When Natalija Petronis, 13, rides into the ring at Ontario’s first Can/Am Working Equitation Expo on a tall grey gelding, she’ll be demonstrating more than how to ride Ease of Handling obstacles.

Natalija will serve as the show’s ambassador to raise awareness for Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), a chronic rheumatic disease. As many as 25,000 children 18 and under in Canada, including Natalija, live with a form of arthritis. During the Working Equitation Expo and Can/Am Cup Challenge at the Ancaster Fairgrounds May 25 to 28, Friday May 26’s evening Battle of the Breeds program will serve as fundraiser for the Division of Rheumatology, Department of Pediatrics, McMaster University in Hamilton. Natalija, who is from Ingersoll, Ontario, is treated at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, but more than 400 young patients with JIA are cared for at McMaster.

Friday night’s program will feature a hobby horse obstacle course race, pitting McMaster doctors and nurses against young JIA patients, followed by the Battle of the Breeds Speed Competition where four-member teams representing various equine breeds will aim for the fastest time on the Ease of Handling course.

Working Equitation, which is enjoying a huge surge of interest among both English and Western riders, was developed in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy in the mid-1990s to showcase the ability of horses working on farms. It consists of three phases: Dressage, Ease of Handling and Speed; Cattle Handling is a fourth phase offered at some competitions.

Another Expo highlight will be the inaugural Can/Am Working Equitation Cup, where spectators can root for horses and riders in Ease of Handling as they negotiate a course of obstacles and are judged on how well they execute the course. The exciting Speed phase will be a real crowd-pleaser as horses and riders race to complete the course with the fastest time and fewest errors.

Natalija is excited for the weekend – and not just for her role as ambassador. It’s the first time she’s ridden in an-off property event away from Sprucehaven Farm, where she takes lessons with Barbara Waterfield, the stable manager. She’ll be riding her coach’s 20-year-old, 17.1 hand Trakehner, Finn Again, to give the demonstration.

“He’s really good with obstacles,” says Natalija. “He has a lot of buttons. He’s an angel.”

Natalija was just four years old when she was diagnosed with JIA, also known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

“She starting asking me to carry her up and down stairs and said she couldn’t walk,” says her father, Mark Petronis. “We just thought she was being cute.”

But when the family went to a cottage near Wiarton that summer, she complained again that she couldn’t walk – and her knee was swollen. Thinking she had twisted it, her parents took her to a walk-in clinic, followed up with their family doctor, then a pediatrician. The pediatrician suspected JIA and referred her to SickKids, where she was diagnosed. Since then, medication has helped manage inflammation of her joints which causes swelling and pain in her ankles, knees and wrists, although she had to have cortisone injected into her knee once.

Although she is supposed to avoid high-impact sports like trampoline and running, Natalija is able to ride, although she has to be careful when dismounting. She developed an interest after a pony ride she had at age three at the Western Fair and that grew after a neighbour’s daughter took riding lessons and Natalija wanted to do the same. She started western lessons in 2017 and in 2020, switched to English at Sprucehaven. She likes jumping and eventing and her usual lesson horse is Variety Gem, a chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred. She plans to continue her riding education, with a goal to event as well as do Working Equitation.

Spruce Haven owner Linda Plank is a board member for the Ontario Society for Working Equitation and introduced the discipline, one of the fastest-growing in North America, to Spruce Haven riders.

“I like how clear Working Equitation is and the rules are self-explanatory,” says Natalija. “I do like the garrocha too. I get to swing this pole around a horse and it looks very cool.”

Because ‘Gemmie’ tends to get stressed out by being off-property, he won’t be accompanying Natalija to the Working Equitation Expo. “Gemmie tells you how he feels and is very communicative and interactive. When I first started doing Working Equitation, he was horrified and it wasn’t just the obstacles – it was the pole on the ground and the Christmas trees he had to walk around!” Finn Again, on the other hand, is a former jumper and dressage horse and a veteran of off-property shows. “He is a massive grey with a huge, beautiful trot.”

The Expo includes seminars, a trade fair, and clinics with World Association Working Equitation (WAWE) senior judge/international Lusitano judge Antonio Vicente and senior USAWE judge and Master Level Rider Doreen Atkinson. Tickets for Friday’s charity event and Battle of the Breeds are limited and are a donation of  $25 per adult and $10 per child. To purchase tickets, visit here; for more information about the Ontario Society for Working Equitation go to www.oswe.ca/canamworkingeq.