Meghan Rawlins experienced a career milestone in 2022 by achieving her FEI level 3 course designer certification. It is a heady accomplishment for the Vancouver Island resident; there are currently only five FEI level 3 course designers in Canada and four in the USA.
Rawlins grew up around horses and began riding at the age of two. “I had many ponies and showed english, western, drove carts, did Pony Club, 4-H … everything,” she says, laughing. “When I was nine I had a 13.1hh Welsh/TB pony that I even showed in some 3’6” jumpers. My mom was a teacher and bought and sold ponies, so I got to ride lots. We did pretty much everything – local shows, fairs, we weren’t fussy.”
As a young adult she was on track to becoming a lawyer, but started teaching a few lessons when her children were young, discovering during this time that a life behind a desk wasn’t for her. She established Cedar Vista Stables in Metschosin, BC, in 1992.
Rawlins developed an interest in course designing as a young professional, around the same time fellow local Vancouver Islander and well-established course designer and show organizer Peter Holmes required help at his Saanich Shows in the Sun (SSITS) series. Meghan offered to help in exchange for credit towards her entries so she could show more horses. It was Peter’s encouragement that led her to pursue her course design certificate with Equine Canada.
“Once I received my certification, I started branching out from the local shows and was lucky to assist quite a bit at Spruce Meadows. That really helped deepen my understanding of course designing at that level,” she explains. “I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my career trying to work with different course designers and learn as much as I could before I started really designing on my own and getting paid.”
Although she continued riding and teaching professionally, the course design aspect of her life became more and more rewarding. With two young children and a busy stable to run, it meant a lot of juggling in order to maintain balance in her personal and professional life. “When my children were young I tried to stay local and finding that balance was a challenge as I was a single mom for quite a while – taking care of my boys with riding, teaching, and course designing was like playing Jenga! My parents helped a lot with my boys and were a huge support to me as I rode and course designed. Now, my husband Darren and several of my assistants make it possible for me to continue to course design and run the stable.”
When her sons were grown, Rawlins pursued her certification at a higher level, a specific challenge coming from Vancouver Island. “Regardless of being a man or woman [Rawlins is the only woman FEI level 3 course designer in North America], it is much more challenging to achieve FEI levels in Canada and the USA as we have national levels for our horse shows and course designers, whereas in Europe or South America all rated shows are mostly FEI so you can go do a two- or three-day show that is still an FEI show. Here, the FEI shows are mostly just the big shows and are much fewer so it is harder to earn the credits you need to move up in the FEI certification program.”
Rawlins pushed to improve and learn from the best, mentoring under course designers for the WEG and Olympics including Guilherme Jorge, Anthony D’Ambrosio and Alan Wade, among other. “I am very lucky to have worked with some of the top course designers in the world. I always want to be the best possible at whatever I do and course designing is no different,” she explains.
“As I learned more about it, I loved how it gave me opportunities to go places and watch the best in the world ride and train. The challenges the top designers set were interesting to me both as a trainer and a course designer. I feel it is beneficial to be able to ride and feel how something works as a designer.”
In 2022, Rawlins course designed at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for the second time in her career – she was responsible for designing the hunters, equitation and derby classes and also assisting in the jumpers alongside Michel Vaillancourt.
“For me personally, I want to see horses jumping better as the week progresses. It doesn’t mean they won’t have rails, but they come away happy and confident even as they are challenged.”
“I was very honoured to be asked to design at the Royal for the 100th anniversary,” she says. “Being asked to do a big event like the Royal is very special and we devote extra time to making sure everything goes well with design and planning ahead with courses and materials. The Royal is very organized, and I love that! It’s unique in that the builds need to happen quickly with no mistakes. The timetable is tight with a variety of events so it is different than a regular show where you build for the day and leave the jumps. At the Royal we strip the arena and then rebuild it multiple times a day for different classes ‒ hunters, jumpers, and derbies, but then with driving and performance classes in between ‒ it is a true production of a horse show.”
Her philosophy of course designing speaks to her background as a horseperson, rider, and trainer. “We are always learning and evolving, but I think the biggest thing for me is we want to create top sport that constantly strives to improve the horses and riders; we never want to create unfair or trappy problems that cannot be solved. For me personally, I want to see horses jumping better as the week progresses. It doesn’t mean they won’t have rails, but they come away happy and confident even as they are challenged.”
Rawlins had a busy 2022, on the road course designing 22 weeks of the year and at horse shows with students for 13 weeks, and she has a big year ahead of her in 2023 as well. “I am hoping to assist at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile at the end of October and also design some big derbies – I’m designing the main Hunter Spectacular at the Desert International Horse Park in March and I have a couple of FEI jumper shows to design as well. I love the variety. My favourite is to do big hunter classes one week and the grand prix ring another week. It keeps things interesting.
“Going forward, I would like to start designing bigger FEI classes as well as design some of the indoor medal finals in the USA and of course, continue to design at the Royal Winter Fair!”