Big dreams, hard work, mentorship, and a little good luck have landed Justin Ridgewell exactly where he’s always wanted to be – riding top-notch horses, working with world-class trainers and competing alongside some of his childhood idols. How did the 37-year-old native of Windsor, Ontario, find himself competing (and winning) at Grand Prix in Wellington? We asked him.
When and why did you start riding?
I started riding at the age of 10, and began volunteering at a place called Windsor-Essex Therapeutic Riding Association (WETRA) just to be around the horses. At WETRA I met two girls who mucked stalls to help cover their board each month. So I became a barn rat! I helped them muck each weekend, just to be in the barn. They couldn’t pay me, so instead offered me some time in the saddle and taught me on their horses. I moved to Michigan the summer I turned 21 with both girls to a dude ranch called Double JJ Ranch where I played the part of cowboy for a year. We would lead trail rides, assist in rodeos and run cattle drives.
Where and how were you first introduced to dressage, and what made you pursue it?
One summer a friend and I spent a few weeks as working students to Valerie Dahl-Dean and her husband Robert in Michigan. We did barn chores, turnout, harrowing, raking and baled A LOT of hay in order to have a dressage lesson in the afternoon on one of Val’s horses.
At night we watched old dressage videos on VHS. One video was so cool and I wanted to watch it over and over again ‒ a freestyle of a Spanish rider on a white horse doing one-tempis down the centreline with one hand. I just remember it being so cool at the time and couldn’t believe that a horse could do that. Fast-forward 20 years and guess who I had the chance to train with in Wellington? That same Spanish rider from the video, Juan Matute Sr.!
I really began to pursue dressage seriously at age 21 when I became a working student for Belinda Trussell. Growing up in Windsor wasn’t the most glamorous in terms of horse farms or riding schools, so you can imagine my absolute shock when I pulled into the driveway of Oakcrest Farms [in Stouffville]. It was beautiful and I was the most scared I had ever been. It was 2004 and Belinda had just gotten back from the 2004 Athens Olympics and I had spent the summer riding trails in a western saddle. I remember thinking “Is this place real? Is it a barn or a house?”
How did you make the climb from working student to Grand Prix rider and EC level M dressage judge?
Being a working student/groom is not for the faint-hearted. It is a lot of work, a lot of hours and you must be willing to live off of ramen noodles and Doritos, and ride in hand-me-down chaps with duct tape on your boots ‒ but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
At Oakcrest, I got the chance to ride and school on Royan II (Belinda’s 2004 Olympic mount), Anton (Belinda’s WEG, Pan Am, Olympic mount) and Mark (Leslie Reid’s Olympic mount) to just name a few. I also met someone who would change my life forever, dressage trainer and judge John MacPherson. With Belinda spending a lot of time in Europe, John took over coaching Oakcrest’s working students. He offered me the ride on his four-year-old, tense little dark bay gelding named Well Done (Welly).
When I made the tough decision to leave Oakcrest, John let me take Welly with me. A few years later when John was offered the head trainer position at Braeburn Farms in Collingwood, he recommended me to the owner, Rosemary Phelan, as the barn manager. I have now been managing and riding for Braeburn for more than six years. A few years ago Rosemary decided to open Braeburn Farms South, our winter base in Wellington, Florida. That has given me the incredible opportunity to compete in Florida and train with some wonderful people. Recently Welly and I entered our first Grand Prix classes and I was thrilled to come away with solid scores in the high 60s and even a first-place ribbon in a highly-competitive class of top professionals.
John also encouraged me to pursue the judging path. I’m proud to say that I’m one of the youngest in Canada to hold my EC Medium dressage judge card. I really enjoy this other side of the sport. It gives me a lot of useful info and knowledge that I can use as a competitor.
Tell us about your other mount, Jolene.
Jolene is a nine-year-old Oldenburg mare by Jazz out of a Fidertanz mare. She’s owned by Braeburn Farms, who imported her from Holland two years ago for me to campaign. John and Rosemary flew over and picked her out. Jolene is such a special horse and I am so honoured and privileged to be able to have the ride on her. We competed at Third Level the first summer and did quite well. That fall we got the chance to ride with Charlotte Dujardin at Caledon Equestrian Park, which was very humbling, to say the least! This past summer we bumped up to Prix St. Georges and had a lot of success in the national rings.
What are your future goals?
I think every little kid that starts riding has that infinite goal of one day riding at the Olympics. My life-long goal is to one day make a Canadian team, but I think it’s really important to have small goals that lead to that one big end goal. For 2020, my goals were to ride Jolene in a small tour CDI and to attempt the Grand Prix with Well Done. We achieved both those goals already this winter and I couldn’t be happier! This season in Florida I’m also hoping to obtain one of 16 spots in the Prix St. Georges Future Star Challenge with Jolene. The class is open to horses age 7-9 competing in the small tour.
Any advice small-town kids with big dressage dreams?
My advice is to reach out to people you want to work with. You never know what could happen. Be a working student for someone that you aspire to be or aspire to ride like. Be willing to WORK. Don’t expect results to happen overnight. And don’t give up.