By: Christine Carroll

Every year, hundreds of Canadians leave the Great White North and flock south to compete.

Thumbnail for Sunshine Circuit Riders

Sportfot Photo

Every January, hundreds of Canadian equestrians leave the Great White North and flock south to the sunshine circuit. Take a peek at how they balance training, showing, work, school, and yes, even have some fun. At any given time between January 1st and March 31st, there are roughly 400+ Canadian riders competing on the winter circuit shows in California, Arizona and Florida – plus their entourages of grooms, trainers, friends and families.

Sam Walker

Five winters in Welly World

Fourteen-year-old Sam Walker inherited his love of riding and horses from his parents, well-known trainers Scott and Dee Walker, owners of Forest Hill Farm in Caledon, ON. “As soon as I could walk I was in leadline,” Scott recalled. “My first pony was named Poptart. I’d say Poptart taught me the most of all the ponies I rode. I’m really grateful for that pony.”

Sam has ridden several top horses lately, both in Canada and the US. This past year he did the 1.40m and grand prix classes with the seasoned jumper Acardi du Houssoit Z. The pair placed fifth in Vermont last summer with a double clear in a $50,000 grand prix and are showing in the high juniors at the Winter Equestrian Festival this season. “He really taught me a lot. I have to thank Missy Clarke from North Run and Richard Spooner, his owner, for the ride on this incredible horse.”

Sam’s top hunter is Miracle (‘Murray’), owned by Marion Cunningham of Marble Hill Farm in Schomberg, ON. At WEF, the pair are rocking the small junior hunter division, and Sam is also riding three “amazing eq horses”: Charmeur, Waldo, and Arandelli, all owned by Missy Clarke. Sam won the ASPCA Maclay during week one of WEF and has had numerous good ribbons with these horses this season. At home, Sam trains with his parents, while in the US, Missy provides the equitation and jumper coaching.

So how does this dedicated rider balance all the riding, showing, studying, and social life? “I usually get all of my riding and training done in the morning before the weather gets too hot, because it also is hard on the horses,” he explained. “I get all my academics done at two or three o’clock. I do my school work online, both here and in Canada, so I can focus on my riding. I do the whole Ontario curriculum through the Independent Learning Centre; you get the curriculum and work through at your own pace.” After his daily school work is done, if there is time, Sam might go out for ice cream with his friends. “This past year I’ve met lots of new people and made lots of good connections and friendships.”

Sam’s parents have ambitious plans for him this summer – they will be joining Missy Clarke for a European tour of catch-riding, leaving their horses at home. “My mom rode with Missy way back,” noted Sam. “I’m pretty sure I’m the first student of Missy’s who has been the son of a previous student!”

Sam’s talent for effective catch-riding and coolness under pressure was put to the test last November, when two days before the prestigious Royal Winter Fair Hunter Derby Finals his mother Dee, who was to ride Heavenly in the class, broke her leg. Sam got the ride and came second in the first phase – and fifth with Miracle – competing against the best hunters in Canada.

The opportunity to watch his heroes of the sport compete is a particular aspect of spending the winters in Wellington that Sam appreciates. “I really, really look up to Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze. I try to talk to Ian as much as I can and get as many pointers as I can. He is really a legend in the sport.” He also lists George Morris, McLain Ward, and Missy Clarke as pros he studies and admires.

When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Sam projected, “I would love to ride for my country on an adult Nation’s Cup team and have my first Olympic appearance.” And with that, he was off to catch-ride a jumper, have two lessons with Missy, and head back home to “ride a couple.”

Krystalann Shingler

All in a day’s work

Krystalann Shingler, a dressage rider residing in Wellington, is actually a transplanted Canadian in her first season competing at the CDI level at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF).

Krystal, 34, spent the early years of her life in Brooklyn, ON, northeast of Toronto. “My first pony was a little pinto called Colour Coded, or CC, that we kept at a barn nearby our house in the country. I did several levels of Pony Club, a little jumping, cross-country. And I went to all the fairs. I miss the fairs – the costume classes – my mom made all my costumes.”

When she was 12, Krystal got a horse off the race track and brought him to Florida when the family moved to Coral Gables near Miami. She began her dressage training and soon purchased Tividor, with whom she made the 2003 Young Riders team for Ontario. A tragic turn of events put an end to her dream. “During the competition in Bromont I had made the first cut mid-week and we were going to a team barbecue. We were in a car accident and were t-boned and I broke my pelvis. I was on hospital rest for four weeks.”

Now partnered with Fidelio, a nine-year-old Oldenburger gelding she has had for five years, her most successful result so far at the AGDF was an impressive seventh out of 18 in an Intermediaire I class during week seven, competing against the likes of Steffen Peters, Adrienne Lyle, Christilot Boylen, and Jaimey and Tina Irwin.

When asked about a mentor, Krystal singled out her present coach, Kevin Kohmann, who is a trainer at Diamante Farm. “I’ve never had a coach like Kevin. He really cares and gives you the tools to be successful. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him”

Kevin was good with difficult horses and Fidelio, although appearing perfect in Germany when purchased, was very nervous and high-strung when he arrived in the US, developing ulcers and injuring himself. “I was at a really bad place when I met him [Kevin] over three years ago. I was scared to ride – I didn’t want to ride. I almost gave up and sold my horse. Kevin got my confidence back.”

Between her busy riding, showing, and work schedule, a typical day during show season begins at 5:00 a.m. to prepare for a 6:30 lesson. After her lesson, Krystal turns out her horse and, not having a groom, stays while he has his hour (or in summer, longer) of turnout in the paddock. She then goes to her parents’ house near the show, takes care of two dogs, showers, changes, and goes to work at the Show Chic Dressage boutique, which during the winter season is located in a trailer at the AGDF grounds. “If I have a class, I show, then go back to the trailer and work.” She acknowledges her husband and parents are very supportive of her riding career, which helps make it all possible. “I have a lot of support; I’m very lucky.”

When she finishes work around 5:00 p.m. she goes home, where she and her husband Ted have dinner together. After looking after laundry and groceries, if it’s after 7:00 or 8:00 she heads to bed. Saturday is always date night out for the couple. “If we stay at home we won’t stay awake!” she laughed.

‘Spare time’ activities are nearly non-existent. “I haven’t been to the beach in two years!” said Krystal. “During show season you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off.”

With a passion for dressage and a strong work ethic, this dual citizen can focus on the big picture: to represent Canada (or the US) on a team one day – although she may lean towards the former. “My heart has always been with Canada.”

Alexanne Thibault

Watching and learning

Alexanne Thibault, a 19-year-old Quebec native from Boucherville, just spent her first full winter in Wellington. In the past she was only able to show sporadically because of school, but “now I get to live the full experience. This winter I decided to study online [four CEGEP classes] to be able to stay in Wellington for the whole winter. Because I take care of my horses myself, it’s kind of hard to leave them alone, so we arranged things with that in mind. However, my father flies back and forth almost every weekend to be able to see me compete and help me with my horses.”

Alexanne, who trains with fellow Québécois Laurie Bucci and Francis Berger, has two nice horses showing at WEF: one is Mr Carthago, who is competing in the seven-year-old jumpers. Their first appearance was in week 7, where they were tied for champion, a result they repeated in week 8. “He’s still young, but I see a bright future ahead for him and I do believe he will be one to watch in the bigger classes in a couple of years,” Alexanne predicted.

Her other horse is Chacco Prime, a nine-year-old by the top jumping sire Chacco Blue. “We got him in June 2016 as a prospect for the meter-forty, but he turned out to be beyond our expectations,” said Alexanne. “I finished fifth on him in week 8 in the U25 Welcome. We were the best Canadian combination in the class, which was really great. I’m hoping to ride him in bigger classes throughout the summer.”

Days are full in Wellington. “On show days, I usually wake up pretty early to feed my horses and clean my stalls. I will give them both a little hack before their classes. After that, I’ll clean all my tack, bathe my horses, and make sure that everything is ready for my classes.

“Before showing, I walk the course with my trainer, then warm up and go in the ring. When I’m done, I like to bathe my horses and do their bandages right away so they can relax for the rest of the day. I usually have a little time to relax myself before feeding at 4:00 pm, which I normally use to watch my rounds of the day and analyze what I did well and what I could’ve done better. I usually do my school work then or on Mondays, since it’s day off for the horses. You need a lot of motivation to complete your studies, because there are so many distractions here!

“Finally, when I’m done at the barn, I can go hang out with friends or watch the classes that are still going on. “

The lure of Florida during a Canadian winter is strong. “Palm trees, beautiful weather, and a great horse show, what more can you ask?” said Alexanne, adding, “Another thing that I really enjoy is that all the top riders are here. I get to watch them and learn new tips here and there to make me an even better rider. It’s not every day that you see a class with the top three riders in the world in it.”

She especially likes studying McLain Ward. “When he rides, he just makes everything looks so easy and effortless. Every turn and every obstacle is executed to perfection. He is for sure always one of my favourites to watch, especially in the jump-off.”

Avoiding burnout when the season starts so early can be an issue. “This is really hard, especially with school on top of riding, but I think it’s important to make sure that I take some time for myself,” explained Alexanne. “Sometimes I just need to relax and go hang out with some friends to kind of get distracted from the whole horse show world. As for my horses, I always make sure to give them breaks as well and to manage their showing schedule so they don’t get exhausted by the end of the season.”

Alexanne eventually sees herself running her own barn back in Canada with the help of her sister, Coraline. “She has always been there for me and I think we would make great partners. I would also like to compete in the top classes around the world, such as the five-star grand prix and the Nations Cups.

“Since I’m not as wealthy as some of my competition, I focus on my talent, trust my horses, and try to do my best every day.”

Keeping Costs Down

Showing in the US is not for the economically-challenged. You may expect to pay around $20,000 (USD) a month at WEF if you include training, stalls, show fees, horse care, feed, bedding, accommodation, meals, car rentals, airfare, etc, etc. There are a few steps you can take to keep costs down a bit:

• take care of your own grooming duties

• learn to be a decent braider

• find accommodations and a barn to share with other riders within hacking distance of the showgrounds

• cook at home as much as possible instead of going to restaurants

• do all your own hacking, riding and showing (rather than paying your trainer or a catch-rider)

• find a job locally or at the show grounds

by Susan Stafford-Pooley