At least once a week, Mr Ralph Koh goes "dancing" with horses.
"Horse-riding makes me feel alive. It's like doing ballet with the majestic animal which is eight to 10 times one's weight. It takes me to another dimension, away from the worries of this world," says the 35- year-old who runs a used car dealership.
He is among a growing group of people here who are learning horse-riding, which is being offered by at least five horse-riding schools and clubs here.
Mr Koh loves horses and had long wanted to sign up for horse-riding classes, but he did not want to pay costly membership fees, which run into thousands of dollars a year at some clubs.
When he learnt in 2011 that Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre in Woodlands does not require membership, he signed up for classes immediately.
He now rides at National Equestrian Centre in Thomson, which does not charge membership fees, either. He goes for a 45-minute class at least once a week, paying about $100 each time.
According to Ms Nadia Chen, sports development manager at the Equestrian Federation of Singapore, the best way to be safe around horses is to take a basic horsemaster's course.
Here are some tips on how to behave around horses.
1 Do not run or make sudden movements. Horses are herd animals and can take fright.
2 Speak softly and calmly. A horse's hearing is better than a human's. Loud, unfamiliar noises can make a horse nervous. A soft, reassuring sound can ease its worries.
3 Do not approach a horse from the back or walk behind it. It might get a shock and kick out.
4 Approach a horse with the back of your hand extended. This allows it to reach out its muzzle to sniff you and take in your scent.
5 Do not approach a horse that has its ears pinned back. It is a sign of aggression and the horse may bite or kick. Friendly horses have their ears pricked forward.
Ms Maneesha Shanker, 22, manager of Gallop Stable at Horsecity, says horse-riding in Singapore is getting more accessible and affordable and no longer a membership-only activity.
Gallop Stable, which started in Pasir Ris in 2003, is one of the earliest facilities here to offer non- membership-based horse-riding classes. Due to rising demand, it has since opened three more branches - in Horsecity, Punggol and Johor Baru.
Gallop Stable, Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre and National Equestrian Centre do not require membership for participation.
Their fees start at between $50 and $90 for a 45-minute class a person for a group class, and between $70 and $150 a person for a one-to-one 45-minute class.
Bukit Timah Saddle Club is membership-based, but it started offering horse-riding activities to the public in 2014.
Mr Anthony Lowry, 38, general manager and a head coach at Bukit Timah Saddle Club, says the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010 helped give a boost to the horseriding scene here.
After the games, about 35 new horses entered for the competition were sold to the riding clubs here and this "provided a much-needed increase in the horse power available in Singapore".
Ms Nadia Chen, 30, sports development manager at the Equestrian Federation of Singapore, adds that the stone gold and one bronze medal) and then in Singapore in 2015 (one gold and three silver medals) also made people more aware of the sport and that horses and stables can be found in Singapore.
Mr Lowry says the number of riding lessons taking place at Bukit Timah Saddle Club has more than doubled since 2010 and it now has more than 450 riders a week.
Meanwhile, Singapore Polo Club in Mount Pleasant Road conducts 3,000 to 4,000 rides a month, and Singapore Turf Club Riding Centre has seen more than 2,300 riders pass through its doors since it opened in November 2009.
National Equestrian Centre, a riding school under the Equestrian Federation of Singapore, started with 20 to 30 students in 2011 and now has 120 to 150 students.
Besides expatriates, more Singaporeans are signing up, say clubs here. While many riders are schoolgoing children, there are also parents who pick up the sport after seeing their children enjoying it, or because they want to ride as a family.
Some working adults ride to de-stress.
It helps that the centres offer myriad activities to cater to different interests and levels, from beginner to advanced.
Riders can choose to attend individual or group classes, and also ad- hoc classes or a four- to 10-session course. There are also classes on horse care and stable management. Inter-club competitions are held as often as twice a month.
Singapore Polo Club recently started a quadrilles class, where horse-riding is synchronised to music.
Most riding centres also offer photo shoots on horseback for wedding couples and organise birthday parties for children.
Bukit Timah Saddle Club and National Equestrian Centre conduct one-off and weekly pony camps and lessons for those aged three to 15, to teach horse-riding and care of horses.
The centre also takes pony roadshows to schools, community clubs and other public spaces where people can groom and feed ponies as well as ride them.
Ms Hannah Sin's daughters, Grace, 11, and Joyce, eight, started horse-riding when they were seven.
Grace, an animal lover, asked Ms Sin to let her learn horse-riding after she read about it in books. Late last year, she began competing in dressage events at interclub competitions organised by Bukit Timah Saddle Club and is looking forward to learning how to jump.
Ms Sin, a 39-year-old housewife, says horse-riding has made her younger daughter more confident and outgoing.
"In the past, she always stuck to me even when we went to the playground, but now, she's more willing to interact with other children," she says.
Enjoy the ride
BUKIT TIMAH SADDLE CLUB
The club's history goes back to 1951, when the Singapore Turf Club had its race track nearby. It now has 95 horses and ponies, 95 stables and more than 10 horse-riding coaches.
While horse-riding activities (above) are open to the public, one can also join as a member. A lifetime membership starts at $6,000.
Where: 51 Fairways Drive
When: 7 to 11am and 3.30 to 7pm, Tuesdays to Sundays
Set up in 2011, it is a centre for public outreach programmes under the Equestrian Federation of Singapore. It is located at National Equestrian Park, part of a 25ha equestrian zone, which also includes Singapore Polo Club and Riding for the Disabled.
The school does not charge membership fees and runs outreach programmes for all ages, including a pony playgroup for those aged three to six; Let's Ride for those aged six to 16; and a horsemaster's course for adults,which teaches the basics of horsemanship and safety.
The school has about 35 horses and ponies, three riding coaches and 40 stables.
Managed by the Singapore Turf Club, it opened in November 2009 to introduce horse-riding to the public at affordable prices. It does not charge membership fees and is the only riding centre with its own equine surgical facility. It has more than 40 horses, 60 stables and four riding instructors.
Where: 1 Equestrian Walk
When: 10am to 8pm on weekdays, 10.45am to 8pm on weekends
Safety is a top priority at many horse-riding clubs and schools here. First-time riders at Bukit Timah Saddle Club and National Equestrian Centre, for instance, are led by instructors or handlers using a lead rope.
Most schools here ensure that their instructors have international qualifications from British Horse Society, Equestrian Australia or Federation Equestre Internationale.
While this is not compulsory at Gallop Stable, the establishment has its own criteria for instructors, including that they must have at least two years of horse-riding or other horse-related experience. They also need to undergo in-house instructor training and assessment for three months and on-the-job training for six months.
Noting that more Singaporeans are taking up horse-riding, whether at home or on holiday, the Equestrian Federation of Singapore recommends that people take up a horsemaster's course before they go on a riding holiday. The federation offers a seven-session horsemaster's course, costing about $500, which covers the basics of horsemanship and safety.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Let's giddy up'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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