For urbanites in Canada’s largest city who used to ride or want to learn, a new riding school is about to open up. Toronto Equestrian Downtown will be based out of the historic Horse Palace building on the grounds of Exhibition Place, site of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. The Horse Palace is a Canadian Heritage Building which first opened in 1931 and contains 1,200 stalls over its two levels, plus a large schooling ring. The Toronto Police’s Mounted Unit horses have been housed there since 1968.

Toronto Equestrian Downtown is co-owned by Julianne Clifford and Sue Iwan, who have operated Toronto Equestrian North since 2018, located on 150 acres on the Uxbridge Pickering Townline. The new riding school will offer an extensive lesson program including private, semi-private and group lessons, introductory classes, in-house schooling shows, and more aboard their string of 14 horses. Members of Toronto Equestrian Downtown will also be welcome to enjoy the many programs and benefits offered at Toronto Equestrian’s Uxbridge location, including clinics, camps, and hacking.

Sue on Home By Dark (Dayo). (Austin Mateka photo)

Both Clifford and Iwan are certified instructors. Clifford is a lifelong rider who grew up competing on the A circuit in the hunter and equitation divisions. She began grooming and assistant coaching at age 16, and earned her BA from the University of Toronto while teaching full time as head coach at the Horse Palace Riding Academy Inc. “I briefly entertained the idea of law school before deciding that my heart was, and always has been, with horses,” says Clifford.

Iwan’s path took her from a horse-obsessed girl who spent most of her teens as a “barn rat” and competed with her horse on the local circuit. She took a hiatus that saw her earn three university degrees, have a corporate career, and start a family. Iwan returned to the horse world through CARD, the Community Association for Riders with Disabilities. She certified as a coach in 2012 and made the decision to pursue a full-time career with horses in 2014. Two months in, she was appointed director at the Horse Palace Riding Academy Inc. “Neither of us have ever looked back,” says Iwan.

Since the partners have a long history with the Horse Palace, when the opportunity for the lease with the city came up, it was a no-brainer. “Our business has always been serendipitous, and this expansion is no different,” adds Iwan. “We feel like we are going home.”

The duo had run the school for the late Walter Shanly before he passed away in 2017. “Though we had dreams of starting our own riding school for some time, after Walter’s passing we decided to stay on at the Horse Palace to ensure operations would continue,” explains Clifford. “We did the same after the fire at Sunnybrook Stables in May of 2018. We spent the summer of 2018 helping the survivors of the fire settle at the Horse Palace. When the business transitioned ownership at the end of the summer, we decided that the time was finally right to pursue our own endeavours.”

When it comes to running a successful riding school, clients and students are obviously a priority, but the partners also share a devoted horsemanship philosophy. “Whether the horse’s job is to take a rider to the jumper ring, or to teach a nervous adult how to post the trot, they are all cared for like high-level show horses,” says Iwan. “We have a robust and diverse feed and supplement program. Whether it is joint medication, specialized shoeing, chiropractic care, massage therapy, shockwave therapy, or anything else recommended by our vets, we feel it is money very well spent. Our commitment to our herd extends beyond their school life, and our business plan takes into account retirement needs for our herd.”

Clifford graduating (in breeches, of course!).

This philosophy comes into play when considering the intricacies of how to introduce, care for and ensure quality of life for a herd of horses in downtown Toronto. “We are very experienced in acclimatizing the horses to the Horse Palace environment and will be taking the month of January to help them settle into their new home before launching the school in February,” explains Clifford.

“It’s not a natural environment for horses, and it is of the utmost importance to go the extra mile in terms of planning, enrichment, and use of resources to ensure their health and happiness,” says Iwan. “We are fortunate to have the facility North of the city and will be cycling horses in and out through Toronto Equestrian North to ensure each horse gets time on the farm.”

Currently, turnout at the Horse Palace happens in the exercise ring when lessons are not in session. But the duo has a plan to take horses out in small groups to graze on the grounds at Exhibition Place and walk around the property in the spring, summer, and fall when weather permits. However, during the scheduled closures of the school for the CNE (August) and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (November) the herd goes on turnout 24/7 for the whole month either at Josh Noordhoff’s Barrie farm (the trainer from whom they acquired their new schooling string), or at Toronto Equestrian North.

The team is also hopeful that Exhibition Place will invest in green space that will include turnout paddocks for the downtown herd. “We will also be employing the enrichment techniques we use at Toronto Equestrian North for their time in their stalls,” says Iwan. “This includes stall toys, treat balls, massage therapy, and tactile “scratching posts” in the stalls. In our first year, we are also hoping to invest in a VitaFloor vibration therapy system to promote joint health.”

As for demographics for an urban riding school, Clifford explains that students come from all walks of life – they have students from eight years of age to adults in their 80s The location makes it convenient for parents to bring their horse-crazy kids, but also adult riders who live in the city can also make it a regular activity without investing in travel time or even a vehicle to get to lessons. “Our Adult Introductory Courses, which will run on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons, are always full of adults finally getting to live out a childhood dream,” she says.

The partners are also aware of the importance and value of an inner-city riding school in promoting diversity and accessibility in equestrian sport. “We feel a great sense of responsibility in using this facility to break down the barriers to entry. We plan to run robust community programs that will make our school available to Toronto’s under-represented and disadvantaged communities,” says Iwan. “We aim to help those who may not think of themselves as riders develop talents and skills they would not otherwise have had an opportunity to develop.” To that end some of their plans and ideas include equine/agriculture-specific job training for new immigrants to Canada, sponsored riding programs for youths from disadvantaged communities, a mental health initiative that offers equine therapy programs, and therapeutic riding classes for riders of various abilities.

As for ongoing Covid-19 restrictions on daily life, the partners are looking beyond to a bright future for their latest passion project. “More than anything, as pandemic restrictions begin to relax, our hope is that Toronto Equestrian Downtown becomes a place where people are drawn to come together, live out childhood dreams, form lifelong friendships, or just spend a quiet moment with a horse,” says Clifford. “A place where people from all walks of life feel respected and welcome to share in a mutual love and respect for horses. A place where, as Toronto reawakens from the pandemic, people are drawn to gather once again.”