Not so long ago, Jonathan Ding was just the new kid on the block in the bustling metropolis of Beijing, trying to navigate his place in another new city at the tender age of 10. It could have been a rough landing—a new town, a new school, making new friends—that is, until Jonathan saw a simple road sign that would reshape his worldview.
“I came across a horse-crossing sign, which you rarely ever see in Beijing. It really caught my eye, and my dad said, ’Oh, for sure, there must be a stable around here.’ We drove around for a while [longer], and eventually, we found it. That’s where I took my first lesson at 10, and I just kept going from there.”
Call it destiny if you want to, but in the years since he began riding, Jonathan has charted his own global path to success. The now-20-year-old showjumper for Canada has lived all over the world with his parents, who moved frequently for their work. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, Jonathan moved to Hong Kong as a child, then on to Beijing in 2011. Though he didn’t come from a horsey family, per se, his father (who is a Canadian citizen) owned trotting horses in his 20s. He encouraged his son’s interest in horse sport, and, as luck would have it, the family had arrived in Beijing at an auspicious time.
Just under a decade ago, China was officially beginning its quest to move its equestrian program onto the international stage, and Beijing was at the epicenter of that push. “I remember, when I first started in the arena [there], they were still using the same kind of sand they used for growing vegetables. If it would rain, you sometimes couldn’t ride for two weeks,” Jonathan recalls.
“Then, they discovered the fiber footing, and since then, everything has become really rapid. In the next 3-5 years, I really believe China will be—not at the same level as Europe—but the same level as Europe was, maybe 10 or so years ago.
“Their drive for improving the sport is tremendous,” Jonathan continues. “[China] really wants to be knowledgeable and take the right steps. They’re hiring more and more people from abroad to make sure they have the right consultation and are doing the right things.”
Beginning in 2011, that effort came to a head with the preliminary Longines Beijing Masters event, which took place in the city’s National Stadium, commonly referred to as the Bird’s Nest. The Masters’ special team format paired groups of China’s best riders with one of a handful of top-ranked competitors from around the globe. Due to horse quarantine restrictions, the visitors competed on barrowed mounts while also acting as coaches, helping to mentor Chinese athletes in an international-level competition setting. In 2015, luck intervened in Jonathan’s story yet again when he found himself riding at the Bird’s Nest at the same event as his longtime showjumping idol, Scott Brash (GBR).
“I really wanted to meet [Scott], and I spoke with my mom, and finally, I got the chance during the competition. We had a chat to see if he was accepting students,” Jonathan explains. The good news? Brash was willing to coach the young rider from China. The bad news? Training with the Scottish legend would require a major commitment —a move of more than 5,000 miles across the world to Cobham, U.K., where he would attend international school while training with Brash every day after class. Jonathan was up for the challenge.
“I was 15 years old and still really in the beginning stages of my riding,” he says, noting that the lessons he learned from Brash over the next three years would transform his approach to the sport, both in and out of the ring. “Scott really taught me [from the ground up], starting with his philosophy of the horses. He wanted to make sure they were happy, so they would fight for you in the arena.
“I remember, one time, I had ridden my horses three days in a row inside the arena, and Scott was at a competition, and when he came back, [he was kind of] mad at me. He explained that the horses cannot get into a repetitive training routine; they need to have variety so that they are always looking forward to the next thing. Scott taught me not to just think for myself, but to put myself in the horses’ shoes, and think how they would feel.”
Brash’s example also informed the way his protegee still views the discipline and sacrifices needed to climb to the top of the sport—a mentality Jonathan has incorporated into his own program. “I really got to see how Scott, not only as a trainer but as an athlete, manages his life outside the arena. We went everywhere together, eating dinners, etc., and it just showed me how disciplined he really is. We would [leave the show] and then have dinner finished by 7:30 p.m., and by 8:30 p.m., he would be in bed. There was no going out; bedtime was 9:30-10 p.m. and then we’d start again the next morning at 6:30 a.m.,” Jonathan explains. “[Scott] is really one of the most ambitious and inspirational riders I know.”
Brash was also instrumental in helping Jonathan find his current top mount, Editor, a 12-year-old British-bred warmblood who has taken him from 1.25m classes up to 1.50m international grands prix. “I pretty much grew up [with ‘Eddie’],” says Jonathan , whose proudest moment to date is a top-five finish with the gelding in the CSI 3* Mediterranean Equestrian Tour (MET) Grand Prix in Oliva Nova, Spain.
After graduating from high school in the U.K. in 2019, Jonathan moved back to Belgium for his gap year (more on that in a minute), where he added another promising mount to his string: the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding Sgt. Pepper, a former Kent Farrington ride. “He’s a horse that has lots of experience, and [has really become] more of my speed horse for the 1.40-1.45m classes,” says Jonathan, who is also working to develop two young horses, a five- and a six-year-old, for the Big Tour.
“I really get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing the gradual improvement while training and riding [the young horses] and getting them to fit your style of riding. It’s really the best way to move forward in this sport without having to break your [bank],” Jonathan explains. “For the level [I’m trying to compete at] now, I just can’t buy horses anymore. I have to start producing them.”
In fact, it was Jonathan's initial quest to find and purchase a young horse in Belgium after high school that inspired his current path as founder of the groundbreaking equestrian app, Horse-X. “I was looking to buy a young horse, but I didn’t know who I could call, or who I could trust. It was during [the outbreak of the Corona virus], so, in a way, everything was pushing forward on the technology-front, but in the horse world, we were still conducting business like we were 30 years ago, by word of mouth.
“When [COVID-19 struck and events shut down], all the horse scouts could no longer do their jobs. It made me think there has to be a digitalized, centralized place for equestrians to come; either to scout horses, buy or sell, communicate, or even just manage their content or videos,” he says.
In a pre- or post-pandemic world, Horse-X, which launched last fall, has the potential to shift the sales landscape in more ways than one. By putting access to top horses in the hands of not just a few, well-connected dealers with longstanding relationships—but anyone with a cell phone, the app, and a budget in mind—Horse-X could have a kind of leveling effect on the market as we know it. That could be big news, not only for small-time breeders and sales operations looking to increase their access to deep-pocketed buyers, but for emerging countries in the sport, like China, which are still working to develop sales relationships on the continent.
“I still have some friends in China, and they really find Horse-X useful, because it allows them to connect directly [with sellers] with no broker or middleman,” Jonathan says. “This allows [sellers] to get their own exposure, person to person, with no one interfering. Also, from the seller’s point of view, they can find new clients that are outside of their regular circles. [I think] it just allows for a more globally connected horse community.”
Having designed the app based on his own experiences in the market, Jonathan says what sets Horse-X apart is its ability to adapt to the changing needs of the equine community as they arise. “When I was in Belgium during my gap year, I really got a lot of feedback on every aspect [of the app] from breeders, riders, and the sellers even—that’s why I changed a lot of functions after receiving it.
“Originally, the app was just a marketplace, so only buying and selling. But the feedback I got from the top riders was that they didn’t want to explicitly list their horses for sale, as [they felt] this would make them look too desperate, or create too much curiosity on the part of [less serious] buyers. That’s why we created the competitions feature, which is just a tool for managing all previous competitions and shows, with a folder for each horse and rider [combination]. People can still contact you, but the horses aren’t specifically listed ‘for sale’ or not.”
Functionalities aside, when it comes to Horse-X’s future potential, Jonathan says he is just getting started. On his wish-list for the app in the next three years: a second-hand tack shop for used gear and equipment, a jobs platform for hiring freelance grooms and stable help, and the goal of adding one million users across all major FEI disciplines by the year 2024. But Jonathan will have plenty to do in the meantime.
Now back in the Netherlands, Jonathan continues to develop Horse-X while simultaneously earning his degree in International Business at Maastricht University, and, in his spare time, bringing along his string of horses. After a year under the guidance of Katharina Offel (GER), Jonathan now bases at JR Stables in nearby Weert and makes no bones about his goal for the future: Earning a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. “I’ve already started making my reverse plan to see what I need to do now, and looking ahead at next year, and the year after,” says Jonathan, who’s also taking a hard look at which one of his current horses might have Olympic potential.
An ambitious plan? No question. But as a full-time student, up-and-coming show jumper, and now, bonified tech entrepreneur, Jonathan Ding hasn’t gotten anywhere by thinking small. “I think even in [the business world], you can get tunnel vision, and you miss that bigger picture,” he says. “In showjumping they say you’re only as good as your last round, and that really always sticks with me. It makes me want to push harder and not accept complacency.”
All photos courtesy of Jonathan Ding.