|▲ The author treks through the woodland at Jeju Horse Riding Park, Aewol. Photo byKim Seonyoung
Jan. 31 marked the arrival of the Year of the Horse, an animal whose close association with Jeju began as far back as the 13th Century. Mongol rulers, keen to solidify their position in the region, imported 160 Ferghana horses from Central Asia. The Ferghana was a supe-rior animal, renowned for its durability, and breeding grounds were quickly established.
The result was the stout and hardy “Jorang,” a mix of the Ferghana and local breeds that has since become synony-mous with Jeju. The association is so deep that the horse often symbolizes the island and 67 percent of all horses in Korea are from Jeju and 80 percent of race horses.
To cement the relationship further, President Park Geun-hye designated Jeju a “Horse Industry Special Zone” on Jan. 2, meaning the Year of the Horse could lead to significant economic growth for horse industries. An initial 5.65 Billion won has been earmarked for related business, with increases to be decided the following year.
The aim is to capitalize on the recent increase in tourism with significant benefits proposed for farmers looking to diversify into the horse-riding leisure industry, where 300 new jobs are anticipated. With this in mind, I decided to experience an afternoon’s trek for myself at Jeju Horse Riding Park (JHRP) in Aewol, one such business set to gain from the recent designation.
This was my second riding experience, my first being a baptism of fire on the Mongolian steppe on a recent visit there. Driving deep into the green void of endless hills, we would hunker down with different herders each night, riding out from the small encampments as we went. Helmets were deemed a triviality and our safety was “ensured” as long as we didn’t fall off.
A later tour with a specialized riding company promised a more sedate experience. Catering to families, begin-ners and seasoned pros, the plodding pace was initially quite stifling, but I shouldn't have worried. Packs of wild dogs would soon emerge from nowhere, gnarled Baskerville hounds snapping at the hooves of our terrified steeds. My first real “gallop” was a mix of foaming mouths, bloodshot eyes and tearing wind.
I was expecting an easier ride as I arrived at the grounds of the Aewol riding park, the area not being known for its roaming feral beasts. The park sits in the shadow of Nokkome Oreum, and as the low winter sun catches the tall grass banks flanking the site, you see Jeju’s picture-postcard views so enticing to tourists.
Park Geun-hye will hope that many entrepreneurs, inspired by the recent industry designation, will follow Seo Myeong-eun, CEO of JHRP. Four years ago, Seo left his job with Samsung in the capital and followed his dream to start up his own business on the island. His business has since gained recognition from a growing domestic and interna-tional clientèle, some more notable than others.
As we sat in reception, arranging details of the afternoon’s trek, General Manager Jang Hwa-ja drew my attention to a crown-like trinket which sat amongst their many competition trophies. “A gift from the King of Malaysia”, she told me, explaining it was received during his attendance at a recent competition. A keen horseman, “He still regularly calls to enquire about our horses,” she added. It seems I was in significant company.
Though they cater to absolute begin-ners, the focus at JHRP is to attract wealthy regular customers from the mainland and overseas to attend compe-titions and longer treks. They hope that with the aid of the designation, this customer base will only increase. Membership dues stand at 500,000 won per month.
Feeling a little out of place, we readied our gear and greeted our rides. Our guide had that grizzly reassuring face indicating a lifetime of experience. It was clear we were in safe hands. At the crawling pace allowed to beginners, our trek cut through patches of forest, rolling hills and thick walls of tall swaying grass. This was the “outdoor experience,” the tourist route. The beauty of this countryside which attracts so many was obvious.
After 30 or so minutes, and with some regret, we doubled back. It was a teasing taste of the freedom I found riding in Mongolia, a sample intended to pull you back for more. We passed two dozen or so tents laid out neatly amongst the trees, permanently erected for guests at The Shilla Hotel, Jungmun. Day trippers coming for lunch amongst the trees. Shuttle buses there, shuttle buses back.
If successful, the financial benefits of the Special Horse Industry Zone will be huge. From the curious tourist to the wealthy hobbyist, the market is clearly there. Prices at the JHRP range from 30,000 to 100,000 won for single treks, and it is a distinguished alternative to the cowboy-hatted novelty of roadside pony rides that are bound to flourish in the year ahead.