Round after round, the horse and rider combinations start to blur together. But then a colorful Paint enters the ring. His rider’s smile beams across the arena, and suddenly you sit up, take notice, and file the pair away as ones to watch. That’s the effect Japanese show jumper Shino Hirota and her aptly named gelding, Life is Beautiful, has on their audience. Captivated by their positive energy, we had to learn more about this duo.
A Rocky Start
Their partnership began when Shino's husband, Ryuma Hirota, traveled to Sweden to check out Life is Beautiful, known in the barn as “Buchi,” based on the recommendation of his business partner, New Zealand jumping athlete Bruce Goodin. Initially, neither Shino nor Ryuma were overly impressed with the horse's abilities. In fact, once back in Japan, Shino says they got off to a pretty rough start, and she was unsure if they had any real potential together.
“At first I could not get on well at all. Even the low jump was really difficult. I did not think I would be able to control him,” Shino says. “We have been training together, starting from low fences, for seven years now. I made a lot of mistakes at first … and we got into plenty of trouble!”
But Buchi’s eye-catching color and positive attitude won over both Shino and Ryuma, and with a lot of love and patience on both sides, Shino and Buchi’s partnership moved past its rough beginning. The key to this was allowing time for the horse and rider to get to know each other, sort out individual strengths and weaknesses, and keep respect at the core of their relationship.
“I was troubled for about a year. However, that did not mean that he hated jumping, just that we had to work out our problems together with each element. I respected his character and his good points, and rode while thinking about each other,” Shino says. “But no matter how much we failed, he always headed for the next fence. I think of him as a true writer; he is writing his own story.”
Perhaps few, if anyone, saw top potential in the skewbald, whose previous experience includes driving and a bit of eventing, but Buchi earned his homecoming to Sweden in the form of a slot on the start list of the FEI World Cup™ Finals in Gothenburg last April. While his story might have taken a non-traditional route from Sweden to Japan and back again, his background made him into the horse he is today.
Raising the Bar
Together, Shino and Buchi are ticking off their goals one by one, moving up and standing out among the field of Japanese riders, has already been checked off the to-do list.
“We became the All Japan Champion this year. Until now, in Japan, paint horses have never appeared in big shows; but his character is very interesting, and many people support us,” Shino says.
Drawing energy from her growing Japanese fan base, Shino and Buchi turned toward the World Cup, an impressive achievement for a horse and rider team with no experience competing on the European show jumping stage. “The World Cup was really fun. I was just really happy to run with him on the same course as the greatest riders in the world.”
With the experience gained in Gothenburg, and the newfound international attention that came with it, Shino and Buchi are planning ahead toward their next objective.
“We set a goal for the World Cup, but since we were able to get to CSIO Falsterbo in July, that is the goal now.” Shino intends to head to Sweden again in early July to prepare, and she’s looking forward to gaining more experience there this summer and focusing on the next step in their journey together.
Of course, with the Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, Shino is excited about the possibility of representing her country. While their first World Cup experience took Buchi back to his hometown, Shino hopes they can compete in their first Olympics together as local fan favorites.
No doubt Buchi, with his distinctive coloring and compelling story, has what it takes to capture the imagination of spectators, both in Japan and around the world, tuning in to the Olympics and potentially watching show jumping for the first time.
“I think the Tokyo Olympics is a great opportunity. It will be a chance for many people to get to know Life is Beautiful and to learn more about equestrian sport.”
Shino is also planning on cheering for her husband and fellow show jumper, Ryuma. If an Olympic spot on the Japanese team isn’t in the cards for Shino and Buchi, she still wants to see her husband compete.
“We have always competed with and against each other. Everyone is looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics, and we both hope we have the opportunity. It would be great if I could challenge at the Olympics with Life is Beautiful. However, in fact, it takes a lot of money and horses for two people to successfully compete, and we still have less experience [than Ryuma], so I hope that we can also support my more experienced husband.”
"... he is writing his own story.”
She is also looking a little further down the road; her 14-year-old son, Yamato, has a bright future in show jumping. She says her son loves horses and really loves competition, so you can add “horse show mom” to Shino’s already busy life.
For now though, Shino is all about making sure Buchi, who has given her so much, is healthy and content. He is happy jumping now, she says, and they truly enjoy working together. While it might not have seemed like a natural fit at their first meeting, the journey was worth it, and their bond with one another makes them a fun team to watch.
“I am really grateful for him. For us, he has transformed our lives in truly wonderful ways,” Shino says. “Now I really respect and trust him more than anyone else. My life changed when I met this horse.”
Now that’s truly beautiful.
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Photography by Sportfot. Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.
Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.