For Stephanie Valdes’ 12th birthday, the British Columbia native requested a horseback riding party. Weeks earlier, she had attended one hosted by a friend and, after getting her first taste of horses, Valdes wanted more.
Her parents obliged, and in the 15 years since then, a birthday has not passed for Valdes without horses playing a role in some aspect. As she celebrates her 27th birthday on June 2, she may not have a horseback riding party, but she will continue to savour the gift of horses – a gift that has shaped her life and provided her with abundant opportunities and enjoyment.
From British Columbia to Barcelona
Following her 12th birthday party came a month of riding lessons, purchased from the horse party facilitator. Before long, a month of lessons had turned into years, and Valdes was soon riding at Southlands Riding Club in Vancouver, BC.
At 15, Valdes began riding with Brent Balisky and his wife, Canadian Olympian Laura Tidball-Balisky, of Thunderbird Show Stables in Langley, BC.
“At first, Brent and Laura came to Southlands and taught a bit there,” said Valdes, who progressed from the three-foot hunters to the 1.30m jumpers under their tutelage. “Then we moved the horses out there to Langley. Once I finished high school, we moved to Langley to be closer to their barn and I started riding full-time. It was really awesome! It was such a fun group, and we did the horse shows at Thunderbird all summer, which was so much fun.”
In 2017, Valdes and her family decided it was time to take the next step to international competition. The Baliskys suggested their former student and fellow British Columbia native, Tiffany Foster, as a trainer.
“It’s really cool that Tiffany is from the same area and started out with some of the same trainers,” said Valdes of the two-time Canadian Olympian. “The Baliskys said that Tiffany was just starting to take on clients and said, ‘You should go meet her in Europe and look at horses. Go to the show with her and see what it’s like over there.’”
Not knowing how things would evolve, Valdes made the trip to Barcelona, Spain, to watch Foster compete as part of the Canadian team at the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Nations’ Cup Final in October of 2017.
“My thought was that it was going to be a cool one-off thing to do, to see some different things and maybe look at horses,” said Valdes of her initial visit with Foster. “As soon as I arrived in Spain, you could see all the opportunity there and what it could be.”
Valdes soon became Foster’s first official student at her newly launched Little Creek Equestrian, and the young rider returned home to North America with three exciting new mounts: Balermo, Cyber Lady Z, and Thalis de la Roque.
That December, Valdes moved to Wellington, FL, to begin training in preparation for the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) season.
“We’d been practicing, and we did the Holiday & Horses show with all of the horses,” said Valdes. “It went great, and it was all going really well. The second day after I returned to Florida from being home for Christmas holidays, I fell off.”
While the fall itself wasn’t a bad one; Valdes had previously broken her ankle. When she landed on the weak ankle that already contained a plate and pins, it broke again, putting Valdes out of the saddle for six weeks. Just as Valdes was returning to riding in March, she had another fall, injuring her neck and preventing her from riding for another three months.
During that time, Foster competed Valdes’ horses for her while Valdes continued to learn and absorb as much knowledge as she could from both Foster and the horses.
“I was still able to go to the barn every day, which was great,” said Valdes. “I watched Tiff with the horses and still learned a lot just from watching her ride. Her getting to know the horses better was a great aspect of the situation. It was really cool to see her take them in classes and see what they were able to do with such a great rider.”
By the summer of 2018, Valdes was back in the saddle and progressing by leaps and bounds with her new mounts.
“We started back at the 1.20m and worked our way up from there,” explained Foster. “Over the last two years, Stephanie has progressed to riding consistently very, very well at the 1.40m and 1.45m level high amateurs.
“She’s been super; she’s a great student,” continued Foster. “She’s really intelligent; she picks up everything really quickly. She’s a pleasure to have around. She’s so positive about everything and has a great attitude.”
Seeing the World from the Back of a Horse
Under Foster’s wing, Valdes has experienced and accomplished a great deal.
“These last two years have just been mind-blowing almost every single moment,” said Valdes, who has had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, and even to Africa, while competing. “Just being able to show in Europe at some of the coolest shows like the Stephex Masters in Belgium and the Royal Windsor in England was amazing.
“We showed in Morocco last fall and that was the first time that I’d ever been to Africa,” continued Valdes of her three-week tour competing at three different venues at the CSI1* and CSI4* level. “It was such a mind-blowing experience. It was so completely different from anything that I had ever done before. It was kind of like a caravan; everyone arrives to the first show and then on the next Monday or Tuesday, there is an escort that guides everybody to the next location, which is a couple of hours away. It was not anything that I ever expected to do, and I’m so grateful that we actually went there and did it.”
Along the way, Valdes has picked up several top results and an abundance of experience on all three of her mounts. She’s also had the unique opportunity to return to each of her horse’s original “homes.”
“One of the coolest moments that I had with Balermo was when we went to Mannheim in Germany, which is where he’s from,” said Valdes of the 16-year-old Oldenburg gelding previously competed by Marco Kutscher, a two-time Olympian for Germany. “So many people recognized him. They’d say, ‘Oh, is that Balermo?’ It was so mind-blowing to me!
“You could tell he’d been there for the European Championships and other shows in that ring; he would light up every time he went out there,” said Valdes of the horse she describes as “the goofiest horse I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
“We went to Saint Tropez last year in France, and that was awesome because that’s where Thalis is from,” said Valdes of Thalis de la Roque, her 13-year-old Selle Français mare acquired from Canadian Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze. “She’s the coolest. She’s like having a little Ferrari. She’s super competitive and very serious about her job but is also just the sweetest horse that you can imagine in the barn. With her, you really know that you have a horse that is capable of doing what you need to do to win.
“Cyber Lady Z is the third horse that I’ve had since the beginning with Tiffany,” continued Valdes of the 11-year-old Zangersheide mare formerly owned by Lucas Luz and previously ridden by Foster. “She’s really talented. Her technique is amazing. It’s been fun to get to know her in the barn and gain her trust because she’s a little more of a mare than Thalis is. She had to get to really know us to trust us. She loves her people, but that’s it. It’s not easy to become one of her people. Now it’s me and Candace, my groom, and Louise, our manager. Our relationship is very special now. She’s been the one that I’ve done the most with so far.”
Amid the current coronavirus pandemic, Valdes’ world travels have been temporarily put on hold. She’s had to table her goal of advancing up the ranks in CSI2* competition this year but she’s taking full advantage of the downtime, both in and out of the saddle.
Outside of the ring, Valdes – a graduate of the University of British Columbia with a degree in microbiology and immunology – enjoys yoga and spending time with her family, including her dad, Steven Valdes; her mom and fellow equestrian, Wendy Valdes; and her two brothers, Cody (30) and Ryan (28).
“My mom actually rode when she was growing up, so when I first got involved with horses, she was really happy about it, because she got to be back at the barn,” said Stephanie of her mom, who has enjoyed great success in her own right, largely in the hunter ring.
Stephanie is using her time away from the show ring to further build on her partnerships with her horses, including a new mount, Ducati 24.
“We’re really lucky that down here we’ve been able to continue riding, and our group has stayed on top of all the quarantine stuff,” said Valdes, who remained in Wellington, FL, amid the COVID-19 outbreak. “Hopefully I’ll be able to continue moving up the heights and get more competitive with the horses. I’m also getting to know the new horse better. There is still so much that we’re able to work on even if it’s not business as usual.
“This whole experience at Little Creek has been really cool, having been there through the whole evolution of seeing where it started and how far it’s come,” continued Valdes. “I’m proud to be part of that team and to learn from all of the girls that work there. I’m really looking forward to the future.”
For Valdes, her future goals include one day riding for Canada, a goal that she describes as her “ultimate dream,” and one that Foster says is highly attainable for the accomplished young rider.
“I’m really excited for her,” concluded Foster. “As soon as we can get back showing again, I’m excited to see what she can do. She’s a resilient and determined young lady, and I think that she has all of the qualities to make it in this sport. I’m really, really proud of her.”