Is there enough support for young riders in terms of training and a clear path to the top?
Nikki Walker, 24, jumping: As a jumper rider, in the past couple of years it has been very promising to see the U25 division develop across the country. Canada has also seen a lot of success with young riders at the NAJYRC and in Nation’s Cups. I know this has taken a lot of organization from different committees within Equestrian Canada and it is great to see our riders and the whole equestrian community step up to the plate.
When it comes to training, it is no secret that there are huge financial barriers and no easy path to the top level of our sport. That being said, the best riders in Canada, and on the FEI world rankings list, have worked incredibly hard to overcome these challenges and I believe that the riders in my generation are showing that they are determined to do the same. With an unwavering work ethic and a willingness to learn, there are countless opportunities in Canada for young riders to attend lectures and training sessions with experts, participate in clinics, and meet life-long mentors within our equestrian community.
April Simmonds, 21, eventing: In the US they have so many resources: they have an Under 18, an Under 25, and then the High Performance team. In Canada we don’t really have that; I was 18 and in training camp with the High Performance team. That was kind of intimidating because I was so young and still learning.
I think a lot of people want to go to Young Riders, but in Canada we always have to travel so far and pay our own way, which is fine … the program just needs a steady lead. It’s just hard if you don’t have someone in your life who knows how it works. It’s hard to figure it out on your own.
OHTA provides a coach and a chef, but the last couple of years it’s been out west, which is so far. We all paid our own way to get there. We had six months to fundraise – that’s not enough time to get $50,000 together. We all fundraised last year to go to Montana, but it was definitely quite the struggle. We need a few more resources.
Tanya StRasser-Shostak, 23, dressage: I have been very fortunate so far in my riding career to have been able to take part in many high-level competitions in North America as well as in Europe with my mother, Evi. However, I realize that is not necessarily a possibility for everyone. There have definitely been some programs and grants available to young riders either offered by our national federations or through individuals looking to continue growing the sport. That being said, I believe there can always be room for new programs or grants that could allow up-and-coming young riders the opportunity to have access to high performance training and opportunity to compete on a global scale. The sport has definitely grown tremendously as of late, especially in the youth divisions, and it has almost become necessary for us to train and compete at venues such as the Global Dressage Festival in Florida and in Europe to continue to develop riders to the highest standard.
I don’t think there is straightforward path to the top, per se. I think there will always be some detours along the way. The important part is building a realistic plan with multiple goals along the way, working from one milestone to the next.
What could be done to improve things (clinics, guest trainers, scholarships, more U25 classes with better prize money, help finding sponsorship, etc.)?
NW: All of the above will most definitely help to improve youth education and involvement in show jumping. Additionally, a great initiative could be for young riders to have a chance to work with a top rider for a period of time. Whether the rider is Canadian or not, being immersed in an internationally-proven program is truly eye-opening to the highest level of sport. This rider (or group of riders) could be nominated and chosen by Equestrian Canada. I don’t think it should be awarded to a rider with the best results, but rather someone that exemplifies every aspect of the sport including a willingness to learn, strong motivation, and talent.
AS: At the preliminary level in America they have the Junior Young Rider Open Prelim, so you’re competing against all the people you’re going to go to Young Riders with. No adults. In Canada we have juniors and seniors, but sometimes there are not enough people at the events so they do one preliminary class. You have to be on top of your game because you’re against Jess [Phoenix] and Diana Burnett and Kendal [Lehari], so it’s definitely hard to win!
TSS: We all know that horses are expensive and so anything that could assist in that regarding reducing expenses. I think it is important for high performance riders to continue contributing back what they can (time, experience, clinics, horses) to the next generation of athletes. Building the right support programs, such as the US programs founded mainly by Robert Dover and his team, would also help develop our next generation. I also think that the Jill Irving equine mentorship program is a great way to allow riders to have their first taste of high performance sport.
Do you think that kids needs to return to the more hands-on horsemanship that was seen in the past (i.e. Pony Club), or are those days over because young people lead such busy lives these days?
NW: I do believe hands-on horsemanship is incredibly important. Horses are not machines and as a rider you need to understand your horse. If you know your horses’ norms you can work to improve their weaknesses, know when they are not feeling 100% and develop their trust.
Everyone has 24 hours in a day. It is how effectively you focus your time and effort that will determine success. I feel as though the results I am proudest of to date were when I put 100% effort towards that goal on horseback and in the barn. Horsemanship is not something that should be compromised due to limited timing if you want to compete at the highest level.
AS: I’ve been selling horses in eventing, a lot of parents want to buy their kids the top horse, but sometimes they can’t necessarily ride it. They don’t want something that is just going to pack them around, they want something that’s going to win.
Parents are investing a lot more money now. When I first started I bought a hunter horse and tried to take it eventing and I had no idea what I was doing – she had no idea what she was doing – but it made me a better rider.
TSS: I think it is important to have a healthy balance between maintaining your academic education and pursuing your sport. The Sport-Etude program in Quebec allows me to balance both.
It is important that the young riders these days remember why they ride. Ultimately it isn’t always about winning; it is about creating a bond with the horse and enjoying the time you have with them in and out of the show ring. Being hands-on is an important part of being successful in this sport. I feel confident knowing their habits and quirks and feel that the connection I build with them outside of the show ring has benefitted me tremendously.
Youth involvement at horse shows has declined in many instances. How can the sport in Canada attract young people at the grass roots level?
NW: One good example of youth involvement at horse shows is at the Angelstone Tournaments Saturday Night Lights when families have a chance to bring their kids out to enjoy the grand prix. During this event kids are in contention for a youth scholarship, participate in the horseless horseshow, meet riders, and have the opportunity to walk the course. This brings a great atmosphere to the night classes and gets families excited about the sport. Although this is one instance, I think getting more people involved in the sport is essential.
Moving forward I think all involved in the sport need to brainstorm ways to make high level competition more accessible. This is a problem show jumping is facing not only in Canada, but internationally.
AS: A lot of people just ride at farms for fun and if we could have cheaper eventing clinics and take them cross-country schooling, they would see how thrilling it is. A lot of people have no idea it exists. I think a lot of parents get backed off by the thrills and spills and we need to show them the safer side of the sport.
I definitely think that if we had more young people [in eventing] then Young Riders would be a more established program and more teams would go. Right now there are only enough kids to scrape together one team. I remember when I first started there was a contest to get on it. But now there are only a few of us at the 2* level at that age.
TSS: The main challenge in growing this sport has always been the financial factor. It is still considered somewhat of an “elitest” sport, for lack of a better word. I think if we could reduce some external cost factors, such as competition fees, it may spark more interest within parents and would encourage grass-root children to continue pursuing equine sports. Perhaps greater funding opportunities for show organizers could assist with this issue. I also believe having access to show equipment at a lower cost would make a difference as well.
I find that sometimes it is also forgotten that it is important to support each other, win or lose.