Canadian dressage has benefitted greatly from Tom Dvorak’s emigration from Germany in 1982. He first represented Canada on the Young Riders team in 1985, where they earned the silver medal. He has competed as a Canadian team member at the 1990 World Equestrian Games, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and the 2007 Pan American Games, where the team earned silver and Tom finished fourth individually. In 2011, he was the anchor rider for Canada aboard Viva’s Salieri W at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the team earned the silver medal.

Viva’s Salieri W, an 11-year-old Canadian-bred Hanoverian stallion by Viva Voltaire, is owned by Dressage Canada’s 2011 Owners of the Year, Augustine Walsh and Christine Eppinger. “He is a special horse; every day he is ready to give 110 per cent and I love riding him,” Tom has said of the horse he began training as a four-year-old. This year marks the 22nd time that Tom, 46, has been a “listed” Canadian dressage rider.

At the Dvoraks’ Friday Hill Stables in Hillsburgh, ON, dressage is truly a family affair. Tom’s wife of 24 years, Ellen, manages the stable and daughter Alexandra, a promising young competitor, helps with the training and day-to-day operation – when she’s not busy working on completing her university degree.

Tom has worked with many professionals over the years and is a staunch advocate for always striving to improve in the stable and in the saddle. He has been mentored by the elite of the dressage world, training with Christilot Boylen when he first came to Canada and later with Cindy and Neil Ishoy as a young adult. He is currently training with Lars Peterson, whose philosophies closely mirror those of someone who has had a lasting influence on Tom, former Canadian team coach, Norbert van Laak.

Although there are not many occasions when their paths cross these days, the two maintain a close bond. It is Norbert who continues to encourage Tom to grow as a horseman. “We can talk about anything, not just horses, but also about life. The way I see it, if you figure that you know it all, you’re done. Every day you learn something, and as Norbert always told me, “a lifetime is not long enough to learn everything in this sport.” I also believe there is something to be learned from the other disciplines and you should recognize when you can take the good ideas, wherever they may crop up.”

More than simply being responsible for guiding Tom to the medal podiums, Norbert has instilled in his former student the subtlety and finesse Tom uses to coax winning performances from his mounts. “He has helped me to better understand how horses react to the rider and why,” he explains. “He also reinforced in me how important it is to sit absolutely correct in order to give correct aids. Working with Norbert I learned howto get a lot more from my horses with much less effort and finer aids. His kindness, love and respect for horses is what I continually admire and relate to. He is a true horseman.”

Tom takes his role as a trainer and mentor very seriously, believing it is important to give back to the next generation the skills and support that helped him develop throughout his career. For over two decades he has coached numerous students to team and individual medals at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships and the FEI Young Rider Dressage World Cup, with several “graduates” going on to be listed with the Canadian Dressage Team. Current student Jaimie Holland was second reserve for the Pan American team last year – her first out of the Young Rider division.

“Young people are the future of our sport and I feel it’s very important to give back by helping to train them,” Tom believes. “Young riders should have an all-around education with their horses: how to look after them, how to recognize problems, how to nurse problems; in short, horsemanship. I think that is a big part of becoming a true partner with your horse.”