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Fabulous Friesians Thundering Down Centreline

How do you sit to a Friesan's canter? With great difficulty! But it's all worth it for Michelle Whitehead when those canters are rewarded with 8s or 9s.

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By: Susan Stafford-Pooley |

On August 1st of 2019, Dr. Michelle Whitehead arrived in Canada from Great Britain; the next day, her three purebred KFPS-registered Friesians also landed at Pearson International Airport in Toronto by way of the UK and Amsterdam. “After the lengthy quarantine [a month for the mare and seven weeks for the stallions] I was finally able to bring them home,” said Whitehead, now a full-time faculty professor at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON. ‘Home’ is the hobby farm in Schomberg where she lives with her husband, Paul, a photographer and graphic designer who works for Nobleton Feedmill, their three children, her mother, plus three dogs and two cats (“Also imported!”) and her three “black beauties.”

The equine component consists of two stallions and one mare who are all graded “Ster” or “Star” Predicate (standard minimum requirements for in-hand movement and height). The stallions are seven-year-old Nick Van De Olijftak and five-year-old Tys; the mare is Demy Van Gosveld, 10. All have impressive credentials. “Both stallions were presented during the 70-day approval test in the Netherlands where they both completed a ridden and driven IBOP test, which is a test for horses four years and older designed to establish an objective assessment of a horse’s natural aptitude and suitability for a specific use. It’s like a first level dressage test where they need a score over 77.5, which mine both received. The IBOP is also a means to collect data which the KFPS uses for breeding value estimates of sport aptitude.

Nick scored one of the highest scores of his year and Tys reached the final 10 of 300 stallions presented in 2017. Demy was also a champion in both the Netherlands and the UK and competed in British Dressage at level 3. Nick is currently working towards level 3 and has competed here at level 2 and my young stallion, Tys, is working towards level 2 and has competed here at level 1.”

Whitehead quickly noticed the stark differences between the show scene across the pond and here in Canada. “In The UK I competed almost weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, so it was a huge change for me to find that competitions here were a) not around the corner, and b) not very frequent! This year I competed both of the stallions at both Angelstone and Caledon. I was really happy with the way they behaved and with the judge’s comments, which gave me plenty to work on for the future. In terms of how judges view the horses, I felt very positive; I did get comments (accompanied by laughter) such as ‘how do you sit to that canter?’ to which I replied, “With great difficulty!” But when those canters are rewarded with an 8 or 9, I am happy – albeit with whiplash. Everyone is astounded that they are stallions, as there is no screaming or behaviour normally associated with stallions. In fact, they are so good, my children regularly sit on them.”

Their good manners extend outside of the showgrounds and allow them to be stellar ambassadors of the breed. “I can hack my stallions together – even pony them and ride alongside my mare with no issues,” said Whitehead. “I also ride them in parades such as the Main Street Christmas parade in Schomberg and at the Schomberg Fair, where we did a talk and a ridden display to music. I also presented Nick at Erin Horse Day, which was a great success.”

Josh Whitehouse as Sir Cole in The Knight Before Christmas – Copyright. Motion Picture Corporation of America
Josh Whitehouse as Sir Cole in The Knight Before Christmas – Copyright. Motion Picture Corporation of America

Friesians’ eye-catching movement and medieval good looks have made them a favourite mount in movies, and Demy recently made her debut, cast in the Netflix film “The Knight Before Christmas” starring Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Whitehouse that was released on Nov 21st. “Once you see the movie, you will be astounded what this mare did.” said Whitehouse proudly. “This was her first film experience and hopefully the start of many more. She was just impeccable, and in difficult circumstances! And we are honoured that Netflix used her image as one of the pre-release photos for the movie.” All three of her horses work exclusively with animal actor trainers Rick and Sue Parker of Canadian Wrangler in Tottenham, ON. “I don’t work with anyone else – these guys are the best!”

The road has not always been so smooth, however, as Whitehead was dealt a serious scare in 2019 when Nick contracted Potomac Horse Fever. “After all of the risk of arriving here, then we face this – a disease I had never even heard of. It was very touch-and-go for Nick, but thanks to the incredible care of Dr. Martyn Potter and Potter Veterinary Services he pulled through with no founder and is now in perfect health. So while I am now picking up the pieces with an enormous vet bill, I can find some comfort in knowing that if Nick was not half the stallion he is, he would have died.”

For now, however, life is peaceful at Hest and Hem Farm. “I spend much of my time hacking, as I do not have an arena or even a sand ring. However, I feel lucky to be riding in the beautiful Schomberg countryside and it is commonplace to see me pulling up to the local coffee shop, Grackle, and ordering my coffee. I am also lucky to be able to use the facilities of a local arena on an ad hoc basis. Therefore, I feel I now have the best of both worlds!”

Whitehead will be gearing up for the 2020 show season and is planning on offering the stallions for AI to limited mares. “I believe the breed is simply incredible. I do not think there is anything these horses will not do for you as a rider or owner; I feel they would run through fire. They are incredibly expressive and add a real finesse to a finer breed. Their nature is second to none – how many stallions do you know that you can ride through town with bands and hundreds of people and not blink an eye?”

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