Aachen. Hagen. Deauville. Both literally and figuratively, Europe’s most prestigious international dressage competitions are a world away from northern Ontario. So how does a smalltown Canadian boy go from competing in local gymkhanas to dancing down centre line on Europe’s biggest stage? Hard work, big dreams, and making the right connections.

At least that’s what Ryan Torkkeli says, and he should know. The 40-year-old from Thunder Bay made international headlines this summer with his first CDI victory, a win in the Grand Prix Special at the CDI3* in Deauville, France.

Torkkeli’s remarkable journey began in his mid-teens when his sister decided not to attend a March Break riding camp at Barnyard Friends that their mother had registered her for. Ryan gladly took his sister’s spot and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I was completely hooked immediately,” Torkkeli recalls. “They run a petting zoo and have a bunch of horses, so I was in heaven. I wanted to spend all my time there.

“When I started competing, I was having the best time of my life at Quarter Horse shows and gymkhanas, but always leaned towards English riding. I was interested in both dressage and jumping, and one day a good friend told me that if I wanted to learn how to ride properly I should go to Europe. My fate was determined when I got a working student position with Catherine Haddad-Staller in Germany.”

He moved to Germany in 2001 and stayed for the next 11 years, riding, training, and soaking up all the knowledge and experience he could. In 2012 Torkkeli moved halfway around the world again, this time travelling to California with his husband, Thomas Walker, where they established their own business, Torkkeli-Walker Dressage. In 2019 the pair returned to Germany to ride for Ingetraud Bolz.

“I’ve known Ingetraud since 2004 so it was a familiar move for us,” he says. “Her daughter is the same age as me and was on the German B squad while we both trained with Dieter Laugks. I worked for Dieter from 2004 to 2010 and have been training with him again for the past two-and-and-half years. He has truly taught me to be a competitor. I’ve always been competitive, but Dieter has an incredible way of creating real competitors. He took me to my first Prix St. George many years ago and then coached me to my first Grand Prix, and this year I had my first CDI win on Sternenwanderer.”

While that CDI victory in France this past summer ranks at the top of Torkkeli’s career highlights, he’s very proud of his other significant achievements, including earning his German gold medal and becoming a licensed truck driver so he could drive the horse lorry to and from shows.

“That was a lot of work!” he laughs.

Ryan and Thomas. (Torkkeli-Walker Dressage Facebook)

Torkkeli feels lucky to be working with a number of talented horses, including Sternenwanderer, a 15-year-old Rheinlander gelding owned by Bolz and Laugks.

“I’ve known him since he was three, but took over the reins just over two years ago. He was trained by Dieter since he was a young horse, so it was a natural fit when I started riding him. I have quite a few other special horses, including Fantastic Snoop Dog. I’ve competed him successfully at the PSG level and we are working hard towards our Grand Prix debut. As well I’m working with several young ones that I’m really enjoying bringing up the levels right now.”

What’s next on the horizon for Ryan Torkkeli? Competing in Hagen and Aachen (where Canada will also have a team in the Nations Cup) later this month.

“I am very honored to ride at both competitions, as they are two of the greatest shows in the world. Of course I’ve always wanted to ride there, and I have to pinch myself that it will become reality,” he says. “My long-term goal is to have happy horses and to enjoy riding them. Of course, the world championships or Olympics would be a bonus, but my journey has already been so amazing and I’ve had such a great time every step of the way. That’s what counts the most.”