Riding High

International riders get good traction on their home turf.

June 21, 2007 | | Back Issues

From the top of the highest hill at Wits End, Jo Young’s sixty-acre horse farm in Mulmur Township, you can see for miles. And during the eventing season, there’s plenty to look at. The water jump, for instance, the big oxers, the ditches, banks and combination fences scattered across the rolling terrain of the small estate on the Mulmur-Tosorontio Townline, north of Rosemont.

And then there are the horses and riders as, one by one, they negotiate this world-class cross-country course designed by David O’Connor, a U.S. gold medalist at the Sydney Olympics. They gallop past the spectators and over the jumps, at times so close you can feel the vibration of pounding hooves and hear their strenuous rhythmic breathing. Then they disappear over another hill, reappearing in a few moments to sail over a four-foot hedge, down an embankment and away again.

The cross-country competition, a gruelling test of courage and endurance, is the centrepiece of the equestrian extravaganzas known as three-day events that are held at Wits End twice a year. Along with cross country, the other two phases of three-day events are dressage and stadium jumping. Wits End also hosts several other competitions throughout the summer.

Young, an international eventing judge, has just been appointed to judge at the Pan American Games that will be held in Rio de Janiero in July. Her husband, Bill McKeen, will be an international technical delegate at the games (responsible for fence management and rider safety, among other things). Together they have worked hard over the past four years to make Wits End one of the best three-day-event facilities in the world.

And their efforts have finally paid off. This spring the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) granted Wits End World Cup status. This makes it the only site in Canada and one of just five in North America (the others are in California, Montana, North Carolina and Florida) permitted to host qualifying competitions for the FEI World Cup Finals.

“Canada needed to be a player on the world scene,” says Young. “That’s why we started to develop the site. If we are to develop international riders and horses we need a place to start.”

And the hills of the Headwaters have become just that, a place that some of Canada’s top international competitors call home. World-class eventers Penny Rowland (Mono), Karl Slezak (Caledon East), Garry Roque (Caledon East), Graeme Thom (Mono) and Peter Gray (Mono) train and/or live in the area. Penny Rowland has just been named a substitute rider for the eventing team that will represent Canada at this summer’s Pan Am Games.

And the region is proving to be rich in equestrian talent, not just on the eventing courses, but in the high-stakes world of international show jumping as well.

About a fifteen-minute drive south of Wits End on the Mono-Adjala Townline, northwest of Mono Mills,  26-year-old Frankie Chesler Ortiz is gearing up for a busy season on her father Alan Chesler’s Sher-Al Farm. Chesler Ortiz, a member of Canada’s Grand Prix show jumping team, has just returned from Florida, where she and her husband, Juan Ortiz (who rides for the Venezuelan team), spend the winter months on the U.S. show-jumping circuit.

“We’re on the road from two to four weeks at a time,” says Chesler Ortiz, who admits “the travelling is rough on everyone.” She and her husband and two grooms take between eight and twelve horses with them. “If you’re willing to travel, you can show every week,” she says.

While she and two other local riders – Erynn Ballard (Hillsburgh) and Chris Pratt (Belfountain, though recently moved to California) – are ranked among Canada’s best show jumpers, Chesler Ortiz did not expect to make the Pan Am team. Just this spring, she sold her best horse, Picolien Zeldenrust.

“The people were after me to sell her all winter. They finally offered me a price I couldn’t refuse,” she says. “I’m sad, but I had to be practical.”

Chesler Ortiz entered the Pan Am trials in June at Palgrave and Spruce Meadows in Alberta with her nine-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding, Ranville, but she was philosophical about her performance. “I still have things to learn about him, and he’s still getting to know me.”

In the meantime, she is betting on the region’s growing reputation as an equestrian centre, and putting all her energy into getting Sher-Al’s brand new show stable up and running. The facility, which includes a 180-foot by 80-foot indoor arena, thirty box stalls, fully-equipped wash and groom areas, a heated viewing room, laundry and tack rooms, on-site staff quarters and a six-horse Equi-Ciser, was completed in May and Chesler Ortiz is looking for clients.

But only serious show people need apply. Board, which will be between $1,200 and $1,500 a month, includes training for both horse and rider. “This area is growing so fast,” says Chesler Ortiz. “There are a lot of show breeders around here. We’re close to the city and only ten minutes from Palgrave, which hosts at least eight major shows a year. And we’re just an hour from Collingwood and Halton Hills where big shows are held in the summer.”

As well, Chesler Ortiz travels to shows at Bromont and Blainville in Quebec. “We will ship your horse to all these places,” she says, adding, “You could show yourself to death around here.”

Why are these hills turning into such a magnet for international riders and horses? Jo Young says it has a lot to do with the hills themselves.

“This is a beautiful area for eventing,” she says. “It’s good for conditioning because of all the hills. And the sandy footing is excellent, which is crucial for the horses.” Wits End, itself, is an ideal setting for what is rapidly becoming a popular spectator sport. “We’re very lucky,” she says, “because you can see a huge number of jumps from one perspective.”

Indeed, Young is hoping that Wits End’s first World Cup event this fall (September 27–30) will be televised.

A tireless promoter of the sport and its practitioners, Young says that the community has “really gotten on board. I’ve been to local schools to talk to students. We’re planning an open house here at the end of July. Riders will give demonstrations. The goal is to get more spectators coming out to events.”

She also plans to hold a Canadian Young Event Horse Final. It will give breeders a chance to showcase their young horses. They’ll be judged on conformation and movement as well as performance.

“There are some very good quality stables around here and we are starting to breed some of our own horses.”

According to Young, Irish thoroughbreds make very good eventing horses. “They were originally bred for steeplechasing,” she says. “They’re bigger and larger boned than American thoroughbreds, which are better suited to sprinting.”

In the world of show jumping, however, the European warmbloods reign supreme. “They have better minds than thoroughbreds, they’re calmer under pressure,” says Frankie Chesler Ortiz, who is breeding future show jumpers at her farm. This year, she has two promising-looking yearlings as well as a pair of seven-year-olds she has high hopes for.

The growing urbanization of the King City/Aurora area, once the epicentre of international equestrian activity in Ontario, is another reason for the popularity of the Headwaters region among horse people.

“King has gotten relatively crowded,” says one-time international equestrian star Torchy Millar. Now Chef d’Equipe of Canada’s show jumping team, Millar moved to his Mono farm from Kettleby just last year. “I’m amazed at how active the equestrian activity is in this area,” he says. “On my road alone, you have [eventers] Penny Rowland and Graeme Thom.”

This may be primarily eventing territory, but Millar sees that changing fast. Show jumper Erynn Ballard (Canada’s 2007 Rider of the Year) will soon be operating her hunter/jumper stable from Millar’s farm.

Millar notes that Olympic veteran Jay Hayes also lives in Mono. Hayes’ daughter Lauren is a rising star on the show jumping circuit and the whole family, including his wife, Shawn, and two other daughters, is involved in organizing the Collingwood Horse Show, of which Hayes is president.

“I think Palgrave is a great beacon too,” adds Millar. He is referring to the Caledon Equestrian Centre, which hosted nineteen shows last year, among them the Alliance Homes World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix and the annual Tournament of Champions.

In Caledon, Sue Grange’s Lothlorien Farm near Cheltenham was the site of World Cup Qualifying shows from 1979 until 1989. Such equestrian luminaries as Beth Underhill, Mac Cone and Torchy Millar have ridden and trained there.

Still operated privately by Grange and her husband John, Lothlorien is considered one of the top hunter/jumper barns in Canada, producing Grande Prix mounts for riders such as Chris Pratt and Yann Candele (Nobleton).

“Sue Grange is an avid fan of show jumping,” says Millar, acknowledging her contribution to the development of the sport in the region. “It was the nucleus,” he says, “and it continues to build.”

The result is a growing number of facilities like Chesler Ortiz’s show stable. “I’ve been waiting to build a place like this for a long time,” she says, adding, “We have a blast here. We’re family. It’s not like work at all.”

“I really feel the sport is taking off,” says Jo Young. “Just think, now you can come to Wits End and see the best riders in the world.”

Like Young and Chesler Ortiz, Millar is delighted with the area: “It’s absolutely beautiful – couldn’t be better.”

About the Author More by Cecily Ross

Cecily Ross is an author and freelance writer who lives in Creemore.

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