By: Alison King
She competes against some of the best dressage riders in the world, while providing opportunities for the next generation at a grassroots level.
Jill Irving’s first experiences in the equestrian world were a far cry from the glitz and glamour of Wellington, Florida, where she now competes against North America’s best throughout the winter season. Back then, her mount was a $75 backyard pony named Coco; her competition was her fellow members of the Sudbury Pony Club. In those early days, she couldn’t have imagined that a passion for horses and a teenage friendship would some day lead her to a place among Canada’s elite dressage athletes.
“We were first introduced to dressage through Pony Club. I could never remember the tests and always wanted to be jumping instead,” Irving says, laughing. “At first I showed in the pony hunters and then took up eventing. I always had good dressage results while eventing, so when I went to university I began to focus more seriously on dressage.”
The lure of jumping led Irving back to the hunter ring as an adult amateur, where she enjoyed training and showing for several years with her daughters, who are heavily involved in the sport. She returned to dressage in 2008 and has worked her way to the top of the sport with the guidance of her long-time friend, former Canadian Olympian Ashley Holzer.
“Ashley has been my dear friend for thirty-eight years and coach for thirty years,” says Irving. “We finish each other’s sentences and laugh at things that no one else understands. It’s a relationship that sometimes feels like a marriage, as I know I frustrate her often! That aside, she always believes in me and has pushed me to be where I am today. Her great leadership and example has influenced all my decisions in life and in the ring.”
Over the past 10 years, Irving has earned numerous top placings in the grand prix at some of the most prestigious CDI competitions in Europe and North America. She helped Team Canada to an 11th-place finish at the 2018 World Equestrian Games and sits well within the top 100 on the FEI world dressage rankings with her WEG mount, Degas 12. Yet one factor sets her apart from her fellow team members and FEI competitors; Irving is one of the very few amateurs successfully competing at the highest levels of the sport.
“Although I put as much time and effort into my training as many professionals, dressage is not my livelihood,” she says. “I competed as an amateur hunter rider for 10 years while my children needed me at their shows. I kept my amateur status in case I ever want to show in the hunter ring again and return to the Royal Winter Fair.
“When I was at WEG it never crossed my mind that I was the only amateur,” she continues. “I loved representing Canada and learned so much from my experienced team mates. The Equestrian Canada staff were super and we felt they had our backs at all times. For me, this was a dream that far surpassed my expectations.
“My father was on the national ski team, so growing up I always aspired to represent Canada. My older sister chose to ski race and made the national team thirty-seven years ago. It’s a family joke that I finally made my national team!”
With her horses Degas 12 and Arthur currently having success at grand prix level, and the up-an-coming Soccer City achieving great results on the small tour, Irving hasn’t ruled out another chance to join Team Canada. The 2019 Pan American Games in Peru is among her list of goals for this year, and a shot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team is a distinct possibility as well.
Whether as an amateur or professional, competing at the international level requires an extraordinary amount of dedication, discipline, time, and sacrifice – no easy feat for this busy mom who credits the team behind her for her success. “Life outside the ring? What’s that?” she jokes. “The last few years have been very focused on training and I’ve been away from my family a lot. We take a family vacation every year and we all enjoy time at our family cottage. I run or go to the gym four or five days a week and love to cheer on the Moncton Wildcats hockey team my husband is involved with. I spend time with my millennial children who are very busy in their careers and always look forward to watching my three daughters compete in the hunter ring at the Royal Winter Fair.
“I have one hundred per cent support from my husband and my four children,” Irving continues. “They understand the commitment it takes to be successful at anything and have been very patient about my time away. My mother and siblings are very proud of me and are my dearest fans. As for juggling everything, I have to give that credit to my show grooms and the staff we have at our stable in Moncton for making it possible for me to be either away competing or away with my family. I feel New Brunswick and Canada behind me all the way!”
In return, Irving has thrown her support behind the development of the sport in New Brunswick and across Canada with the creation of the Jill Irving Youth Equine Mentor Program. The grassroots initiative was launched in 2016 to provide young Canadian riders with the invaluable opportunity to observe professional competition first-hand and learn directly from experienced riders and coaches. While the first two years of the program focused exclusively on dressage riders, the scope was expanded last year to include hunter/jumper riders as well.
Each March, a group of young riders age 16-21 is chosen by lottery from across Canada to take in the sights of Wellington, Florida, home to the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. Participants are treated to a jam-packed schedule of barn tours, lectures, social events, meet-and-greets with top international riders and trainers, and a behind-the-scenes look at some of North America’s most prestigious equestrian competitions.
“I began the mentorship program to honour my father’s mantra that ‘what we take out of a sport we give back.’ I know that many high-performance riders believe this and I’m proud to be in a position to help others.”