Marion Cunningham knows just how to make her husband Bill Tilford happy: give him a bunch of ribbons to present at a horse show.
“He loves to hand out prizes,” says Marion. Bill, a former investment advisor with RBC, has been doing a lot of that in recent years. But that wasn’t always the case. “Bill had no idea what a horse was until he met me,” Marion says. “I have turned this golfer into a serious horse guy.”
The couple, owners of MarBill Hill Farm in Bradford, Ontario, started sponsoring the Pony Jumper Challenge in 2012 and since 2017 have also supported the Jump Canada U25 Young Riders Development series including at Angelstone, Ottawa and Caledon shows and at Marion’s favourite venue, Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC.
They also breed Oldenburgs, offer specialized care boarding for retired show horses and cheer on young Canadian Equestrian Team member Sam Walker as he pilots their mares Coralissa and Evita around international grand prix courses.
How it all began
The couple met in 1987 when they were students at the University of Waterloo. Marion, whose family immigrated from Scotland, started riding at age 11 in Kitchener with a German dressage coach. When her family moved to Milton, she spent her teen years riding horses at Jane Casselman’s Touch N Go Farms until she went to university. She and Bill met through the university’s Math Society – Marion has a specialized liberal arts degree with a minor in statistics while her husband has a Bachelors degree in math and a Masters in statistics. While Bill knew Marion liked horses, it wasn’t a big topic of conversation then.
After graduation, the couple moved to Vancouver and after having two children, Marion resumed riding, taking lessons at North Shore Equestrian Centre and training with Bobbie Reber. When their daughter Nyssa turned four, she wanted a pony and “that embarked us on our horse-buying adventure,” says Marion.
Birth of MarBill Hill
When the family moved back to Ontario in 2008, they bought a 100-acre farm in Bradford. Marion and Bill connected with Scott and Dee Walker, owners of Forest Hill Farm, on the recommendation of Bobbie Reber, who was one of the Walkers’ west coast trainer friends. Marion started training with the Walkers; they became close friends and Scott even suggested the farm name MarBill Hill Farm in early 2012 as a nod to the property’s terrain.
“Dee had been my trainer and our son’s trainer, but more importantly she has done the training of all of our horses,” said Marion. “She took our first homebred Foolproof MBH to the 2019 Royal as a five-year-old where he was named the top Canadian-bred Amateur Hunter.”
The Walkers have also found horses for MarBill Hill, including successful derby hunters Heavenly and Miracle, and top jumpers Coralissa and Evita. The Walkers’ son Sam “is like another son to us” as well as Coralissa’s rider. Over the past few years, Sam has showed both purchased and homebred MarBill Hill horses with great success. Interesting note: Marion and Bill’s son Duncan is Sam Walker’s FEI groom (he’s also groomed for Chris Surbey, Ben Asselin and Tiffany Foster).
“I’ve learned more from Dee than anyone,” says Marion, who competes as an amateur. “I truly believe she is the top hunter trainer in Canada. A lot of people ride really well, but not as many people know how to teach. It’s a true skill to take what you do and transfer it to someone else.”
Marion rode and competed in hunter and derby classes until 2014, including on Canadian Sport Horse Heavenly (Noah), a 2011 black gelding by Indoctro. She had just bought a bay jumper, Miracle (Murray) when she broke her arm, so he went to Dee Walker. Murray preferred the hunter ring and the Walkers developed him into a winning derby horse.
She credits the Walkers’ eye for talent and their skills as trainers. “They have a knack for finding those horses that are a little quirky and overlooked by many, and turning them into top-level horses.” She also credits other Forest Hill riders including Julie Watt, Kendal Beilby and Madison Ride for their talents in the ring. “There is a great team of people there that help us maximize our string’s success.”
The first year MarBill sponsored the Pony Jumper Challenge in 2012 at the Royal, there was just one child and one pro rider in the class, but it morphed into a true pony jumper class the following year. Marion says the objective was to get kids into a jumper format sooner, as it was intimidating for a child who aspired to the jumpers to move from a three-foot children’s hunter to a one-metre jumper with no classes that bridged the gap.
“Now there are pony jumpers everywhere,” Marion says proudly. She and her husband plan to continue to support the class at the Royal as MarBill Hill as well as the U25 program.
MarBill’s sponsorship has grown over almost a decade from $5,000 to this year’s $85,000. They were initially approached to help with the Pony Jumper Relay at the Royal but wanted do more, so thought about what they wanted to support most.
“The development of more jumper classes came along and it seemed like a good fit,” said Marion. “I have a long history working with children, both with riding and without, and we both felt that to give Canada a well-trained pool of top riders, a clear path, and a set of opportunities needed to be developed.”
She said the addition of Pony Jumpers, Junior 1.20 metre and U25s has provided a more defined path than the previous Talent Squad format. Riders, trainers and parents can more clearly see how to get from Point A to B. “We felt that if kids are going to try and reach that FEI level, they and their trainers needed a clear idea of how to do it,” Marion said. “We wanted to help and we’re in a position to. We’ll keep helping as long as we can.”
Marion is a firm believer in building the sport from the grassroots level up, saying there’s a disconnect between the top of the sport and people starting out. While there is a perception that equestrian sport is cost-prohibitive, “lots of kids play hockey, ski, play football and no one thinks twice about enrolling kids in those programs because they understand the progression and cost.
“We don’t communicate this well,” she continues. “There needs to be better understanding of the points in between starting out and getting to the top in the horse world. For example, you can lease a horse instead of buying one and we can talk about taking riding lessons as an entry point.”
She believes if the steps and costs were better explained, equestrian sport would be more widely embraced; she commends initiatives such as Ontario’s Silver Series that offers showing at an affordable cost.
Following the establishment of MarBill Hill, the couple delved into breeding as the family acquired more and more equines, including Fourth Dimension (Turtle), an imported State Premium mare from the GOV stud. They bred her to Dreamscape Farm’s stallion Farscape DSF and the resulting 2014 offspring, Foolproof MBH (Wembley) was the top Canadian-bred Amateur Hunter in 2019 with Julie Watt in the irons.
As the MarBill Hill breeding program grew – with advice from Dreamscape Farm’s Jennifer Arnoldt and her late husband Armin – Marion says her husband got more interested as he enjoyed the foals and watching the young horses develop, especially jumpers.
“He loves the jumper ring but if you want to annoy him, make him watch hunters,” says his wife.
At MarBill Hill, Marion and Bill now keep 26 horses including broodmares, recipient mares and boarders who want specialized care for their retired show horses. They breed mares with deep show records – including Coralissa – then do embryo transfer using stallions with top European performance bloodlines (mainly Dreamscape Farm’s).
“In Europe, if mares have historical, proven bloodlines, even if they have never gone in the ring, their foals will sell, but here in North America, the mares have to have a record,” Marion says. “As soon as a horse is winning and jumping well, no one cares what it is.”
While MarBill has succeeded in getting a horse they’ve purchased to the big ring and their homebreds to the Royal Horse Show, her big dream is to get a MarBill-bred horse to the grand prix ring.
She is planning her own return to the show ring in 2022. After being treated for breast cancer in 2018, she took 2019 off from riding, then Covid further complicated matters. “I will be 60 next year and while I’ve not been in the ring myself recently, I’ve gone to lots of horse shows and jumped in the warm-up ring. My goal now is to show hunters.”
And who will she ride? Well, one of her favourite homebreds, Wembley – formally known as champion hunter Foolproof MBH.