Dressage Master Christilot Boylen Embraces the Journey
Trailblazer Christilot Boylen, Canada’s most decorated dressage rider, continues to influence the sport from inside and outside the ring.
By: Alison King |
The development of Christilot Boylen’s competitive career is synonymous with the development of competitive dressage in Canada over the past 50 years. As much as she is an integral part of Canadian dressage history, Boylen continues to be a driving force in the sport today. And as an active competitor, trainer, coach and mentor, she will continue to influence the equestrian industry well into the future.
The daughter of well-known Canadian dancer Willi Blok-Hanson, Boylen (née Hanson) was born in Indonesia in 1947 and moved to Toronto in 1951. Even as a very young child, she was fascinated by horses and recalls telling her mother at the age of three that she wanted to ride.
“It took me until I was ten to convince my parents that I was serious about horses,” Boylen laughs. “I was able to start at that age with the Toronto and North York Pony Club and I lived for every weekend and our pony club meeting. My great luck was to have joined this club at a time when it was blessed with an amazing number of top-class horsemen and women who shared their knowledge with us, including Jimmy Elder, Sandra Silcox, Tommy Gayford, Major Anatole Pieregorodski, Colonel Michael Gutowski, Bob Hollingsworth, Dr. Jack Chassels, and Dick Day. Jimmy Day was a fellow member of the club with me, so it was a great time to be a pony clubber.”
Through pony club Boylen learned the basics of horse care and stable management, and enjoyed group riding lessons in flatwork, jumping, and cross-country. “I didn’t set out to specialize in dressage until I got my second horse, Bonheur – an eight-hundred-dollar racetrack reject with pretty ‘daisy cutter’ movement,” she says. “In those days pony club rally competitions were essentially mini versions of a three-day event. I came to the realization that Bonheur was going to kill me over fences. He hung his front legs terribly! However, he always won or was good in the dressage, and so the dressage bug hit me.”
As unlikely as it seems in today’s world of six-figure show horses, that $800 OTTB would go on to become an Olympic mount. At the age of 14, Boylen and Bonheur flew to Germany to train with General Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, a member of Germany’s gold medal-winning dressage team at the 1936 Olympics. There she was immersed in the classical traditions of the sport which still form the foundation of her training philosophy today.
The pair returned to Canada in the summer of 1962 and prepared to enter their first international competitions. Boylen required special permission to compete at this level, as she was still just 15 years old. With increasing success in the show ring at the Prix St-Georges level, Boylen set her sights on the 1964 Olympics. She and Bonheur returned to Germany to train, this time at the famous Reitinstitut von Neindorff.
The rest, as they say, is history. Despite a travel snafu that saw Boylen follow Brazilian show jumper Nelson Pessoa aboard the wrong flight, landing in India instead of Japan, she did eventually make it safely to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a member of the Canadian team and – at age 17 – became the youngest-ever Olympic dressage competitor.
“The one thing I knew right away as soon as I arrived at the Olympics is that I had absolutely no business being there,” she admits. “I knew I wasn’t going to come home with a medal, but it was a learning experience extraordinaire in every way and I used it as such. Just being able to watch the best riders from around the world and train side-by-side with them is an incredible opportunity.”
Since then, Boylen has represented Canada on five more Olympic teams (1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992) and four Pan American Games teams, winning individual gold at the 1971, 1975 and 1985 Pan Ams. Today, at age 72, she remains a fixture on the competitive scene with her current grand prix mount Rockylane, but her greatest influence on the sport’s future is as a coach, trainer, and mentor to the next generation of Canadian Olympians. Christilot and her daughter Billie, who also looks after Rocky and exercises her when Christilot is away, work together on the day-to-day riding and teaching schedule. Boylen has coached top dressage riders Megan Lane and Belinda Trussell, both of whom were named to Canada’s 2016 Olympic team and 2018 World Equestrian Games team.
With another Olympics just a year away, does Boylen envision another international team appearance in her own future?
“At this stage in my career I’m just thankful for every year that I’m still fit and healthy and able to train at this level,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to count some of the world’s best among my trainers and role models, such as Willi Schultheis, Georg Theodorescu, and Udo Lange, and it’s a privilege to take that knowledge they’ve given to me and pass it on to others. I love watching and suffering through the ups and downs every one of my students have as they work their way to the top of the ladder, and then start all over again with a different horse.
“My advice to all the hopeful young Canadian riders out there is to love what you do and do what you love. Don’t focus on a single event such as the Olympics. It’s a long ride and the Olympics isn’t the final destination. Embrace the entire journey.”
5 Things You Didn’t Know Bbout Christilot Boylen
1. She was a successful child actress and paid for her first horse at age 10 with money earned from her role in “The Howdie Doodie Show.”
2. She is the founder of CADORA (Canadian Amateur Dressage Owners Association), a national organization dedicated to supporting the sport at the grassroots across Canada.
3. She is the author of several books including “Canadian Entry,” which chronicles her first journey to the Olympics, “Basic Dressage for North America” and “The Horse Lovers’ Diary.”
4. She is a breast cancer survivor and competed throughout her treatment and recovery, even winning the grand prix at Devon following her second chemotherapy treatment.
5. Although she enjoys a number of sports including swimming and skiing, her favourite hobby outside of riding is shopping!