Canadian show jumper Vanessa Mannix was born and raised in a family full of equine enthusiasts and comes by her love for horses naturally. A fervid equestrian, she has climbed the ranks to become one of Canada’s top athletes, competing internationally, winning numerous classes, and donning the maple leaf proudly in five Nations Cups to date.
“I actually started off riding at our family farm in Calgary,” said Mannix. “It was mainly trail riding, jumping cross-country and playing peewee polo before I ever jumped in the show ring. I really had an organic start to riding horses and falling in love with what it means to team up with one of these incredible animals.”
For the 32-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, there’s a lot more to it than earning ranking points and winning championship ribbons. She’s enamoured with horses; captivated by the partnerships formed and the unique opportunity to bond with these special creatures. The reward is the ride ‒ pun intended.
“You can train a horse, but you can’t make them do anything,” she said. “They have to make that choice to show up for you. Being exposed to different disciplines reminds me how special that relationship is with the horse. I think it really makes me appreciate when I go into the ring, recognizing that we’re competing at the very edge of a horses’ ability, that they have the faith in me to answer the questions I’m asking them.”
The equestrian community as a whole is tight-knit, but despite the commonality of a true love for horses, each discipline exists as an entirely separate entity. There’s no real intermingling at the elite level of the sport, aside from at world championships or World Cup Finals. For Mannix, the opportunity to try other disciplines is something she feels has made her equestrian journey more rewarding, as she’s worked her way up to the international level. Her father, Frederick, is a member of the Canadian Polo Hall of Fame and her brothers, Frederick Jr. and Julian, are high-goal professional polo players.
“As focused as I am on show jumping, I was obsessed with horses from a really young age and that has always guided how I like to spend my time,” she said. “Being open-minded about other disciplines has paid off enormously because I’ve met some fabulous horse people, made amazing friends, and made some incredible memories along the way. For example, I had my amateur jockey’s license for a year in Ireland on the racetrack, something my good friend Barry O’Connor set up for me. I also have some wonderful friends in Calgary who are bona fide cowboys and cowgirls. They are always kind enough to invite me along when they’re moving cows or branding to teach me the basics.”
If you take a moment to scroll through her Instagram page, you’ll quickly learn that she’s a ‘Jill of all trades’ when it comes to riding horses. In her own unique way, Vanessa defines the idea of a true horsewoman, participating in more disciplines than you can count on two hands in her spare time.
Perhaps the most exciting group of activities for her goes back to her Calgary roots. As a proud Albertan, it might be a toss-up between loping in the exhilarating Grand Entry of the world-renowned Calgary Stampede Rodeo, riding side-saddle in the Calgary Stampede Parade, or the thrill of skijoring across a snow-covered field in the middle of winter.
“One of my dad’s mantras that applies to everything, whether it’s in the board room or the barn, is ‘if it isn’t fun, change it now,’ so in the quest for fun, we have done some crazy things,” she said with a huge smile. “When it comes to the side-saddle, hunting, or skijoring, a really good friend of mine, Sam Mitchell, is the brains behind that operation. We’re lucky enough to have a group of horses at the barn that are probably some of the most versatile horses in the world. They’re my family’s horses and my dad has always been up for a new adventure and supportive of any of these kinds of crazy ideas.”
If you get the opportunity to spend some time with Mannix, you’ll learn quickly that she has a positive energy, zest for life and an infectious spirit, especially when it comes to horses. She stays grounded through a true appreciation of the wonderful animals who have given her so much already.
“Having the chance to try other disciplines has reinforced time and time again my love for horses and being able to appreciate the incredible things they do for us,” she said. “Whether it is jumping a 1.60m grand prix, moving cows in the freezing cold or riding through downtown Calgary and chatting with little kids, it amazes me what horses will do for us based on the trust they have in you.”
Having shown her horses on three different continents and in numerous countries, Mannix feels incredibly grateful for the opportunities she’s been given. And with a hectic travel schedule, she doesn’t take her time at home for granted; in fact, being able to go home is extra special.
“When I think about home, I have so much love in my heart for Calgary, for Alberta, and for Canada. There are so many core values that I really identify as Albertan right down to the ground and that is not being afraid to get your hands dirty ‒ that ‘can do,’ entrepreneurial spirit and being able to persevere. Albertans are gritty, always willing to try new things or take risks and I think they’re rewarded for that.”
She laughed thinking about those stuck at home right now, battling the frigid temperatures of a Calgary winter while she soaks up the sunshine in Wellington, Florida.
For any elite athlete, it’s important to find balance and her lifestyle reflects that as she works hard to make the most of each day. While there are lots of other activities that fill her weekly schedule, her main focus remains show jumping.
Now based in Wellington for the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), her show season is already in full swing with a string of five horses to campaign for the winter circuit. She’s lucky enough to have three CSI5* grand prix horses; Grand Cru Vd Vijf Eiken, a 15-year-old Belgian Warmblood stallion; Catinka 25, a 12-year-old Oldenburg mare; and Valentino D’elte, a 12-year-old Selle Français gelding.
“I have a wonderful group of horses at the moment, some really top-end competitors that I’ve had for a long time,” said Mannix. “I’m really proud of the fact that we have developed these horses ourselves, myself and my team of James Chawke and Conor Swail [both from Ireland]. We have a great program and a great system that I really believe in. All three horses we bought as totally unproven; they’d never really jumped at the high international level so the fact that we were able to identify young talents and produce them ourselves is really special and I think what makes the string of horses I have now so meaningful to me.”
Mannix also has her up-and-coming 10-year-old mare Balzane Du Mazes who will jump in her first CSI3* this week at WEF, and a new 11-year-old gelding Kitting Des Hausseurs who she’ll continue to get to know in some national classes.
“I’m excited! This will be the first week ‘Maisie’ gets the chance to take top duty while my other FEI horses get the week off. I’m also really enjoying getting to know my new guy ‘Kit’ and am already quite enamoured with him. He’s got a great attitude and he’s really sweet.”
On Monday, Mannix participated in the World Championship Equestrian Triathlon in support of the Neil S. Hirsch Family Boys & Girls Club of Wellington. Her talent as a versatile rider was on display as she competed alongside her teammates Betsy Van Dyke (dressage) and Nic Roldan (polo) in both dressage and polo competitions, acting as trainer when her teammates gave show jumping a shot. The event raised $250,000, enough to help participating children for a full year.
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished with a small group of dedicated volunteers,” she said. On Monday we saw the equestrian community at its very best, coming to together to give back. I’m incredibly grateful for the support of the sponsors, organizers and the team that made it all happen. It was an honour to be included in the day and I had a blast.”