Shion Sassa’s ultimate goal is to compete as an Olympic equestrian rider, hopefully as soon as the 2020 Tokyo Games. The 22-year old Waseda University student would make history if she’s able to achieve that goal.
Of the three equestrian categories in the Olympic program, Japanese female riders have only competed in jumping and dressage. Thus it would be an unprecedented feat for a Japanese female if Sassa were to compete in her discipline of choice, eventing, on the Olympic stage.
“We don’t have an ideal equestrian environment in this country,” Sassa said, trying to explain why Japan has struggled in Olympic equestrian events during an exclusive interview with The Japan Times. “Equestrian requires large spaces for practices and competitions, which are difficult to find in Japan. Also, unless you have a riding club nearby, it’s rare to have the chance to ride a horse.
“In Europe, for example, riders and horses can easily travel over land across countries. That allows riders to take part in competitions in other countries and helps improve the level of the events,” Sassa continued.
“Because Japan is surrounded by the ocean, competitions are limited to domestic areas. You face the same riders in almost every tournament at a limited number of venues. The competition level will not get higher under those circumstances.”
Sassa, who serves as an ambassador for the Japan Equestrian Federation, said cost is another problem facing Japanese riders. Unless they obtain sponsorships, riders have to pay for travel (not only for themselves but the horses), trainers, coaches, entry fees, etc.
The burden is not as heavy for Sassa, who won back-to-back All Japan Eventing Young Rider Championships ( in the age 16-22 category) in 2015 and 2016. As an Olympic prospect, Sassa has sponsorships, but that isn’t necessarily the case for other riders.
“Even when you win competitions and get prize money, you don’t have much left after the entry fee and other costs,” the Tokyo native said at Waseda’s equestrian facility.
Equestrian is so popular in parts of Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, it provides opportunities for those seeking work in various fields related to sports. Coincidentally, those countries are powerhouses at the Olympic level.
“Grooming is one of those,” Sassa said. “Grooming has been established as a professional job in Europe. There are even schools to educate those who want to become professional groomers. . . . Many people have various equestrian-related jobs in Europe.”
Sassa’s first experience riding a horse came at age 10. It was just for fun, but it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with equestrian. In two years, she became proficient enough to try jumping. That was the first step of her equestrian career.
She learned under Masamichi Sato, a chief monk who also runs the Myoshoji Riding Club in Nagano Prefecture. Sato was set to represent Japan at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but was denied the chance when Japan chose to boycott the Summer Games. His son, Kenki, competed in the 2012 Olympics in London and before that at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. His daughter, Tae, competed in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
Eventing combines different elements of riding, where the rider and horse compete in dressage, cross country and jumping over three days. There are also two inspection sessions on Day 1 and also after the cross country event, where officials check the health of the horse. If the horse fails the health check, the pair is disqualified.
“My favorite is cross country. It is unique among the three,” Sassa said. “You have to clear the hurdles as quick as you can in long distance. It is dangerous, but it’s more exciting than the others.
“You need to have a ‘conversation’ with your horse in cross country. You ride more than in dressage and you run longer distances than jumping. It is the toughest phase. You and the horse have to encourage each other with communication.”
Sassa uses the word “conversation” to refer to communication. But she actually talks a lot to her horses.
“I often say ‘good boy,’ or ‘great job’ to my horses as well as touching them.” Sassa said. “You have to have a mutual understanding with your horses. The best way is to spend as much time as possible together. The longer you are together, the better you understand each other.”
Sassa remembers the moment when she felt she had established a relationship with her horse. It happened during a jumping event when she was a freshman in 2014. She was riding Tendo, one of her three horses who had been her partner for several years by then.
“The surrounding noises vanished suddenly and all I could hear was Tendo’s footsteps,” Sassa recalled, speaking about the 12-year-old horse. “He performed as I expected him to and everything went perfect. I felt we were united.”
After graduating from Waseda next spring, Sassa will move to the Netherlands and continue her training there. This is a big step toward making her dreams come true.
“Age is not a negative in this sport. The best asset you can rely on is experience,” Sassa said. “Now I can gain new experience based in Europe. I hope the experience there helps improve my techniques, too. That is my next step.”