Bill Ulmer is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most respected and diverse professionals. On a horse he broke himself, the Hannoverian/TB cross Touchdown, his career as an eventer took him from a North American Young Riders Championships team bronze medal in 1976, to finishing as the highest-placed Canadian at Burghley, GBR, in 1979, to two national championships and being short-listed for the 1984 Canadian Olympic Team.After almost a decade at the top of the sport, Bill chose to sell his equine partner and take a hiatus from competition to focus on his education. With an undergraduate degree in education from Simon Fraser University and a masters in administration and curriculum from Gonzaga University, he worked with children with severe emotional and behavioural problems, as well as mainstream teaching. He then decided to again pursue a career with horses, this time as a hunter/jumper rider and coach. “At the time it seemed like a difficult decision, but from the beginning it was the right way to go,” he recalls. “I still teach; it is just that my curriculum has changed and my classroom is bigger!îBill lives in Kelowna, BC, with Susie, his wife of 33 years. His business, Foxwood Farm, has at any given time as many as 25 horses in for training, showing, and sales. For the last four years his Foxwood riders have amassed more provincial awards and hunter derby wins than any other barn in the province. Aboard client Ellen Brown’s Maple Bay he was awarded the BCHJA Hunter of the Year Award in 2013; his wife also won the adult amateur 36+ division aboard Beach Drive, a horse he also campaigns in the professional divisions and derbies with great success.What prompted the shift in focus from high-level eventing?My shift from eventing back to the show ring came about for several reasons. Dedicating myself to two Olympic cycles meant eight years where I put other parts of my life on hold. Although I wanted to keep horses in my life, I no longer wanted to leave our home in BC for half the year to compete in Ontario and the Eastern United States. Instead, I wanted to complete my education and really establish a life for my wife and myself outside of horses.Instrumental in my career shift was my long-time coach Claudia Cojocar. Once I started getting her coaching and guidance, it fuelled my desire to get back to riding full time. I owe a lot to her and to this day she continues to be a mentor to me. When you have ridden and been successful with high-level eventers, hunters and jumpers, you develop an understanding of what makes each discipline difficult and what it takes to win. I truly respect each area and know how hard they are to do well. Who I am as a horseman, rider and coach has been enhanced by these experiences.How do you stay sharp in an industry with such demanding expectations on both horse and rider?I believe in professional development through reading and clinics and whenever possible I try to surround myself with riders and coaches who are at the top of their game. When I am at venues such as Wellington, Capital Challenge or Thermal, I spend a lot of time watching the warm-up rings and listening; I love learning and admire good teaching. I think as professionals we all seek a similar outcome with our students and horses; it is the nuances of how you get there that I find interesting. It doesn’t really matter how much you know if you are unable to convey it successfully to your students.I find that I am able to handle the stresses of being a busy trainer through maintaining a positive atmosphere at the barn and at shows. It took me a few years to understand that you cannot be everything to everybody. If a client does not buy into your training philosophy or differs in their core set of values, they are better off somewhere else. Harmony within the barn is instrumental to the success of my program. If you want to rush your horse to jump as big as possible as quickly as possible, I am not your man.Have you met your ‘horse of a lifetime’?My horse of a lifetime was Touchdown, who shaped the direction of my life. He built my confidence both as a rider and a person. When Canada joined the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott and that Olympic dream ended for me, I decided to sell him, as I had been offered quite a lot of money. It was very painful to sell this fabulous horse and partner, but I felt it was necessary in order to build the rest of my life. I was married later that same year, started university, and essentially put riding on the backburner.Eventually, my wife started trying to get me to ride again by offering me her horses, and from there she talked me into buying two horses with the idea of riding at the Los Angeles Olympics. We worked hard and I was long-listed for the team on these talented but greener horses.That Christmas, my in-laws gave me a small gift box; inside was a crystal horse ornament. Attached to it was a tag that read, “See you soon. Love, Touchdown.” Unbelievably, with Susie’s guidance, they had bought back my beloved horse. Later that year I was short-listed and was back on track for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. A trailer accident on the way to the Olympic trials meant that I had to miss the Olympics again ñ it was just not meant to be. As difficult as it was, it was time to retire my horse and my dream. I can honestly say that without Touchdown I would have not met my amazing wife, gone to university, had a life with horses, or experienced so many of the gifts that my life has rewarded me with.What are you proudest of in your career?For me, the biggest eye-opener of being a professional in the horse industry is that the longer you do it, the more you realize how much there is to learn, and that drives me forward. I have also learned that being loyal, trustworthy, and professional in how you conduct yourself attracts the same type of clientele. Those type of clients stay with you long-term and believe in what you do.I am proud of building a program that works consistently in producing confident and accomplished riders and horses. When I stand at the in-gate and watch my riders compete, there is a pride in seeing all their hard work come together in a fine performance. That said, I can honestly say I feel a similar pride in seeing a student accept a tough day and go back to the barn and look after their horse like they were the big winner ñ it speaks to horsemanship.Winning is not the emphasis of my program; it is a byproduct. If you concentrate on the process, the outcome will look after itself. For many years I felt a sense of disappointment and even failure for not realizing my Olympic dream, as it is the ultimate accomplishment in sport. Through time I have grown to realize that what I have accomplished ñ and continue to accomplish ñ is worthy of pride. Life’s lessons come in many forms, both glorious and painful, and I have to respect that. The Olympic journey taught me a great deal about myself and who I want to be as a coach and person, and for that I am grateful.
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