It takes commitment, focus and dedication to be considered world-class in any arena, which Raena Leung knows all too well as a champion showjumper. Hong Kong-born and Germany based, where she trains with her coach, Mike-Patrick Leichle, Leung has been horse riding since she was six years old and has turned her passion into a career. She’s travelled the world competing in elite equestrian competitions, from the FEI World Cup Final and FEI World Equestrian Games where she was Hong Kong’s first rider, to a team rider with the HKJC Equestrian Team, who just won gold in FEI Asian Championships Pattaya 2019. Now getting ready for the Longines Masters 14-16th February 2020, Leung speaks to Compare Retreats’ Chief Content Officer Rebecca Cairns on how she manages the mental pressures of competition and why recovery is so important.
You’ve been horse riding since you were six. What sparked your interest in sport? I’ve always been quite sporty and enjoyed being active. In high school, we didn’t really have specific training for any of these sports, but because I was athletic, I did things like basketball, running, and cross country, so it was very natural that I would stay active in every-day life.
When did riding go from a hobby to being competitive? When I first started riding, I was absolutely hooked. We would make the commute over to Beas River Country Club, about a 45-minute drive after school. When I got my own horse, that’s when it changed: you have to be really responsible, ride every day, and I had to give up the other sports.
“You start to attach self-worth to the sport, so it’s important to remember that you’re more than just an athlete and there are other elements you need to take care of, too. When you have that balance, it naturally translates into your sporting mentality.”Raena Leung, Show Jumper and HKJC Equestrian Team Rider
Do you do any other fitness activities for your personal fitness or to improve your riding? Luckily with the riding, it keeps you very fit, though on the side, I still do high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Pilates and exercises that train your core, because obviously balance is a very important part of horseback riding.
The physical aspects of the sport are pretty obvious, but what are some of the mental and emotional challenges that come with horse riding? Riding is a very physical thing, but there are some very mental aspects of it, too. There’s always a pressure when it comes to team competitions: you want to fight for your teammates. This sport is also a bit unique because you work with an animal so the communication is not with words, but with action and feeling: the bond with your horse is really important. They can feel when you’re a little bit stressed or nervous. Tiny body movements affect them.
“You can have the best horse and the best rider in the world, but it’s not guaranteed that they’ll win every race because you need that special bond.”Raena Leung, Show Jumper and HKJC Equestrian Team Rider
How do you stay focused and driven in your sport? I did a Masters in Sports and Exercise Psychology—I found it really interesting to learn how other elite athletes deal with pre-performance preparations, as well as the importance of recovery. I think people tend to forget how important it is to give yourself time off and really come back fresh again. With this sport, it revolves around the horses 24/7, so it’s vital to give yourself time to do things outside of the sport. You start to attach self-worth to the sport, so it’s important to remember that you’re more than just an athlete and there are other elements you need to take care of, too. When you have that balance, it naturally translates into your sporting mentality.
What do you do to relax when you have time off? My time off is about finding time for myself, just to read a book, or listen to music. If I’m in Hong Kong, I’ll see family. I try to be away from the horses just one day a week, but the rest of the time, it revolves around them. I have a couple of older horses that have retired, so also on my days off, I like to go to the fields and spend the day with them and bring them treats: I’m just really happy to see them enjoying life.
What are some of the benefits and challenges of working with animals? I’ve always been an animal lover: if I didn’t pursue this sport I would have wanted to be a vet. They’re just very pure—ok, you do get the cheeky ones, sometimes—but they all have very different characteristics, and that’s what makes the sport interesting. You’re not going to get on the same horse. They’ve all got their own quirks, and you have to learn what they like, what they don’t like. You have to build up a relationship and change your riding style to adapt to their styles. You learn a lot about how to be empathetic, how to work with somebody, and how to enhance their potential. You can have the best horse and the best rider in the world, but it’s not guaranteed that they’ll win every race because you need that special bond.
“The bond with your horse is really important. They can feel when you’re a little bit stressed or nervous. Tiny body movements affect them.”Raena Leung, Show Jumper and HKJC Equestrian Team Rider
What’s your daily routine? I like to try and fit everything riding-wise into the morning: on an average day, I have about three to four horses to ride a day, and at busier times five or six. In the afternoon, I just check in on the horses once, so I try to use the afternoon as a little bit of me-time: I workout and I also have a business where I train some students, so all my admin and teaching gets done then.
The Tokyo Olympics 2020 is approaching. Where does the Hong Kong jockey team stand with this? We missed out on the team spot, but my teammate Kenneth Cheng has a shot at the individual slots. If he gets it, the spot goes to Hong Kong, so then we need to then see which of the riders on the team meets the riding requirements, and from there, then select who goes to Tokyo. It also depends if we have the appropriate horses for Tokyo level. I have one horse that does have the minimum required eligibility, so I have that in my back pocket if the opportunity does come up. Of course, though, I’d love to see Kenneth go: he’s really worked for that spot.