very nice balance of life at the moment. Busy, but fun.”
Read the full story in Prestige Hong Kong August 2018 issue