Knightess on a white horse

By Cao Nguyen, Lao Dong

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Vietnamese entrepreneur carves an equestrian niche for herself by combining passion with business smarts

Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang at Van Anh Farm, which she said it has become too small for her herd of 100 white horses 
Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang’s eight-hectare farm on the banks of the Red River has become too small for her herd of 100 white horses. 
And the farm is going to get even smaller.
“The land is now so small even for the current herd, let alone for accommodating my dream of transforming it into a ‘kingdom of thousands of white horses,’ said the 55-year-old deputy director of Van An Farm in Thanh Tri District, Hanoi.
Out of her 100 white horses of Tibetan origin, which is one fourth of the total number in the country, half are females, which give birth to around 30 – 40 foals every year as breeders for local farmers. Each one-year-old foal is priced around VND25-30 million in the market. The reproductive rate in Van An Farm is 80 percent, in comparison with 20 percent in the state-run Ba Van horse farm in the northern province of Thai Nguyen.
 Following her success in breeding the rare white horses, Hang plans to import giant white horses from Mongolia to improve the genes of the smaller local ones with whitish coats.
“The thoroughbred white horse is rare and precious and becoming rarer still in Vietnam because of inadequate protection and excessive exploitation for medicinal purposes,” said Hang, who is a member of Vietnam Veterinary Association. 
Many Vietnamese believe that next to tiger bone glue, white horse bone glue is the best for treating bone diseases, rheumatism and lung diseases including asthma. It is also believed to be good for children with mental disabilities. The glue is expensive at more than a million dong for 100 grams.
Seven years ago, Hang saw an opportunity to hit two birds with one stone. On the one hand, she could not bear to see the horse on the verge of extinction and on the other, there was handsome profit to be made from saving it. So, with the support from local expert and the association, she founded the largest white horse farm in Vietnam.
However, she is still not taking success for granted, given the several failures she has seen in previous farming projects since 2001 when she returned to Vietnam from Germany, after having worked there for over a decade.

Stepping ones

On her return, Hang asked for permission to renovate and open a farm on land that had been idle for a long time. Ignoring her friends’ dissuasion, she spent her savings from working abroad to transform the cane-brake filled farm into a small cattle-feed factory for farmers. As Hang had agreed to sell the feed to customers on credit, waiting until they sold their stock and were paid for it, she received quite a few orders. However, with harsh weather conditions and disease epidemics killing most of the livestock and poultry, the farmers had nothing left with which to pay the hundreds of millions of dong they owed Hang.
Instead of giving up, Hang not only continued to produce cattle feed, she also launched her own farm, supplying thousands of tons of fresh meat and breeds from chicken to rabbits from 2004 until 2007, when all her animals died of the influenza A virus subtype H5N1. 
“I felt like I was in a whirlpool, seeing I was going to penniless very soon,” said Hang, “During my darkest moment, when I was alone in a field, by accident, I recalled the time when I had some pain in my legs (arthritis) and how it was healed by the white horse glue prepared by my grandfather.”
But this memory and knowledge were not sufficient to give her courage to throw herself into another farming-related project, until one day, she “watched on television a documentary on the medicinal value of white horse glue. I told myself that I should raise these horses to multiply its precious gene pool.”
All Hang had at that time was a 7-hectare field with rusty machines.
However, her idea was supported by the association, especially Dr. Hoang Trieu, member of the association’s standing committee, who helped her with information, technology and funding. Trieu is the director and chairman of the Van An Farm.
Towards the end of 2007, borrowing more than VND100 million from her friends, Hang and Trieu went to Lang Son Province, known as homeland of Vietnamese white horse, and Cao Bang Province to look for animals they could use for breeding. After spending several months in the mountainous area, they brought home 20 horses, which were not enough under her plan.
“It was a waste to have only 20 horses occupying my 7 hectares,” she said, but since all her money had run out, she mortaged her house in Hanoi to a local bank for a loan of VND1 billion.
Early in 2008, Hang got permission from the association to travel alone to Tibet to buy 20 purebred white horses.

“The white horse is not choosy when it comes to food, has a cat’s nine lives and adjusts easily to the Vietnamese climate. It gives birth almost every year, so it costs a bit, but brings high profit to the owner.”

While a foal is priced around VND25-30 million, an adult three to four years old can be sold for VND70 million.
Aside from providing foals and the knowhow on raising white horses to local farmers, the Van An Farm also produces white horse bone glue. It was the first official producer of the product to be licensed by the Ministry of Health in June, 2007.
However, Hang said Van An Farm’s focus is not profiting from the sale of white horse bone glue.  “We only use the bones of old horses that can no longer give birth to make the glue. Our main purpose is to preserve the white horse’s gene.”
To increase public awareness of the rare creature, Hang has built a facility where local school children can visit the farm, know more about the white horse and learn how to take care of horses and other creatures including Thai wild pigs and porcupines.

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