Karen Hendry-Ouellette’s name is synonymous with hunter/jumper sport in Canada. As the long-serving Manager – Jumping at Equestrian Canada, Hendry-Ouellette is the go-to person for all things related to the sport’s largest discipline. From working side-by-side with our high performance show jumping athletes at major games to managing the CET Medal and Youth programs, Hendry-Ouellette does it all.

With a competitive career that stretches from an early beginning in her native Scotland to training for 10 years with none other than Ian “Captain Canada” Millar, Hendry-Ouellette can talk the talk as well as walk the walk. Her personal experiences as an athlete, combined with her professional role at Equestrian Canada, make her an infinite, invaluable, and irreplaceable source of knowledge.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us how you first got involved with riding.

I was born in England and grew up in Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh. My grandmother gave me riding lessons as a gift when I was four years old. Shortly thereafter, my dad took me to an agricultural auction where I begged him for a pony. That is where we bought Super Snail, better known as “Surpy.” He was a grey Welsh pony that was so quiet yet so smart. He was the perfect first pony for a child.

What level did you compete at?

Riding in Scotland, I tried many different disciplines – dressage, eventing, hunter, and show jumping. During my riding career, I started in Pony Club and went all the way up to the grand prix level in show jumping, which was the discipline I finally settled on.

There is one funny story from my childhood to share. In order to qualify to compete for the Linlithgo and Sterlingshire Huntsman Show Jumping Cup in Scotland – which I won! – you had to go fox hunting at least once. I was about 10 years old and, as everyone probably knows, the one thing you should never do when you are fox hunting is pass the huntsman. Well, when the horn signaled the start of the hunt and the hounds starting barking, Surpy took off and – you guessed it – we passed the huntsman! I learned many new words that day!

What achievement are you most proud of in your riding career?

There are so many. This could be a long list! Thanks to the support of my parents, I had some fantastic ponies and horses throughout my riding career. Some include Magic Carousel, The President, Geologue, Carry Back’s Bell Boy (his sire, Carry Back, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1961), Look and See Me, Simon Says, and Sweet Dreams.

Of course, I would not have gone anywhere without my coaches. When we lived in Europe, Derek and Chris Robertson were my primary coaches. Derek (now deceased) was a British Two- and Four-in-Hand Driving judge and competitor while Chris was an accomplished rider. They also loved dogs and were winners at the world-famous Crufts international dog show in England with their Whippets.

When we moved to Canada in 1981, we boarded our horses with Jayne Fleming, who passed away about 10 years ago, in Merrickville, ON. She was an accomplished athlete, judge, racehorse owner, and a founding member of the Ottawa Valley Hunt Pony Club. With Jayne’s encouragement I then moved to Juniper Farms where I was coached by Jill Henselwood for 17 years. Having grown up riding in a European-based system, Jill encouraged me to refine my skills for North America by competing in the hunters, which I did. My true passion was for the show jumping ring, but I was fortunate enough to do both. I then moved to Millar Brooke Farm where I spent the last 10 years of my riding career training with Ian Millar.

Karen, who trained with Ian Millar for 10 years, riding Big Ben. (Courtesy of Karen Hendry-Ouellette)

In Canada, I would say I was most proud of being a consistent member of the National Talent Squad for more than 10 years with many of those successes aboard Simon Says. Another would be winning a class at Spruce Meadows on “Simon” and, during the award presentation, they announced that I had just become an aunt!

I have fond memories of winning the MVS Solutions Rising Star class with Sweet Dreams at the 1998 Tournament of Champions horse show that used to be held north of Toronto. Another memorable moment with Sweet Dreams was winning a class at the Collingwood Horse Show and receiving one of their fantastic Roots jackets. Later that week, all I had to do was place in a class and I would have won another jacket. Instead, I fell off! Going from hero to zero is all part of the sport.

I also have great memories of competing at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. All in all, I was fortunate to have enjoyed so many successes in the show ring over the years and to have been able to celebrate them with my parents who were often in attendance.

When did you start working at Equestrian Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Equestrian Federation)? Was it your passion for show jumping that attracted you to the job?

I started working for the federation on February 13, 1993. That’s over 28 years ago! I came across the position at the Canadian Equestrian Federation, as it was called back then, purely by chance. At that time, all Canadian sport federations were based in the same high rise building in Ottawa and a friend heard of the position and told me about it. Of course I was interested and the executive director at the time, Colonel Basil Collett, hired me on the spot! I started in an entry-level position as the secretary/receptionist; I was the voice at the end of the phone when you called the federation back in those days. Imagine, a real, live person answering the phones. That was me!

You’ve been with the organization for a quarter of a century now and have seen it morph through countless changes. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed?

I could name a number of them but one of the biggest changes, and challenges, for the organization has been the number of people in the position of executive director/CEO. Meg Krueger, who took over the role this year, is the tenth CEO I have worked with during my tenure. It’s interesting to look back at the people who have held the position – after Basil left we had Don Adams, then Debbie Miller, Akaash Maharaj, Jean-Christophe Gandubert – the list goes on. It has been challenging as each new CEO has a different vision for equestrian sport and the direction it should be moving in.

For the jumping department in particular, the change in governance has also been challenging. A few years ago, the federation had grown to include over 150 volunteer committees. Anyone would agree that this system was unmanageable and, with so many different opinions, it took forever to make decisions. Over the past few years, the governance has been reviewed, updated, and continues to be a work in progress. This step forward has been a necessity for the organization and is being done in collaboration with the discipline operational committees.

Having the discipline operational committees in place provides the federation with industry leaders who offer their expertise as volunteers, to help guide the decision-making process. The Olympic discipline operational committees of dressage/para, eventing, and jumping, for example, are led by Christine Peters, Fleur Tipton, and myself, respectively. Between the three of us, we have more than 75 years of experience working at the national federation. When you combine our experience with the expertise of the volunteers, the federation has access to so much knowledge, both historic and current, that it can tap into. Under Meg’s leadership and guidance, I am looking forward to collaborating with all staff to help guide and shape the future direction of the federation.

What do you like best about your job?

Being a former athlete myself, I enjoy working on behalf of the athletes. Having competed alongside many of the competitors still active today, I have an advantage in my role as I understand what they need and require, as well as what they should expect, from their national sport federation.

Winning is always the greatest feeling, of course. Nothing compares to seeing Canada succeed on the world stage. Our show jumping team is full of talented athletes who prove themselves time and time again and it is a thrill to play a role in their success.

Is there anything else about the role that you would like to share?

People often see me “in the field” working with the team athletes but my role is so much more than High Performance; it starts at the grassroots level and goes all the way up. In my “normal” role of Manager of Sport – Jumping, I’m responsible for everything from overseeing operations of the EC Jumping Committee and managing the discipline budget to leading the jumping high performance and youth programs and initiatives, and dealing with all team activities, including travel to team competitions and major games.

In addition to managing the jumping discipline programs, I liaise with our partners such as the FEI and the provincial hunter jumper associations as well as our funding partners, including Sport Canada, Own The Podium, and the Canadian Olympic Committee. I try not to think about all the things I am responsible for as it can be quite overwhelming!

In your role, you often travel to support the Canadian Show Jumping Team at various major games and Nations’ Cup events. What are some of your responsibilities when you’re on the ground at these events?

When I am at events, I act as the Team Manager as well as the Canadian federation representative. This means I am the point person for athletes, grooms, owners, veterinarians, and other team personnel. I arrange accreditation, accommodation, and transportation for everyone; handle the shipping and importation/exportation arrangements for the horses; manage the stable activities; attend all competition meetings; ensure sponsorship requirements are met; and assist our Chef d’Equipe throughout the competition. I’m there to handle anything Team Canada may need.

Walk us through a ‘day in your life’ at a Nations’ Cup event.

It is a joint effort with everyone throughout the week. The grooms for our jumping team members are so well-seasoned. They are accustomed to travel and are all experts in their field. I let them know that I’m available for anything they may need, but otherwise I pretty much let them get on with it when it comes to the horses.

My biggest job is taking care of the paperwork and administration for everyone which means my duties begin well before the competition actually starts. I am the contact person for Team Canada when traveling and organize all of the logistics of getting everyone to and from the competition. For example, making hotel reservations seems easy but finalizing all of the arrangements can be a challenge; it seems that someone always has an owner or a parent who decides to attend at the last minute. As frustrating as that can sometimes be, we would not be able to compete without the support of our generous owners, so I always do everything possible to help them out.

For each team competition I create a WhatsApp group for the athletes and team personnel and another one with the grooms. We have found it to be the easiest and quickest means of communication. I make sure all athlete entries have been submitted correctly at the end of each day. Once the orders of go have been made available, I provide them to the athletes and grooms the night before so that proper planning for the next day’s competition can be completed.

Throughout the day I’m available should anyone require anything, from ordering more hay or feed to changing entries in the show office, or even getting coffee or water for the athletes. I also help by keeping score, counting strides, or even setting jumps in the warm-up if that helps someone out. It is like being on call!

What is your favourite memory from all of your competition travels?

There are probably a few I should not share! In all seriousness, I always feel like my efforts have paid off when I see the Canadian team standing on the podium. When we were in Xalapa, Mexico, for a Nations’ Cup event, Canadian riders took the top three placings in the grand prix. It was amazing to see three Canadian flags flying with three Canadian athletes standing on the podium! I asked the organizing committee if I could have the ‘winning’ Canadian flag and still cherish it to this day.

What is your favourite annual event to travel to each year?

I have several but my top two would be the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair – it is local, family-friendly, and has an agricultural flare combined with top jumping competitions – and the Spruce Meadows “Masters” tournament. Spruce Meadows has all of the international flavour you could ask for, from the athletes to the horses to the great cuisine, and you get to watch the best in the world compete for large sums of prize money, thanks to all the great sponsorships that Spruce Meadows has cultivated over the years.

And although it’s not an annual event, I have to add that there is nothing like an Olympic Games. Everyone in our sport would agree with that!