You might expect that someone who has played major roles with such marquee competitions as the Winter Equestrian Festival, the Split Rock series, the new TerraNova venue and many others would have quite a lifetime background in the show world.
But no; Mike Belisle took another path to his impressive career in management and trouble-shooting along the circuit, developing expertise in everything from footing to finances.
When he became involved, he noted, “I had no knowledge of horses. I started from humble beginnings in a small town outside of Ottawa, Carleton Place.”
But living in that location opened a door for him. “For some reason, our town pretty much bred ring crew and supplied Canada and a lot of the U.S. shows,” he pointed out.
His brother, Rob, who is 12 years Mike’s senior, began working horse shows in Palgrave, Ontario, then throughout Canada and went on to competitions in the U.S. He was even on the ring crew for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The equestrian angle wasn’t Rob’s motivation, however. “He used the horse industry to pay for school,” explained Mike. When Rob finished his education, he went on to other things.
But Mike paid attention to the advantages of what Rob had done. “I saw what kind of opportunities there were, seeing him getting to travel.”
Mike didn’t have the chance to travel “and be around horses, because our family didn’t have the means to do any of that.” So when he was 14, his brother introduced him to what shows were about from the ground up, starting as a laborer.
Until he went to Palgrave for that summer job, Mike recalled, “I hadn’t been away from my town except for sports events. I had no knowledge of horses. I followed the footsteps of my sibling and used the summer job as cash to allow me to work on my studies.”
He went on to St. Lawrence College, majoring in marketing and earned a diploma in business. Next up was a job at the Hudson Bay Co. as a retail buyer, but unlike his brother, he still felt the pull of the horse industry.
Always a fast learner, he found out after just six months that being a buyer wasn’t going to be his life’s work. “I quickly realized how monotonous it was. I don’t think the corporate world was for me, having had a taste of the equestrian side. Obviously, not riding, but the lifestyle; being around horses, being outside, all the benefits that came with it.”
Although he had never been to the U.S., that didn’t stop him. “My brother had some connections in California. I figured that would be a good place to start. I made the leap, packed the car that kind of broke down all the time and drove across the country.”
He wound up in Woodside, California, where he didn’t know anybody, and stayed for three years. The hard worker quickly fit in.
“I became a little bit of a nomad and liked the lifestyle,” said Mike, who wound up moving to the east coast and got involved with the HITS series; then the shows put on by John and Pam Rush. By the time he was in his late 20s, Mike “pretty much worked every facet of the horse show,” whether it was driving tractors, announcing or hunter course designing.
“I worked my way up. I started getting noticed.”
In the process, he was always seeking people from whom he could learn. “I’ve had the opportunity to work for pretty much everybody and every management company in the industry. I’ve taken little pieces throughout my career from those individuals.”
A call from Mark Bellissimo, who had just bought Wellington, Florida’s Winter Equestrian Festival and its showgrounds, was another milestone for Mike. There was a “changing of the guard” from the previous Gene Mische administration of the influential circuit. Mike went in as operations manager in 2008.
“It was a unique situation. I learned a lot from Mark and Michael Stone (then president of Equestrian Sport Productions). I worked with them on a lot of projects,” he recalled, citing among them the complicated development of staging a show in New York City’s Central Park.
“Mark taught me how to work outside my comfort zone, whether it was a concert, or ending up doing parking or ticketing. It helped me not to be a one-trick pony. I learned a lot of things that were not just horse sport. It turned me into a well-rounded person.”
As he puts it, “The story of my life is to be able to adapt in any situation, take the best out of it that you can and get rid of the rest.”
“It’s just about adapting … I’ve gotten to the point where nothing really fazes me.”
An example is what happened on a 2015 weekend that featured both a Professional Bull Riders competition and a $50,000 invitational show jumping grand prix at a hockey arena. He got involved just two months before the event at the Corel Center in Ottawa, when the organizer contacted him, saying, “Somebody told me I probably need a show manager.”
Mike didn’t know anything about the PBR. Then he learned the bulls would be kept overnight in the arena where Pierre Jolicoeur had just laid all the footing over the ice. The result was “bull pee and poop” on the surface.
“A nightmare. Ian Millar and Jill Henselwood and all these people were coming,” he recalled ruefully.
After the bulls left, “We had to tear out three-quarters of the footing and re-lay it.” Then the jumps with 12-foot poles showed up, all too big for an indoor arena. “We had to chainsaw everything. It was crazy.”
Mike handled it in his typical calm style. “We survived. It went off without a hitch. It’s just about adapting.”
Understandably, he said, “I’ve gotten to the point where nothing really fazes me.”
That Corel situation was a rare one in many ways, including his involvement with a Canadian show. “It’s kind of funny that I’m Canadian and 98 per cent of my business at this point is in the United States,” he mused.
After Mike had been with WEF for seven years, Derek Braun reached out to him with a vision for changing the sport with the Split Rock series, telling him, “I want people to get value for their dollars. I want to grow the sport. I am going to put my riding career on the side and use my own savings to do this.”
He asked Mike to become part of the business.
“It took about a year of him trying to coax me. All the points he made in terms of changing the sport, making a difference, being a visionary is always what I’ve been,” said Mike.
“Not changing really stifled the growth of the sport for everybody. They kept it too in-house, too protected. My generation wanted something different, they didn’t want to keep it all classic, they wanted value, they wanted customer service.”
The idea made sense, but it meant a major step for Mike to leave WEF. “It was a plunge for me. I’d never taken a risk like this before.”
But he did it and now the series includes 12 shows in North America. Mike is “Really jumping in on every aspect of the event that’s needed,” said Derek.
“Mike provides great support. He’s always there for any part of our team that needs him. He handles high-pressure situations really well. He’s good at coming up with solutions on the fly.”
“He always knew the riders; who liked to be stabled next to Leslie Howard and who liked to be in a different end [of the stable] because they brought a lot of stallions.”
The Split Rock venues include TerraNova, the spectacular new equestrian complex east of Sarasota, Florida, where Mike has helped develop a facility that offers eventing, dressage and show jumping.
Hannah Herrig Ketelboeter, who runs TerraNova with her husband, Zach, and her parents, calls Mike “an enthusiasm builder and kind of a dreamer for the facility as well. He has this intangible thing that gets everyone excited about what we’re doing and remotivates and inspires everyone to keep going and provide the best product. He’s always trying to think of new ideas and new ways to do things. That is a perfect fit for us, because our goal was to do things a little differently and do things outside the box.”
One example she cited was Mike’s idea to think European style and “put turf around the dressage ring to add another element to make it more special. It really elevated the look of our ring.”
Eventer Sara Kozumplik, who is the rider ambassador for TerraNova, notes that Mike “never gets rattled. He’s quite good on the hospitality side of thing and laying things out. He has quite a good eye for horse show set-up and aesthetically what everything needs to do, which is a little bit of an art form.”
When Jeff Papows was organizing Massachusetts’ Silver Oak Jumper Tournament, he contacted Mike, knowing the new jumper-only endeavor would involve “an atypical amount of stress making financial sense out of it.”
Having seen Mike at various shows, he thought highly of him “and hired him right out of the starting gate.” He knew Mike was able to balance the mix of making the athletes and spectators happy while insuring costs didn’t get out of control.
“He always knew the riders; who liked to be stabled next to Leslie Howard and who liked to be in a different end [of the stable] because they brought a lot of stallions. You can’t make that stuff up, you either know and understand it or you don’t. Mike was always kind of a student as well as a manager, and went to great lengths to deeply understand things.”
Although Mike originally wasn’t a rider, he has dabbled in some time on horseback, even jumping a bit, but never competing. His wife, Ariane St. John, was an amateur exhibitor who now keeps busy taking care of the couple’s four-year-old twins and 11-year-old stepson.
“I enjoy the animals and seeing the sport grow and making it more attainable. It excites me,” said Mike, who also has his own consulting and management business, Helm Ltd.
“I worked hard for where I’ve gotten. I didn’t envision myself being in this sport or business as long as I have, but here I am, 45 years old and I’m here. I worked hard for all this knowledge and experience.”