Despite only being 17 years old, Carly Stevens is making a name for herself in Canadian show jumping circles. She has already represented her home nation in two North American Youth Championships (2017 and 2019) and recently ended the 2020 season with a superb showing in the Under 25 division at Thunderbird Show Park, scoring a win and the overall championship at the only Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) sanctioned competition to be held in Canada this year.

For Stevens, it all started back on the family farm in Dewinton, AB. As the fourth of five children, Stevens has fond memories of riding ponies in the backyard alongside her parents and siblings. Eventually, she and her older sister, Sydney, began riding at Bow Canyon Ranch. While her sister loved it, Stevens was less than enamored. When the pair moved to Foxtrail Farms, their respective outlooks switched and Stevens was the one who couldn’t get enough time in the saddle. While Sydney still enjoys riding for pleasure with a western pony, Stevens has grasped the opportunity to climb the show jumping ranks wholeheartedly.

The Hunter, Equitation, and Show Jumping Trifecta

While many young riders show in multiple rings during their formative years few can claim to be a winner in all three. It’s an accomplishment that Stevens can lay claim to, having won the CET Medal Regional Final for equitation; the 1.20m High Point Junior Jumper title; and the Canadian Hunter Derby at Rocky Mountain Show Jumping in Calgary, AB, in 2017.

“I would have only been 11 when we purchased a spicy and green seven-year-old gelding named Corona OS,” said Stevens. By the time she was 14, Stevens and Corona OS were on the road to the prestigious Royal Horse Show in Toronto, ON. “I had been planning to go to The Royal for the CET Medal Final. I wasn’t expecting to qualify for the hunter derby as well but winning it at Rocky Mountain gave me enough points to go.

“It was surreal, really,” continued Stevens of her Royal debut. “For my first time at such a prestigious show, it was a great learning experience. Everything about it was different than anything I had ever seen before, including the notorious warm-up ring; I remember hitting my head on one of the pipes! I’ve never had that many people watching me before. It was honestly amazing!”

Stevens also made her North American Youth Championship debut in 2017, riding LCC Hello Kate as a member of the Children’s team when the event was held in Saugerties, New York.

“I was the anchor rider for our team and I was very nervous,” recalls Stevens of the experience, where she placed eighth in the Individual Final. “The first couple of rounds were rocky but then we stepped up to the plate and the team got second.”

Two years later, when the 2019 North American Youth Championships were held at Old Salem Farm in New York, Stevens was a member of the Junior team for riders aged 14 to 18 riding VIP des Majuros, her 11-year-old French-bred gelding. While the team didn’t achieve the results it was hoping for, placing fifth overall, Stevens looks back on it as a learning experience.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of this year’s championships, Stevens looks forward to once again representing Canada when the 2021 edition is staged in Traverse City, Michigan. The only question is which division she will ride in. While she will still be eligible to ride as a Junior, Stevens will also be of age for the Young Rider division, open to athletes aged 16 to 21. A true team player, Stevens says she’ll ride in whichever division she’s asked to.

It All Started with Dento

Stevens currently has a string of five horses that compete in the Junior ranks all the way up to the CSI2* division.

Carly and Dento, “the horse that started it all,” competing at the 2018 Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ tournament in Calgary, AB. (Starting Gate Communications photo)

“I try not to say that I have a favourite because I love them all and am appreciative of them all but Dento has a special place in my heart,” said Stevens of the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Cardento x Concorde). “I did my first 1.40m class with him at Spruce Meadows and we ended up winning it. The same year, I was at Thunderbird and I did my first 1.45m class. It was unbelievable! We only had the last rail down, which was my fault. I wasn’t expecting to do that well with him considering that I was only 15 and riding in my first grand prix.

“That’s how it really started; I was finally seeing the results I was looking for,” said Stevens of her motivation to dive into the sport head-first. “It all started with Dento.”

She continued, explaining, “We got him in 2017; he came from Femke van den Bosch. He was for sale and I went out and tried him with my trainer at the time. We clicked right away. He’s a bit difficult and scared of everything but for some reason I didn’t really mind it. It kept him sharp about everything, which is nice. He has a great personality, a total puppy dog, and is a barn favourite. He has a real goofy side to him. He’ll pull your coat zipper up and down and he’ll take the ponytail elastics out of your hair! “The Big Red Dog” is our nickname for him.”

Keeping Motivated During COVID

Stevens was competing on the winter circuit in Thermal, California, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the show to shut down a week early. While disappointed, Stevens learned to see the silver lining in an abbreviated show season.

“Even though COVID has slowed things down, it’s given me time to train at home with all the horses,” said Stevens, who has been working with Dayton Gorsline and Canadian Olympian Lisa Carlsen since 2018. “It was beneficial to me to be able to have both trainers come out every day. This added attention allowed me to engage more with the horses and, in turn, they are much more responsive.”

Stevens stables her horses at home and Gorsline usually starts his day at her farm. Carlsen, who has a busy show schedule herself, joins her husband whenever she can, sometimes getting on Stevens’s horses in order to demonstrate.

“They have really put their time into helping me,” said Stevens, noting that Gorsline and Carlsen also coach her younger sister, Jordyn, who shows in the 1-meter division. “They can look at my horse, any horse that I’m riding, and figure out what I need to do differently. They’ve been in the horse industry for so long and have had top results with many of their clients. Between the two of them, they have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to share with us young riders.”

Stevens attends Bishop Carroll High School, a Calgary-based school that offers a self-directed learning program. This gives Stevens the flexibility to fit her studies around her training and show schedules.

“When we came home from California, we spent four months working,” said Gorsline. “It wasn’t about going to a horse show next week. I think it really helped Carly to spend more time with the horses. She learned more about riding on the flat and schooling and is starting to see the benefit of the work. Carly has mentally turned into a better student about the whole sport.”

Back in the Show Ring

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, a handful of Canadian competition organizers were able to offer local shows in their area. Only one, Thunderbird Show Park, was able to host FEI-sanctioned competition, running CSI2* and CSI-U25 divisions at its Harvest Welcome tournament in October.

In the CSI-U25 division, comprised of three classes, Stevens placed third and fourth respectively before winning Sunday’s $10,000 Final with VIP des Majuros.

“On the final day, anyone in the top five could have stolen first place,” said Stevens. “They were a really competitive group, and I knew the competition was going to be hard. I went first in the jump-off and thought I had laid down a pretty good jump-off track. It was nerve-racking for me to wait while the next five riders went. The way it played out, I won the class and ended up as champion.”

In addition to claiming the Under 25 championship title, Stevens also made her debut in the CSI2* division with a new mount, Atena de l’Ermitage. Purchased in February from Israeli competitor Ilan Ferder, Stevens hopes the 10-year-old Selle Français mare will help her gain more experience at the two and three-star levels in FEI competition.

“My new horse, Atena, and I did the 1.45m at Thunderbird,” said Stevens of the pair’s FEI debut. “We were double clear on the first day and ended up tenth. I was very happy with that. It was my first FEI show that wasn’t in the children or junior divisions. Atena stepped up and jumped around great. I felt like she and I really clicked!”

Family Support

Just as they did when she was first learning to ride on ponies, Stevens’s family continues to support her equestrian endeavours. Her father’s company, Grant Production Testing Services which works in the oil and gas sector, has sponsored the clothing for Canada’s teams at the North American Youth Championships since 2017. The company also sponsored the $40,000 CSI3* Royal West class in 2019 and recently began sponsoring at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC, which Stevens says is one of her favourite shows due to its welcoming and family-oriented atmosphere.

“It’s amazing to have such supportive parents and all of my siblings come out to watch as well,” said Stevens of the family dynamic. “It’s great to have everyone cheering me on even if I don’t do well. They’re always happy that I come out alive! I’m so appreciative of the sacrifices my parents and siblings make to accommodate my show schedule. I’m super lucky to have this family!”

The family has a total of 11 horses on the 80-acre family farm. In addition to Stevens’s five competition horses, there is one on rehab as well as her older sister’s western horse and her younger sister’s show jumper. Then there is her mother’s former mount that enjoys pasture life along with two other retired horses.

Several dogs also roam the property. While the family already had two dogs – a Dalmatian and a Dalmatian/Great Dane-cross – they added two new canine friends to the pack during COVID.

“We got two puppies at the beginning of quarantine; one is a Shepherd-mix rescue and one is a Great Dane,” said Stevens. “The Great Danes are very loyal. They choose one person – it’s always my mom – and they protect her. I admit that I get a little jealous of her.”

Stevens has her own favourite, saying, “I love our rescue, Ralph. He enjoys Puppuccinos from Starbucks so we’ve nicknamed him “Chino.” He’s the best dog we’ve ever owned. He’ll sit in the tractor bucket while I’m doing my chores and sits in my lap when Sydney and I take him for a rip in our RZR 4×4. He’s the perfect farm dog!”

While Stevens loves going on family ski trips, she will soon be leaving the cold weather behind as she heads to California in January to show on the winter circuit. She has long-term ambitions in the sport, saying that she plans to turn professional and would love to ride in the Olympics. She cites three-time U.S. Olympic medalist Beezie Madden as one of the riders she looks up to as well as Ireland’s Daniel Coyle, noting, “I think he’s such an accomplished rider. He’s so quiet and just gets it done. It’s a privilege to watch him ride. I would love to ride some of his amazing horses or even get one lesson from him.”

As for her potential in the sport, Gorsline noted, “She has a very nice group of horses and supportive parents that hold her accountable. She wants to be competitive. She’s a girl who could go far. Is she talented enough? Yes! Winning the Under 25 stuff at Thunderbird was by no means lucky.”

With dedication, hard work, and perhaps just a little luck, Stevens is one to watch for on the Canadian show jumping scene.