At the age of 60, most athletes would consider their best years behind them. Not Beth Underhill. With a long list of accomplishments already earned including Olympic, World Championship, and Pan American Games appearances, Underhill’s career recently underwent a renaissance after teaming up with long-time friend and colleague, Eric Lamaze. Underhill began riding for the 2008 Olympic champion’s Torrey Pines Stable a year ago where she is supported by owners and fellow Canadians, Mark Rein and Tara Dow-Rein.
Since making the move to Torrey Pines, with bases in Wellington, Florida, and Ecaussinnes, Belgium, Underhill has been competing at five-star events around the globe. In May, she jumped double clear for Canada in the Nations’ Cup of La Baule, France, before winning the Rolex Grand Prix two days later riding Dieu Merci van T&L. In August, Underhill was a member of the all-female team for the FEI World Championships in Herning, Denmark, riding Nikka vd Bisschop. For the icing on the cake, she became only the second Canadian after Lamaze to compete in the prestigious Global Champions League, riding for the Rein family’s Rome Gladiators team.
From her early beginnings on the family farm to starring on the international show jumping scene more than 50 years later, Underhill is living proof that age is just a number. When the 2023 National Team Program list of Canadian show jumping athletes was released this month, Underhill topped the ‘A’ Squad. Based on results earned during the 2022 show season, she had jumped clear 87.5% of the time when competing at 1.55m or 1.60m level with “Nikka.” That’s a statistic that any rider would be happy to have at any age!
We caught up with Underhill after her final show of the season at the Global Champions League “Prague Playoffs.” After an exciting season that involved lots of travel, Underhill was able to enjoy time with her husband, David Marion, at their newly purchased property in Mulmur, Ontario.
What age did you start riding and what was the name of your first pony?
I grew up in Georgetown, Ontario, which was a small town at the time. My mother signed me up for 12 lessons at the YMCA. The first time I rode, I fell off the pony. I can still remember its name – Rosie. My mother thought that would be the end of it, but I said I wanted to go back the next week. My favourite animal when I was a kid was cows; I loved cows! Once I started riding, horses quickly eclipsed my cow obsession.
My parents were both from England originally, and there had been no horsey background in my family at all. Once they came to Canada and were living in Ontario, my father purchased a dilapidated stone farmhouse in Uxbridge. He really enjoyed the process of renovating it and got involved in the local farming community. He got my first ponies for me at an auction – he bought a farm bell and two ponies as part of a lot for $60. I was eight years old and named the ponies Teddy and Stardust. It was a real family experience, and something that we grew with together. It went from there.
The new National Team Program list has come out, based on competition results for 2022, and you currently head the ‘A’ Squad with Nikka. How long have you been partnered together, and what have been your goals with her?
When I started with Nikka in Florida this winter, it was in 1.45m classes. She was nine years old and still learning her craft. If you had told me in February that I would be representing Canada at the World Championships with her I would have been shocked! The trajectory didn’t surprise Eric, of course, but it certainly surprised the heck out of me! It is a partnership where we both have a lot of trust in each other. She’s such an old soul. She comes to events with strong confidence in herself and in me. That partnership really developed over the past few months. What she did, for her age and experience, was remarkable.
Next, we’ll work on our speed. She’s not a naturally fast horse, but as she gets stronger and more agile, she’ll get faster in her foot speed. She has a huge stride and huge scope; it’s definitely an arrow in your quiver to have the scope to do the job.
Our last show was the Global Champions League Playoffs in Prague in November where there were massive jumps and technical tracks, and now she’s going to have a well-earned break over the winter. We will probably start competing with her again in late February. After the break, and with everything she’s learned this season, she’ll come out even stronger in 2023.
What is your favourite competition memory?
I can’t say just one. My first time representing Canada on a team had been such a lifelong goal. I was 29, so it wasn’t an overnight success by any means. It was the Nations’ Cup in Washington in 1990 and I jumped double clear with Monopoly. That was huge!
And then this year winning the Rolex Grand Prix at La Baule [France] – it was my first time competing in Europe in probably 20 years! I really appreciate having a second opportunity in my career. Winning was completely unexpected but something that I will cherish for always and forever.
What is your favourite horse show venue to compete at?
Spruce Meadows will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the gold standard as a rider developing in Canada. Competing at the ‘Masters’ was something that you worked hard to attain. When I was riding Monopoly, we won the Shell Cup Derby twice and placed second twice, so that was a special class for us. I was also second in the $1 million du Maurier International with Altair one year at Spruce Meadows. We just missed out on the win by two tenths of a second!
Since being in Europe this year and jumping at La Baule and Rome and Riyadh and Prague and Herning – I couldn’t even choose one over the other! Every one of those shows was spectacular not only for the venue, but for the level of competition. The way the sport has grown exponentially over the years is just incredible. Whether it was representing Canada or riding in the Global Champions League, it was all beyond my wildest dreams! Especially at 60 years of age.
Which competition is still on your bucket list?
I would love to compete at Geneva, I’ve heard so much about it. I would also love to go to the Global Champions Tour events in Paris and London. I went to Paris to spectate and just being part of that experience was great.
What is your dream vacation?
These days it’s being home! We purchased this new property last year and I think I’ve been home for six weeks in the past year and a half. Enjoying the property with David and our goats and pigs and Jack Russells is like a vacation.
For a real vacation, I’ve always been drawn to California; I love the vibe. I have family in London and love spending time there, it’s such a cosmopolitan city. And I’ve grown to love Belgium after living there for the past nine months. The European culture is a little slower and feels more like country life. The travel this year has been exhausting but I’ve experienced so many places that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in the past. I’ve packed a lot into this past year!
Cats or dogs?
I love all animals! I never used to be but now I’m allergic to cats so yes, dogs. We have three Jack Russell terriers. I love the Jack Russell character and find it really fits well with my lifestyle. We have a farm so they can run around and be part of the farm activities. They are all living their best life here with us. I’ve been fortunate to travel with Oliver, he’s been all over Europe with me, and our other two are named Elliot and Gage.
I’m also a big supporter of Jack Russell Network Canada. That’s very dear to my heart. I’m active in helping them with adoptions and getting the word out about rescuing Jack Russells that have had an unfortunate start. I also rescue pot-bellied pigs. Our animals are very important to us and an integral part of our life.
Last show you binge-watched?
I’m late to it, but Ozark. Now I’m watching White Lotus. It’s on Crave and it’s about different characters who are at a hotel at various locations. I also really liked Mammals on Netflix with James Corden. It’s really, really good. It’s about a couple and their relationship. It’s a little dark but it’s very clever. I also recently rewatched Mad Men and The Affair. And The Crown as well. Dominic West, who was in The Affair, plays Prince Charles in the new season.
What are the three most used apps on your phone?
Instagram, WhatsApp, and ClipMyHorse. Google maps would be very high up there, too.
Favourite motto or saying?
When I’m going into competition, how I speak to myself is to acknowledge that we all have nerves and the desire to do well. You have all that angst, but I get on my horse, and I remind myself to block the emotion and I remind myself why I do what I do – I’m passionate; I love it; I’m in the twilight of my career; be the best that I can be; and give the best to my horse and my team. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the pressure and the stress of competition, but you must remind yourself why you are actually there. It encapsulates my desire and my passion to be doing this at 60 years of age. I pull myself down to that basic element of why I want to do this. It grounds me, and it centers me.
My strength, even if it’s a high-pressure situation, is that I can control those nerves. I can step in the ring and ride the best I can in a pressure situation. I can react and usually bail myself out of trouble. I’m very strong in how I control my emotion. From the second I step through the gate and the bell goes, I’m able to block everything else out. As an athlete and as a rider, you have to find a way to deal with adversity and be the best you can be in that position. It’s also equal to what you deal with in life – adversity, tragedy, euphoria, loss. It’s helped me to navigate my life in all of those ways as well as in my career.
What three things are always in your fridge?
Eggs. I love eggs, I have eggs for breakfast. I love old white English cheese. I love all different kinds of lettuce because I love all different kinds of salads. Also avocados. That should probably go before lettuce. I’m a huge avocado fan.
If you could ride any horse in the world, past or present, which one would you pick?
If I could, I would reincarnate Altair. He was considered one of the top horses in the sport at the time. Unfortunately, his career was cut short due to injury. I always felt like I didn’t see it through with him. We had such a strong partnership and special connection. I wish I could have seen it through to fruition. I always felt like it was unfinished business.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m very outgoing with people that I know but I’m actually painfully shy. I think it comes across to people that I’m aloof. People who know me think I’m crazy for saying that but I’m not naturally gregarious. I’m self-conscious and shy. I feel like I can be a bit socially awkward. Once I’m comfortable with someone it’s fine, but it takes me a while.
People would also think it’s weird that I love pot-bellied pigs so much. I feel sad about how many have been bought as impulse buys – they are so cute as piglets – but they don’t fit in apartments when they’re grown. They are barn animals and should live on a farm. So I would say people would be surprised by my affinity with pigs!