Originally from the Edmonton, AB, area, Dayton Gorsline has enjoyed an illustrious career in the world of show jumping. After working as a professional rider for Spruce Meadows for 10 years, Gorsline struck out on his own in 1999. Within the first year of being self-employed, he partnered with Canadian Olympian Lisa Carlsen in both business and in life. The couple has an 18-year-old daughter, Cassie, who has followed in her parents’ footsteps as a show jumping competitor.
Their Trademark Stables in Okotoks, AB, is home to approximately 24 horses. Gorsline also trains other riders in the area and often teaches in the mornings before returning home to coach clients for the remainder of the day.
In 2019, Gorsline took over the role of Youth Development Advisor from Beth Underhill, who was the first person to fill the position for Equestrian Canada (EC). Gorsline acts as Chair of the Youth Development Committee, which currently includes David Ballard, Alex Grayton, Underhill, and Marni von Schalburg.
Tell us a little about the role. When did you start and what are your responsibilities?
I had been on the committee with Beth for about four years. Last year, she wanted to step away from Chairing the committee to focus on qualifying for the Pan American Games. (Editor’s Note – Underhill was the traveling alternate for the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, with Count Me In.) I had done a lot of stuff to help out in the west and was one of the people that EC interviewed for the role and it went from there.
Our job is to pick teams, culminating in the North American Youth Championships (NAYC). Obviously, those championships didn’t happen this year, but we are responsible for picking teams for youth nations’ cup events in Florida and here at home in Canada at Thunderbird. As the Chair, it’s my responsibility to know what is going on with our young riders and to network with people throughout the country. I have a good grasp on what is happening in the west and I talk to people in the east who train young riders like Kelly and Jonathon Millar, Beth, Jill Henselwood, and Francois Lamontagne in Quebec.
Karen (Hendry-Ouellette, EC Manager of Jumping) and I have tried really hard this year to get riders to sign up and get their names into our system for tracking purposes. The most difficult thing is keeping up with everyone’s age as the Youth program comprises four age groups now and riders quickly move from one age bracket to another. We’ve worked to develop a better database of these riders going forward. We have also worked with US Equestrian to have access to its show records. It’s important to have the American results to look at, and it allows us to track the athletes better.
We still struggle to get the data that we need. For example, for riders competing at the FEI levels, you can look every Monday morning and see their results from all over the world. For riders at the youth levels who are competing in 1.20m and children, junior, and amateur divisions at national shows, it’s harder to get that data.
How do you communicate with the Youth riders? Are there forms of regular communication?
We invite the riders and their coaches to send video of their competition rounds. This is another way we are trying to get better at tracking within our committee. But the world we live in is a little strange at this time; I want to have videos sent but in this era of Safe Sport, which we take very seriously, we ask that video footage is funneled through the professionals.
We have just spent a week at Thunderbird where they offered numerous Youth divisions. One of our Youth riders, Sarah Tindale, traveled out west with Beth. It was great to see her at a show in the west, to be able to watch her compete, and to catch up with her and her mother in real life.
Once you start recognizing the names of the people who have signed up, it’s easier. When they haven’t signed up and aren’t in the system, it’s very difficult to have them on our radar. It’s frustrating when we know of a Youth rider who is doing well, or someone tells us about a certain rider, and we look and see that they haven’t signed up for the program.
There have been several Youth Nations’ Cup competitions introduced over the past few years – the Under 25 team event at the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Youth Nations’ Cups at Deeridge, both in Wellington, FL, and at Thunderbird in Langley, BC. How do you select athletes for those teams?
For the events in Florida, we like to use kids from the east and we go to Thunderbird with west coast kids. This gives everyone an opportunity to get the experience of competing on a team. At Deeridge, team competition was offered at the Children, Junior and Young Rider levels whereas Thunderbird is only Children and Junior team events. After those two events, you hopefully have a good read on the riders across the country and can take that information and come up with the teams for the NAYC.
Is the process for selecting athletes for youth competitions in Florida and Thunderbird any different than when you’re selecting the teams for the North American Youth Championships?
There is much more conversation and reaching out to the people you chit-chat with for the NAYC. By that time, there are more results on the ground in Canada to talk about. Florida and Thunderbird are earlier in the year and it’s harder to get a true read on a rider who may be moving up divisions, for example. Florida may be their first competition moving from the Junior to the Young Rider level; the kids may be keen but they are not ready yet or they might have a new horse with no mileage yet. As the season progresses, it gets easier. By the summer, when it comes time to pick the NAYC teams, you have a pretty good read on your horses.
To make our selections, all of the names submitted for consideration are forwarded out to the committee and then we get together on a phone call. As a committee, we also have to differentiate between the shows. For example, what one kid is jumping in the Youth divisions in Wellington may be very different than what another kid is jumping in Ocala. We have a knowledgeable group of committee members that are able to sit and discuss realistically how everyone is doing.
A lot of it becomes quite apparent. With the exception of one or two spots, it is easy to agree. And it will get even easier if we can start accessing US Equestrian and EC results. Of course, you always want feedback from the coaches as well – you want Erynn Ballard’s opinion, you want Beth’s opinion if they coach riders who are in contention. Just because a rider has turned one year older it doesn’t automatically mean both they and their horse are ready to move up to the next level.
The window of opportunity for these kids can be one or two years per age group. They progress so quickly from one age group to the next. And NAYC has also introduced a new age category, Pre-Junior, for riders aged 14 to 16 that are jumping 1.30m. That makes it even more challenging to ensure we are looking at the appropriate riders for each of the four categories – Children, Pre-Junior, Junior, and Young Rider. Theoretically, Canada will field four teams at the next NAYC.
Do you think the pathway from the Youth divisions up to the senior team is clear for the athletes? What can be done to improve?
It’s a tough world that we live in. In Canada, we don’t have a lot of access. In Europe, you’ll meet someone who is 21 or 22 working for Stal Hendrix. Two years later, they are on a Nations’ Cup team in Poland and, two years after that, they’re on a senior Dutch team. The Europeans are able to access “b” level competitions a lot more than we are.
In Canada there are only two Nations’ Cups per year, one at Thunderbird and one at Spruce Meadows. They are both five-star events. You don’t want to throw too many new riders into the ‘Masters’ for their first Nations’ Cup experience. From the outside, it might look like the same people are riding on our senior Nations’ Cup teams again and again but there really isn’t a sub-series to get people more experience before they step into five-star competition.
As I said, there are lower level Nations’ Cup competitions in Europe, but we don’t have the money to send teams to Europe to compete in the two and three-star competitions. You would love to send riders like Sam Walker and Kara Chad – that younger group – to those competitions to keep gaining experience but we don’t have those opportunities very often. Instead, we keep reaching back to the Eric’s and the Mario’s. If someone gave us funding for the next five years, we would love to send teams to Europe for the experience.
There is a pathway that maybe doesn’t seem important to all the riders and professionals out there but getting your feet wet in this type of Youth competition provides a real stepping stone. For example, Sam Walker was a great person to have at NAYC last year. He was happy to help, set jumps, watch time limits for the first few riders. He was a team player, and I’m happy to pass that information forward to Mark (Laskin, Canadian Show Jumping Team chef d’equipe).
Another thing is that we have a lot of great trainers, but they haven’t all had experience coaching riders at FEI competitions. For example, at NAYC last year, we had a situation where a trainer went to get on their student’s horse; they didn’t realize that’s not allowed at an FEI competition. A show like Thunderbird is good training across the board for both riders and their coaches.
Having watched the recent competition at Thunderbird, what were your impressions?
The Under 25 division was good jumping. The way this summer has gone, everyone has been jumping in the $10,000 grand prix offered at their local show. It was nice that the Under 25 riders got to compete against themselves. There were 22 that started; the jumping was good, it was fun to participate in and fun to watch. In the top placings, we were seeing kids that are 17, 18, 19, that will be part of the Young Riders group for NAYC for a few years to come.
What impact do you think COVID-19 has had on the development of our Youth riders?
It’s been horrible for the kids that have lost their last year of equitation finals or their last year to compete in the Children and Junior divisions. I tell them that if they are still able to go to some horse shows that they’re still privileged. I made a proposal to EC that we allow them to have the extra year, but it doesn’t work in the grand scheme of things. You feel bad for the ones that have worked hard and the parents that have invested so much. But no one is in this sport for a one-off event and we’re all very lucky that we are doing what we’re doing.
The jumping at Thunderbird, between the senior and the Under 25 divisions, was really good. Maybe more training was done at home, maybe the horses were more rested. There’s been a benefit to it. It sucks but look at the level of riding. People have obviously spent more time doing their homework as opposed to just going to horse shows.
What do you like most about the position of Youth Development Advisor?
I enjoy the actual sport with the kids. I don’t necessarily look at it as giving back to the sport, but we all want to see the sport continue to grow and get better. I don’t care who you are; you should offer up some time if you can.
I like dealing with the kids. A few years ago, Mark had me go to a Nations’ Cup in Europe for him to act as chef d’equipe. Ben Asselin and Kara Chad were on that team. I’ve known them since they were kids and they’ve gone on to do good things. Lisa (Carlsen) and Erynn (Ballard) both won individual gold medals at North American Young Riders’ Championships. Our riders have to come from somewhere.
I enjoy the horses. At the NAYC last year, we had a nice group of people. We got there and we were short a few professionals and told everyone that they would have to pitch in and help out. We had a great group of parents and the other trainers were happy to help and set jumps. Our Young Rider team won gold. Winning always makes you feel better!
What is the hardest part of your job?
It’s an expensive sport. It’s hard to say, “Your kid is not ready for this level, it’s not consistent enough.” Then it turns personal. It’s really difficult for a trainer when their client has invested in a nice horse and they’re trying to achieve a goal and they have to tell the student that they’re not ready. You feel like sometimes the professionals throw you under the bus and blame you as the selector instead of sitting the kid and the parents down and explaining that they’re just not ready yet.
There is a continual process of helping to educate without offending anyone. Some of these horses never show FEI. You are taking the professionals’ word that the horse is sound and will pass the FEI jog, and that the kid is prepared and knows the rules. There is no bigger disappointment than getting all the way there and someone’s horse fails the jog. We’ve done clinics and seminars to help inform. Last year at Thunderbird, we did a clinic with the Chief Steward to talk about FEI rules and had the FEI Veterinarian talk about medications.
The other tough part is that you’re always questioning if you were right in what you picked. Sometimes one age group thinks you did a great job and another one doesn’t! Winning is great but you want it to go well for everyone.
Is there anything else about the role that you would like to share?
I enjoy it and I really like the people. We try to keep communication as open as possible. It’s been a weird year, and we would love to see EC providing leadership in coming back to sport. Hopefully, next year will be very different than 2020!