At just 12 years old, Olivia Stephenson has team and individual gold medals from the Children’s division at the 2018 Adequan/FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC) in North Salem, NY, as well as two silver team medals from the 2018 and 2017 CSIO-Ch Nations’ Cups at Thunderbird in Langley, BC, on her record.
If you ask Stephenson what about her riding career gives her joy, her is answer is not about the victories. Instead, she’s quick to describe the extensive time she spends getting to know her horses on the ground as her favourite aspect of the sport. She grooms and tacks up her horses herself, and she and her mother ship her horses to shows.
“They all have different personalities, and I enjoy getting to know them,” said Stephenson who owns two horses, Chaccana and Clearwater S. “Chaccana really likes to snuggle you. She’s the most loving horse. And Clearwater, funnily enough, is scared of water. The way she looks at the water is hilarious.”
Stephenson has trained with Dayton Gorsline and his wife, Canadian Olympian Lisa Carlsen, for the last year.
“She’s very observant,” said Gorsline. “She wants to know what her horses are fed, all about their soundness, and what the farrier does with them. She’s a good student. She’s not a kid who wants to just show up at the ring, hop on, and be done. She’s very conscientious and involved. Olivia has a good sense of what goes on back at the barn, and I think that shows up in her riding.”
Olivia Stephenson is Always Asking Why
Stephenson, of Calgary, AB, comes by her love for horses naturally. Her grandmother rides dressage, and her mother, Cheree Stephenson, also rode. Her first contact with horses was at her grandparents’ farm, and she started lessons at age five in Calgary. She started showing at age seven in the pony hunters, and her career progressed from there. She’s been focused on jumpers for the last three years and has, just this year, started to aim for qualifying for the CET Medal and Jump Canada Medal Finals at Toronto’s Royal Horse Show.
“She’s very studious,” noted Gorsline about Stephenson. “Whatever you tell her, she’s going to work on. The kid is keen to be good, and that counts for a lot. She’s not a kid who has to win every class, but if it doesn’t go well, she has to know what happened, why, and how to fix it. That’s unique in a 12-year-old.”
Stephenson has ridden Chaccana, a 12-year-old Oldenburg mare (Chacco-Blue x Kannan), for a year and a half. She described the mare as being a bit tricky to ride at home, but dependable at shows.
“It depends on the day,” Stephenson said. “She likes to try and spin and be a bit hot. She is a chestnut mare! When we’re at shows and just hacking, you’d think she was lazy, but once she gets in the ring, she really knows her job and she has a lot of blood.”
Stephenson and Chaccana turned in three clean rounds from the anchor position at this year’s Thunderbird Nations’ Cup to help the Canadian team clinch silver. Stephenson excels at riding as anchor for the team.
“I like riding last,” she said. “I do always get nervous because I don’t want to let the team down, but I know I can really trust my horse. If I just think about the fact that she’s got my back, it helps with the nerves.”
According to Gorsline, Stephenson hides any nerves quite effectively and comes across as a cool customer in the ring.
“I can tell when she’s nervous because she goes slower in the warm-up ring, but that’s the only indicator,” he said. “She almost gets more deliberate when there’s pressure.”
Clear rounds are the norm for Stephenson and Chaccana when they’re jumping on a team. The pair were fault-free over five rounds of jumping at the 2018 NAYC and double-clear at the 2018 Thunderbird Nations’ Cup, which was their first competition together.
“The mare isn’t a super-fast horse, but she’s quite scopey,” said Gorsline. “Our focus is on turning properly and leaving out steps to be quick. She’s never going to just kick on and be the fastest but Olivia is quite competitive; they’re double-clean most of the time and usually in the ribbons. Chaccana is a very consistent clean-round type horse.”
Stephenson noted that Chaccana is quite careful, “which means I need to make sure I support her with a lot of leg and that I use my track to support her, because she can get nervous sometimes,” she said.
Polishing The Details with a New Mount
That tactful and supportive style has also helped Stephenson with her younger horse, Clearwater S. Stephenson bought the eight-year-old Brandenburg mare (Clearway x Sandro) in February and has been focused on showing her in the equitation classes.
“It’s really helped me as a rider,” Stephenson said of the equitation division. “It helps me with my position and my aids. It also teaches me not to think of the courses as a speed round. I have to bring it all together and work on my eye and distances.”
While she’s aiming for the CET and Jump Canada Medal Finals with Clearwater S in the fall, Stephenson has already accomplished her major goal with Chaccana for this year – earning a spot on the Canadian Children’s team again for this year’s NAYC in August.
“It doesn’t get much better than what she did last year so we’ll see if she can go back and repeat that, but it’s in her capability,” said Gorsline of his student’s double-gold performance in 2018. “She’s probably not so wide-eyed about it all. I think competitions like Young Riders’ are eye-opening to any age group. She has a year more maturity and more experience going to places like Spruce Meadows and Thunderbird and HITS Coachella. For sure she’s learned a lot since she was there last year. I think it’s invaluable experience for these kids to jump on teams like this.”
Stephenson is also headed to eighth grade in the fall at Bearspaw School in Calgary. She attends school regularly, making sure to keep up with homework in between riding three or four days during the week and on weekends at Gorsline and Carlsen’s Trademark Stables. She balanced her schoolwork this past winter with her first trip to a winter circuit to show, as she flew back and forth to HITS Coachella in California for the six-week circuit. In between, Stephenson found time for school sports, as she plays badminton and volleyball and particularly enjoys track and field events.
Gorsline, who was named the Jumping Youth Advisor earlier this year by Equestrian Canada, thinks that with the right horses in her future, Stephenson could be a force to be reckoned with.
“The biggest thing with a kid like her, who is quite talented, is not to get ahead of yourself,” he said of training Stephenson. “It’s not always for the young, this sport – experience counts for a lot. It’s our job to make sure that she gets the basics down as she’s stepping up through the sport.”