The Thrill of Show Jumping

Local riders prepare to dazzle spectators with a breathtaking competition at the Pan Am Games.

November 17, 2014 | | Leisure

It’s not just the jumps but the time between that counts. Ian Millar and Dixson made clean rounds fast enough to win the World Cup Grand Prix. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

It’s not just the jumps but the time between that counts. Ian Millar and Dixson made clean rounds fast enough to win the World Cup Grand Prix. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

On a brilliant, warm day in late September, the Caledon Pan Am Equestrian Park in Palgrave hosted its final event of 2014. The Canadian Show Jumping Tournament is an annual affair that draws jumpers to Caledon from across North America to compete for more than $200,000 in prize money. But this year, the high-profile event was more than that. It was also an opportunity to showcase the newly upgraded 98-acre (39.6-hectare) site that will host the show jumping competition at the 2015 Pan American Games next July 21, 23 and 25.

To anyone sitting in the fall sunshine to watch some of Canada’s top horses and riders negotiate the tournament’s spreads and combinations, it would have been clear that the park is right on course for the Games – thanks to about $11.5 million in improvements financed jointly by the federal government, which contributed 56 per cent of the funds, the Town of Caledon, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Equestrian Management Group, the private company that operates the facility in partnership with Caledon and the TRCA.

In addition to building a new spectators’ pavilion, the money has been used to upgrade the water system, grade the site, install state-of-the-art synthetic footing in five competition rings, and add warm-up rings, training areas and temporary stabling. All that remains is to construct two buildings that will house an indoor riding ring and the temporary stabling that will be put in place for the Games. EMG managing partner Craig Collins says both will be complete by late February.

“The jumping rings are fantastic. We’re doing great. We’re way ahead of schedule,” says Collins, who is also the volunteer organizing chair for the equestrian events. Like nearly everyone connected with the Games, he believes this is money well spent, both for the sport and the Headwaters region. In August, delegates from the Fédération Équestre Internationale, the governing body for international equestrian events, inspected the site. “They were ecstatic,” says Collins. “We’re all set to go.”

Mono resident Terrance “Torchy” Millar, a veteran of the Canadian jumping team and its chef d’équipe for 14 years, says, “Caledon will be left with a really top-class facility for the equestrian sport.” For this he credits EMG. “The upgrade is terrific. The park is very well run. They’ve done a great job.”

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  • The Pan Am dressage tests and two of the three phases of the eventing competition will also be held at the park, but show jumping is the highlight of the equestrian events and the discipline at which horses and riders from Canada – and the Headwaters region – excel on the international stage. Ever since the Canadian show jumping team won gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and, more recently, Eric Lamaze brought home both the individual gold medal and a team silver medal from Beijing in 2008, this has been our sport. And riders and horses from Headwaters and surrounding areas continue to dominate.

    Headwaters riders who have represented Canada internationally include Yann Candele of Caledon, Chris Sorensen of Caledon East, Jay Hayes of Mono, and Erynn Ballard, whose hometown is Palgrave. And in addition to Lamaze, Mac Cone and Beth Underhill live in neighbouring King Township.

    Then there are the owners. Sue and Ariel Grange of Lothlorien Farm in Cheltenham own Dixson, ridden by veteran equestrian Ian Millar. Indeed, this past September, the 67-year-old Millar rode Dixson to the world’s richest show jumping prize at Spruce Meadows near Calgary. Another area resident, Jennifer Rogers of Erin’s Little Brook Farm, is part owner of Candele’s mount, Showgirl.

    Rogers and five other individuals, among them Eric Lamaze and Candele himself, pooled their resources last fall to purchase Showgirl as a mount for the Canadian team member. Though Showgirl was 14 when the group bought her, younger top-quality horses can command prices as high as $8 million to $10 million, and Rogers sees sponsorship arrangements like her group’s as the way of the future.

    “It makes the investment manageable. More and more people need to come together and co-operate like this to support the sport,” she says, adding that so far the arrangement is “working brilliantly.”

    Chris Sorensen of Caledon East executes a picture-perfect jump at the recent Canadian Show Jumping Tournament at Caledon Equestrian Park. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    Chris Sorensen of Caledon East executes a picture-perfect jump at the recent Canadian Show Jumping Tournament at Caledon Equestrian Park. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    “Canada has fantastic individual riders, plus we have one of the most consistent teams in the world,” says Sorensen, who has represented Canada in Calgary, Brazil, Germany and, most recently, at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. “An extremely high proportion of top horses and riders are coming out of [the Headwaters] area,” he notes.

    Terrance Millar concurs: “There has been an explosion of interest in sport horses here. It’s hard to drive down a local country road without seeing horse barns and indoor arenas dotting the landscape.”

    Despite this, the general public’s interest in show jumping often seems muted at best. At September’s Canadian Show Jumping Tournament in Palgrave, the parking lot was half empty, the grandstand nearly vacant. Most people in the sparse crowd wandering the grounds on what was a perfect fall weekend were wearing riding clothes or leading horses. It seemed that very few had come out simply to enjoy the spectacle.

    And yet the event offered plenty of edge-of-your-seat tension. Ian Millar, riding Star Power, won the $35,000 first phase of the Caledon Cup competition on Friday. Then on Sunday in phase 2 – the $50,000 World Cup Grand Prix – Millar, this time aboard Dixson, took second place in a taut jump-off against the clock behind Irish rider Conor Swail on Ariana, a horse also owned by the Granges. Sorenson and Bobby were third. Millar’s combined first- and second-place finishes sealed his victory in the race for the cup.

    Jay Hayes, who has been a member of the Canadian equestrian team since 1985 and whose family-owned company now produces the FEI-sanctioned two-star Orangeville Show Jumping Tournament every August, has called Headwaters the “epicentre” of show jumping. But, he points out, when Ian Millar won the big prize at Spruce Meadows this year, “You could turn on the TV and watch Canadians lose at golf and tennis, but only CBC carried the Spruce Meadows competition live. And when we checked the major dailies the next day, there wasn’t a word about an icon like Millar.”

    Mono’s Jay Hayes and Riva soar over a jump at Caledon Equestrian Park. Hayes has been a member of the Canadian equestrian team since 1985. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    Mono’s Jay Hayes and Riva soar over a jump at Caledon Equestrian Park. Hayes has been a member of the Canadian equestrian team since 1985. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    Every little village in Holland or Germany or Ireland has its own horse show and they’re well attended, says Hayes. The bigger shows are jammed with spectators. “I hope EMG does a good job of bringing the sport to the public’s attention,” he adds. “It needs to be more spectator-friendly.”

    Nevertheless, despite the low attendance at some show jumping events, most observers believe Canada is set to make a great showing on the international stage.

    “Horses have an emotional appeal to so many people,” says Terrance Millar. “Canada’s golden age of jumping began after we won gold in Mexico City in 1968. It lasted about 15 years, then it all began to drop off.

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  • “Now,” he says, “the sport is getting stronger than ever.”

    Sorensen notes that Own the Podium funding has allowed the team to develop as never before. “Normally, Canada would struggle to put together a team of four horses and riders. Now we have seven or eight to choose from. It’s a great position to be in.”

    And having the opportunity to compete in front of a hometown crowd at the Caledon Equestrian Park next summer may turn out to be the thrill of a lifetime. “To have a facility of this calibre is a big step forward,” says Sorensen. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to have the Games here at home, especially since this time we are serious contenders.”

    PanAm_ChrisSorensonBobby_1102 PanAm_HayesRiva0471 PanAm_IanMillarDixson_1142 PanAm_MacConeVannetyB_0715
    It’s not just the jumps but the time between that counts. Ian Millar and Dixson made clean rounds fast enough to win the World Cup Grand Prix. Photo by Ellen Cameron.

    More Info

    A show jumping primer

    Here is what audiences can expect to see next summer at the Pan American Games show jumping event.

    The Pan Am Games are a regional qualifying event for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, so there is a lot riding on them for the Canadian team. Because Brazil is the host country, its show jumping team automatically qualifies for the Olympics. The American team has also qualified, leaving two Olympic berths open for other teams from the Americas.

    It’s complicated, but finishing in the top two at the Pan Ams would ensure an Olympic berth for Canada. A third-place finish would also give Canada a berth – but only if the U.S. or Brazil, or both, finishes ahead of them. And if Canada finishes fourth, the team would qualify only if the teams finishing ahead of them include both the U.S. and Brazil.

    Canada’s Pan Am show jumping team of four horses and riders will be chosen shortly before the Games. In the team competition only the scores of the top three team members count toward medals.

    The goal of each team is to negotiate the course cleanly within a specified time and without accumulating penalty points – faults – for knocking down obstacles, which range in height from 1.45 to 1.6 metres. Knocking down 
an obstacle incurs four faults, as does refusing a jump. Three refusals result in elimination. Exceeding the allotted time for completing the course incurs time faults.

    July 21 – The preliminary session, a ride against the clock over 12 to 14 obstacles. Faults are converted to seconds and added to a horse and rider’s time.

    July 23 – The team final, two rounds over 12 to 14 obstacles. The first round must include a water jump. Teams tied after the two rounds compete in a timed jump-off over six obstacles, whose difficulty may be increased.

    July 25 – The top 30 riders in the team competition vie for individual medals. Scores from the team rounds carry over to this two-round event. The first round involves 10 to 12 obstacles. The second is on a different course consisting of 8 to 10 obstacles. In case of a tie, horse-and-rider teams compete in a timed jump-off over at least six obstacles, whose difficulty may be increased.

    Pan Am tickets

    The first round of Pan Am ticket sales has concluded. General ticket sales for the equestrian and other events start December 8 on a first-come, first-served basis. Prices for equestrian events range from a low of $25 for the preliminary round to a high of $75 for the team and individual medal rounds, with substantial discounts for children and seniors. Visit tickets for details.

    Obstacles typical of show jumping

    Triple bar

    A spread (distance) jump that requires the horse to jump three parallel poles or bars positioned so that the first is the lowest. The next is higher and the third the highest.


    Two verticals placed close together to make a single wide jump.


    A spread fence with the highest pole at the centre.


    A vertical jump painted to look like a stone wall.


    An upright jump consisting of poles or planks placed one above the other with no spread.


    A wide ditch filled with water. Faults are incurred if the horse steps in the water.


    Two or three jumps in succession with no more than two strides between each. If a horse refuses one of the jumps, it must jump the entire combination again.

    Obstacles typical of show jumping

    Obstacles typical of show jumping

    About the Author More by Cecily Ross

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

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