At just 23 years old, Naima Moreira Laliberté has already accomplished more than many riders achieve in a lifetime. The Montreal native earned multiple gold medals at the North American Youth Championships in both the Junior and Young Rider divisions, and helped lead Team Canada 1 to a silver medal last year at the FEI Nations Cup CDIO-U25 in Wellington, Florida. Her winning ways continued at the 2019 Pan Am Games as part of Canada’s gold medal dressage team, and – until the pandemic hit – she was on track to securing a spot on the 2020 Olympic team.
With such a long list of achievements, it might be tempting to sit back and a take a break, but Naima is just getting started. We caught up with her to learn about her path to success and what goals she has her sights set on next.
Where and why did you decide to start riding?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had an obsession with horses. At the age of five I started taking lessons in a pony club. That progressed into trying some jumping as well as learning a more classical style of riding within the circus environment [Naima’s father is renowned Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté].
Tell us about your first horse.
I got my first horse as a birthday gift when I was 10. His name was Nao and he was a six-year-old Lusitano stallion. Together we did everything! We jumped, we would go on trail rides and he even participated in an equestrian circus show for about three years and I accompanied him.
When and why did you decide to focus on dressage?
Around the age of 13, I happened to see dressage coverage on TV from the Beijing Olympics for the first time, and thought I would really like to try it. I took Nao, who had been pretty much trained to canter backwards as a trick, and he and I went for our first dressage lesson. We were quite the pair! After a few years, however, we went on to compete at the North American Young Rider Championships and he went all the way to U25 Grand Prix. He was simply the best horse and companion. His huge heart allowed us to achieve so many goals together. He is now happily retired at home.
Who was your first dressage coach?
Albrecht Heidemann. At the time, he was in charge of a wonderful youth development program in Canada. We worked together for most of my FEI Junior and Young Rider career, and I am grateful for the foundation that he gave me.
Now you train with Ashley Holzer. What makes her program a good fit for you?
I started working with Ashley near the end of 2017 and haven’t looked back. I think her patience, knowledge and positive approach to training really works well for me and my horses. She understands the struggles we all face as riders from time to time, and she has always been able to guide me positively and humorously through them.
You train with Ashley in Florida during the winter. Where is your Canadian home base?
We have a family barn about 45 minutes south of Montreal, where my horses and my sister’s horses are stabled. Brittany Fraser Beaulieu [who also trains with Holzer] has her horse All In stabled with us, which is great because we can help each other. We installed Pixio cameras, which allow Ashley to teach us remotely from her living room.
Tell us a little about your Pan Am Games experience.
Making the team was a big challenge for me, as it was my first season at Grand Prix. What I loved about the Games is the feeling that you are part of something bigger, because you are competing alongside so many other sports and countries. The whole experience is easily one of the most memorable moments in my career thus far. Participating in the opening ceremonies, standing on the podium with the team gold medal, being the highest-placed rider in both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, and posting personal bests – I couldn’t have imagined a more amazing outcome! I’m just so happy and grateful to have been a part of it all.
Where are you riding out the pandemic?
I’m currently finishing up my two-week quarantine following my return home from Florida and the horses are getting a well-deserved break at the moment. Once I am out of isolation, I will be able to continue caring for and training them. Hopefully things will get better soon, but we are taking everything day by day and with much precaution.
When you are not riding, what hobbies do you enjoy?
My horses certainly keep me busy, but I always try to seek a balance between my friends, family, those I love, and my horses. I also think it is important to keep your body and mind active and healthy. I love the arts, so during this quarantine I have been drawing and painting a fair bit, as well as reading.
Stable Personalities – Meet Naima’s FEI mounts
Breed: Hanoverian gelding (Sandro Hit X Bella Italia)
“Statesman is currently my main horse. We had much success in the U25 Grand Prix division during our first season together in 2018, and then moved up to the Grand Prix in 2019. 2020 was a great season for us; however, unfortunately it was cut short due to Covid-19.”
Personality: “Statesman is a very sensitive and hot horse. He has a bit of a cheeky personality. He is constantly begging for attention and can NEVER have too much food!”
I Do Kiss
Breed: Swedish Warmblood by French Kiss
“I have had I Do Kiss for almost five years now. Our partnership has grown stronger and stronger every year. I made my U25 debut with him in 2018 and we won the Orion Cup in 2019 for the most successful U25 rider in Canada. That season, we finished out the year ranked 5th on the FEI’s U25 world ranking list. In 2020, we transitioned into the international Grand Prix and he has once again proven his talent. I call him my warrior, as I always know that he will try his hardest for me in the ring.”
Personality: “I Do Kiss is one of the nicest and kindest stallions that I know. During the fall of 2019 we made the difficult decision to operate on his left eye in an attempt to save it after years of battling with glaucoma. I didn’t know how he would react to no longer having sight in that left eye; however, he took everything in stride and showed tremendous trust in me, which has allowed us to navigate some of our best tests in 2020.”