Family Matters: Children of Pro Riders

For those who grow up in and around the barn, the joys of a childhood steeped in horses develops young equestrians and the next generation o

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By: Jessica Lefroy |

Children of professional riders are in the enviable position of having ponies accessible in the early years of life. For Mac and Christi McQuaker, daughters Kieley and Addison’s interest in horses was developed early on, aided in part by students at their parents successful hunter/jumper operation, Gryphon Farms. “Both Kieley and Addison have always had a passion for horses,” explains Mac. “Growing up at the farm, they have had the fortunate opportunity to ride and play with horses from a young age. Having a number of teenage girls riding with us also created a wonderful environment and has made it easy for them to want to spend time in the barn and riding.”

Spending time in the barn and traveling to competitions is sometimes the easiest way for the children of avid horsepeople to ensure they spend quality time together. Such was the case for Evi Strasser, prominent dressage competitor and Canadian Olympian, whose daughter Tanya, 15, loved horses from a very early age. “My daughter has traveled with me from country to country since she was a little girl,” says Evi. “It has not always been easy to have her involved, but I believe that children would rather be with their parents then sitting at home with the nanny or grandparents.”

Top eventing competitor Moira “Momo” Laframboise’s children had little choice but to spend time with their mother in the stable, and although Momo’s son Coulson outgrew riding, both he and sister Haley, 16, were involved in the day-to-day operations of the barn almost as soon as they were old enough to lift a pitchfork. “Both my children had to be involved with horses, from mucking out barns, bringing in hay, unloading 800 bales of shavings, to all the everyday chores that come with the farm,” explains Momo. “Haley would ride in front of me before she could even walk!”

The three daughters of Nick Holmes-Smith, the 1992 Pan- American Games team and individual gold medalist, were bitten by the horse bug at a very young age. “As two-year-olds, the kids would be led around on horses, and they were very keen to ride as soon as they were old enough. They all have always wanted to ride,” Nick says of Carmen, 13, Tosca, 11, and Colette, nine. “They’re girls!”

Bretton and Kara Chad of Calgary, AB, began riding at the ages of six and four, respectively. What began as low-key local riding lessons and summer camp became a full-blown obsession for the girls, who began showing (and winning) at top-rated shows in Canada and in the US shortly after they first picked up the reins. “They were hooked right away,” recounts Laurel Chad, who, along with husband Rob, are successful competitors and lifelong horsepeople. “Both girls have always loved being around the horses: caring for them, riding them, spending all their time at the farm having fun … anything at all to do with them.”

A girl’s BFF: her first pony

There is nothing like a fire-breathing Thelwellian devil to discourage a child from riding for life. Finding a suitable pony for a child is one of the most crucial decisions a parent can make. Professionals may have a leg up here, as they have the resources at their disposal to find quality, safe, and most importantly, fun ponies.

Kieley McQuaker’s first pony taught her how to have fun on horseback. “Shadow Dancer was her best friend and the best teacher a beginner rider could want,” says her father. “She was the first pony Kieley cantered on, and a day later she waslearning how to jump. First experiences are so important, and Kieley was fortunate to have a pony that gave her so much confidence.”

The Holmes-Smith girls benefitted from their parent’s admittedly unplanned timing when it came to their first mounts: “The girls are perfectly spaced, being born in spring two years apart. This wasn’t exactly planned, but has worked out great for shifting kids from smaller ponies to bigger ponies every two years, and for hand-me-down riding clothes. The kids gained confidence and speed as they grew older, and now love going on “hell rides” in the hills. We have made sure that we mount our kids on really good ponies, and consequently they have had good success when they ride well. Good horses definitely make good riders.”

For Haley Laframboise, an involvement in horses was almost assumed, as the Laframboise name is synonymous with Canadian eventing. “The involvement of the horse with our family goes back generations,” explains Momo. Her sister, Lorraine, was the Canadian national eventing coach, and Momo herself was a member of the silver medal team at the 1987 Pan American Games. “Horses are in the family blood, and it’s only fitting that Haley would take to it,” says Momo. “She began her lessons at the age of three on the lunge and was ponied through the countryside by me on any one of the horses I was training.” (Haley’s cousin, Sophie, has also had a great deal of success in the eventing world.)

Alexandra Dvorak, 20, is the daughter of Canadian Olympian and 2007 Pan Am team silver medalist Tom Dvorak. Her first pony was purchased before she was born; her sage parents knew that often when you need a really good pony, one is never around. Tom and wife Ellen instilled in their daughter a love of ponies through games on horseback, while teaching her the importance of horse care at a young age. “Alex’s early riding days were very unstructured,” Tom says. “There was a lot of bareback riding, gymnastics and exercises on horseback, falling off, learning how to catch ponies, and grooming. When Alex was six years old, her pony P enny incurred a tendon injury, which prompted Alex’s early horse care lessons of cold hosing, poulticing, sweating and bandaging.”

Tanya Strasser received her first pony, 28-yearold Muffin, when she was two-and-a-half years old. “Muffin was the perfect pony,” says Evi. “The two of them were best friends, and the pony didn’t mind if Tanya went in the house for a quick drink and left the pony tacked up. We used to find Muffin grazing, fully tacked-up, on the lawn. When the little lady was ready to ride again she would simply grab the pony and off they went. It was a lot of fun for my daughter and the pony.”

“It is so important to provide safe ponies and horses. I would rather have less quality, but a super temperament, until they know how to handle them confidently. Kids have to feel safe to have success learning. Riding should always be fun in the beginning, because the higher they go in this sport, the more difficult it becomes.”

Show ring pressure

The drive to be competitive is not one that everybody who rides experiences, and is a sure way to burn out if not fully committed. For children of riding pros, many of whom spend a large part of the year at horse shows, it is often assumed that their children will also have the desire to step into the ring.

For the Holmes-Smith girls, eventing competitively was not the focus of their early riding days, but with both their mother, Ali, and father competing frequently, the girls grew up at three-day events and horse trials. When they did begin testing their riding skills against their peers, learning how to deal with the inevitable defeat was an important lesson. “Although we enjoy seeing our kids do well and win, we don’t over-emphasize this aspect of riding,” explains Nick. “As any long-time rider knows, there are usually more setbacks than victories when competing – and learning to lose and have good sportsmanship is really important. It is important that they realize being successful isn’t easy and victories should be really appreciated and enjoyed, not taken for granted. In victory and defeat, they must learn to deal with both.”

Kieley McQuaker, eight, 2010 OHJA reserve champion in the short stirrup division, exhibited a desire to compete very early on, perhaps inspired by watching her mother and the many young clients of the McQuakers. “She can be pretty serious [in the ring], even at such a young age,” explains Mac. “She learned in the leadlines that there was always a ribbon and a nice prize at the end of the class. When she began competing in the short stirrup it was often a tough lesson in reality when she did not get a ribbon! She has now learned that it is not all about the ribbon and sometimes, no matter how good you think your ride was, you still might not get a prize. This is something she reminded me about just the other night when I was complaining about not getting a ribbon. So I guess some of the stuff we tell her has sunk in!”

Bretton Chad,17, and sister Kara,15, are on the road competing with their parents most of the year across Canada, the United States, and Europe. Career highlights include major championships and national titles: Bretton won team gold at the 2010 NAJYR Championships in Kentucky and competes successfully in the 1.40m classes and grand prix, while Kara is a competitive force in the 1.40m and equitation divisions.

With such a heavy competition schedule, avoiding burn-out is of utmost importance. “We try to make it fun for them,” says mom Laurel, herself a successful hunter, jumper, and equitation competitor. “Really important is the fact that they have made friends that travel to the same horse shows – people they hang out with and have fun with. We also use the traveling to get out to explore the cities and have some fun.”

Outside coaching = fewer tears

Many professionals choose to enlist the services of an outside coach to train their children, hoping to avoid the inevitable conflict that may spill over into home life. Many pros have undertaken the task with much success, although their journey has not been without struggles.

Strasser trains her daughter on a daily basis, but enlists the help of her own coach, Robert Dover, on occasion. She attributes their successful working relationship to the open line of communication they insist on keeping, always discussing problems before they reach the boiling point. “You just have to talk about it when things need to be talked through,” she believes. And for them, the benefits of training your own child far outweigh the disadvantages. “We have the same goals,” explains Strasser. “It works because we want to have fun and enjoy our horses. We get to attend many nice shows together, see wonderful countries, and meet a lot interesting people in this horse world.”

Currently competing at the FEI Junior level and a frequent winner in the FEI Pony division, Tanya’s most memorable highlight in Evi’s eyes is one that her daughter may not even remember. “[Tanya] made a freestyle with her pony for one of my birthdays. All the neighbours were invited to the ring for twelve o’clock. There were costume changes, changes of music, and choreography. It was one of the nicest birthday presents I’ve received to this day.”

Dvorak echoes the sentiment that teaching your own children doesn’t have to involve hair-pulling and expletives. “[Alexandra] is my daughter, I want to teach her, and I enjoy it. I think there are more pros to having the family together in the business. At this point we have the same objectives and goals for the care and training of our horses and it’s nice to have the support of one another.”

Momo Laframboise is daughter Haley’s primary instructor; the teen has experienced great success competing at the CCI* level, and was named to the 2010 NAJYRC team. “Teaching [eventing] to kids is difficult, because it is three disciplines in one – and it’s difficult enough teaching your teenage daughter one sport. Barn drama is also our life drama, and we’ve had our share of drama, but I am very fortunate to have Haley sharing the world I live in and the love of the horse. She is much more methodical and organized that I was or am, she’s a good pupil and has the discipline. Amazingly enough, we have survived the years and have a great relationship. Of course, that does not mean we have not had our share of lessons with tears and shouting.”

Despite the difficulty in sourcing other coaching options in their remote hometown of Chase, BC, Nick and Ali Holmes- Smith sought outside assistance. It is their experience that when confronted with parents who think they know best, children are often not in the best frame of mind for learning. “My wife and I try to teach our kids as little as possible,” admits Nick. “They tend to interrupt, contradict, and misbehave – generally just lack respect and be cheeky and rude to their kind parents.”

The McQuakers share this sentiment, having handed over the responsibilities of coaching their daughters to fellow professional Darcy Hayes (who also seeks outside assistance in coaching her daughter, Quincy). “Christi and I take great pride in the fact that we do not coach our own kids,” says Mac. “We help our kids at home, but when it comes to showing we would much rather be parents than coaches. I think children learn differently from a non-parent. There are many successful parent/ student relationships, but sometimes they need a coach and sometimes they need a parent – it is hard trying to be both.”

Lessons and life skills

The importance of not forcing their children to share their love of horses is widely acknowledged by riding professionals. The opportunity to explore other interests should always be encouraged.

Laframboise welcomes the life lessons daughter Haley will learn should she decide to pursue horses as a career, but warned her to be realistic about the difficulties she will face. “I always told her it is a great life, but it is not an easy one. Doing any sport at the upper levels is such a brilliant lesson on life’s highs and lows, the successes and the failures, the responsibilities and the consequences. It prepares you with brilliant life skills in the process of growing up.”

The children of professionals may feel the pressure to be involved with horses for fear of disappointing their parents, so Strasser made sure Tanya had the freedom to choose her hobbies in life. “I always tell my daughter that she doesn’t have to ride for me, she has to ride for herself and she can do any sport she wants. The business of horses is not an easy one; you have to be very good to stay on top.”

The Chads are grateful for the path their daughters have chosen; it is one that allows the rarity of spending quality time with family and teaches the girls to appreciate the commitment of all those involved in making their journey to the ring possible. “There are so many lessons to be learned in horses,” believes Laurel. “It teaches them courage and independence, tremendous discipline, and respect. It’s a fantastic family sport; you can be in the same place as your kids, even when they are teenagers, and yet not be in their face. They have freedom, but you’re at the same venue all day long, spending time together at certain points throughout the day.”

Mac McQuaker offers this advice for those hoping their children will take up the reins: “Don’t make it happen and try not to force it upon them. The decision to ride needs to be theirs. Let them develop a passion for the horse first and the sport second.”