Canada’s Olympic dressage riders and national team members are household names among followers of the sport. But there’s a new crop of up-and-coming riders poised to enter the limelight that fans should be watching. Among them is 31-year-old Ariana Chia of Winnipeg. sat down with the rising star to learn more about where she came from and where she hopes to go.

When did you start riding?

Growing up, my family wanted us all to be involved in sports, music, etc. I took musical theatre, piano, and swimming lessons until the age of seven, when I had my first riding lesson. After that I refused to do anything else! So I started riding five days per week and dropped all of my other extracurricular activities.

I competed in hunters, jumpers, and dressage since I was little, and for a while I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a jumper or a dressage rider. I was jumping up to the 1.20 metre level and loved the thrill of it, but always was obsessed with the repetition, patience, discipline, and the elusive “perfectionism” involved in dressage. Ultimately. I decided to pursue it full time around age 17.

What was the dressage scene like in Manitoba when you were starting out?

I was the first rider from Manitoba to ever compete in the FEI North American Youth Championships, and the first from our province to be long- or short-listed to an Olympic team for dressage. The highest level I had ever seen in person at our local shows was Second Level, so I watched a lot of videos online to learn about the higher level movements, and read a lot of magazines. It became evident very quickly that if I wanted to pursue the sport seriously I would need to move in order to be exposed to great trainers and competitions.

Ariana and Flame. (photo courtesy Ariana Chia)

Your business is based in Florida – what are the advantages and disadvantages of leaving home?

I think if you are based out east in Canada where you have lots of fantastic trainers like Jacqueline Brooks, Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu, Belinda Trussell, and Christilot Boylen, as well as a lot of clinicians coming in regularly, it’s definitely possible to reach the highest level of the sport and stay based in Canada. Unfortunately, Winnipeg is really an island with no top trainers and no international competitions, so it’s always been extremely challenging to stay based there.

One big attraction of staying in the US – and Wellington, Florida, in particular – is the concentration of CDIs [international dressage competitions] all taking place in the same location over a three-month period.

When I was 12, I was invited to train with an Olympian in an intensive program, which required me to move away from home and continue with my high school studies online. This felt like the first big leap of really taking my sport seriously, but instead of a sacrifice I really viewed it as an incredible opportunity. I missed out on a lot of “normal” things – the typical high school and university experience – but gained such valuable experiences from my sport and the equestrian community as a whole.

I started spending winters in Florida in order to work with world-class trainers and compete in international competitions. It was challenging being away from family and friends for so long, and our sport can be quite isolating, but in time I made Florida my second home and developed friendships and a community down here.

When did riding become a career for you, instead of a hobby?

I always hoped to turn my sport and passion into my career, but I knew that it would be a challenge. My parents encouraged me to gain experience in the business world, so I studied Strategic Business Management at the Harvard Extension School [online] and received my graduate certificate after a three-year program. That education definitely helped me structure my equestrian business and I’m so thankful my parents encouraged me to further my education.

You and Flame were heartbreakingly close to representing Canada at the World Championships, but Canada’s decision not to send a team meant only two individuals could compete. How did you handle that?

Not going to the World Championships was definitely a little bit gut-wrenching. You work so hard, not just for the single year of qualifying, but for over a decade to get to the point where you could be pulling high enough scores to make it onto the team. The one year it all lines up, Canada doesn’t send a team!

There are so many inevitable ups and downs that come with this industry; you have to enjoy the journey, every step, every ride, every show, and not just the end goal. The journey this year was so incredibly exciting and so fulfilling.

You didn’t compete this summer – is there a reason for that?

I usually don’t compete much in the summer in Winnipeg, so the summer absence from competitions is pretty standard for me. It’s a great time after the super busy back-to-back season for the horses to train more lightly for a few weeks, and then slowly work on improving fitness and specific weaknesses to prepare them for the next season. I will be starting in the national ring as always to get back into the swing of things, and then step into the CDI ring again with Flame in January.

What is your next goal?

Flame is consistently surprising me with his ability as an international grand prix horse. I think what is so special about our relationship is that I’ve been his only rider for his whole life, and our connection and communication comes out in the ring. My relationship with him has been my longest partnership with a horse and it’s so special to have this kind of rapport with an animal.

I absolutely have my sights set on the 2024 Olympics in Paris. But first, we will try to qualify for the Pan Am Games in Chile next year.

How do you spend your spare time?

When I’m not in the saddle I love cross-training. I typically work out five to six days per week and love trying new workouts. Lately my spare time has been consumed with training my new Dachshund puppy!

Right now I have nine horses in full training and I also teach lessons virtually to maintain my clients in Winnipeg, so it’s very busy, But it’s great to stay connected and maintain a weekly program with my clients in Canada even when I’m not able to be there.

Inside Ariana’s Stable:

1999 Grey KWPN gelding by Democrat
Teo was my first Grand Prix horse and to this day he is the hottest, most electric horse I have ever been on. He taught me so much about the details of the Grand Prix movements, and he had a never-ending tank of energy which certainly comes in handy during the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special! Although he was extremely hot and difficult to ride, I attribute much of my current success with Flame to my experiences with Teo. At 22, he is now enjoying his retirement in Canada, and is still 100% sound and fresh as ever.

2010 Chestnut Oldenburg gelding by Fidertanz 2
Flame is now the horse I’ve had the longest partnership with – from six months old to almost 13! He’s my heart horse; sometimes I feel like I know him better than I know myself. We have been through so much together, and I am so proud of the horse he has become. It was my goal to train a horse from the very beginning to international Grand Prix, and he’s already helped me achieve some of my biggest dreams in this sport.