Six years ago, Emily Thompson’s mother, Lisa Lunt-Thompson, asked her daughter if she wanted to accompany her to the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. “I said no, as I didn’t even know what the WEGs were,” confesses Emily of Newmarket, ON. “Then Mom brought home a DVD of the eventing and I watched it over and over and got hooked.” Emily, who turned 18 in February, now dreams of competing at a future WEG as a member of the Canadian Eventing Team.

Eventing in the blood

After a pony ride at a carnival when she was six, Emily asked her parents for riding lessons. She knew her mother had grown up on a farm, but had no idea that Lisa had ridden, let alone competed up to intermediate level in eventing and had represented Ontario in the North American Young Riders Championships in 1985, 1986 and 1987, before she put her riding aspirations aside to attend university. As Emily, who has two older non-riding siblings, got interested in horses, she started going to watch events at Wits End Farm in Mansfield, owned by her grandfather, Bill McKeen, and his partner, Jo Young. That’s where she got her first look at high-level competition, and it whetted her appetite.

Emily’s first horse was a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred named Bob. Although he seemed like an unusual choice for a nine-year-old girl’s first horse, he was very quiet. Emily moved him to Earnscliffe Equestrian Centre in Kettleby to train with Martha Griggs. Lisa also had a horse of her own by then – a Thoroughbred gelding named Sawyer, a grandson of the famous racehorse Affirmed.

Emily made her horse trials debut in 2010 at Grandview Farm in Oro. She brought Bob to training level, but in 2014 she sold him when she realized he preferred doing the lower levels. She had started riding her mother’s horse and went to Aiken, SC, that spring with Ian Roberts and his students. Emily was aiming for Young Riders with Sawyer, but after a lameness put his future as a preliminary horse in doubt, the search was on for a new mount.

Enter Paddington (Paddy), a three-quarter Thoroughbred, one-quarter Connemara gelding sired by the late Thoroughbred grand prix show jumper Yavari. The Thompsons were already familiar with the horse; when Lisa competed at training level, she and the grey gelding’s former owner, Martha Mesley, “were always in the same division and Paddy always beat Sawyer,” says Emily.

“On a good day, he’s 15.3 with his shoes on,” she continues. “Bob had a good neck, but Paddy’s longer in the leg and has a way bigger stride. He has a wonderful gallop similar to [17.1 hand] Sawyer’s and can stretch his stride more than you’d think.”

A question of trust

Paddington had competed successfully up to preliminary level, and when he came up for sale, he quickly became Emily’s. Coach Sally Sainsbury helped with her new ride. “I got him in the middle of the 2014 show season and we did a training level event, but I was really eager and pushed it and went preliminary,” she says. “He has a little bit of pony in him and wasn’t quite trusting me. If I’d make a mistake, he’d stop. A lot has changed since then. After hanging out with him in the barn over the winter, he got to trust me. In the spring [of 2015], he was totally different. I’d make a mistake and he was more willing to get over it.”

A year ago, Emily started training with Karl Slezak, whose first order of business was to improve the pair’s dressage scores by overcoming Paddy’s tendency to do a ‘pony’ trot. “Getting him to trot bigger made a huge difference,” notes Emily. Soon, the pair went from being in the middle of the pack after dressage to high on the leaderboard.

She accompanied the Slezak team to the southern US last winter. The Red Hills Horse Trials in March 2015 was a turning point, as Emily realized she and Paddy were capable of breaking into the 40s with their dressage scores. As it was their first FEI event, a CIC one-star, for the first time Paddy had to run cross-country before he jumped the stadium course – and the first time he had to deal with a large crowd in the bleachers.

“He’s usually very careful, but in the warm-up he was knocking down every jump and I was so nervous,” says Emily. “When we walked into the ring, his head went up, his ears went up, and he totally wanted to show off for the crowd. He went clean, even though I made a big mistake through the triple combination.”

Two weeks later, they tackled their second CIC* and finished in second place, and finished in 11th in their first CCI* at Ocala, Florida. The pair was named to the Ontario team for the North American Junior & Young Riders Championships in Kentucky, but at the competition Emily says “we both felt off” and they finished 37th.

Looking ahead

However, they were soon back on form and ended the season by returning to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Hagyard Midsouth Three-Day Event and Team Challenge in October, where they placed second in the CCI*. “Midsouth has been my favourite event with Paddy so far,” says Emily. “He felt so different, like he was one level above. He was always happy to go cross-country and if I didn’t see a distance, he’d wait. Now he sees a jump, locks on, and goes for it.” They were also the Ontario Horse Trials Association’s reserve preliminary champions of 2015. Emily’s success in the past year has attracted sponsors including Kastel Denmark, Samshield, and Ron Noble Insurance.

Emily and Paddy are back in Florida with Karl Slezak Eventing and she’s hoping to upgrade to intermediate this year after gaining more CIC and CCI* experience. “I’m really excited to see what Paddy’s got. He definitely felt like an intermediate horse at Midsouth,” Emily says.

“I never expected him to come this far. I’d love to make the team on him. That would be amazing, but it depends on how well he moves up the levels. My long-term goal would be to represent Canada with him. People would think he’s a giant pony!”