By: Jessica Lefroy
As is the case with so many children who grew up in the shadow of Spruce Meadow’s famous clock tower, Vanessa Mannix knew from an early age exactly what she wanted to be.
With some hard work, a few major international successes under her belt, and the guidance of the world’s best riders, that dream is coming true for Vanessa Mannix.
Mannix started out riding retired polo ponies on her family’s farm at a young age. After a short stint in a peewee polo league, she began riding competitively with Jonathan Asselin at the age of 12. In 2007, Mannix moved to Dublin, Ireland, to pursue her undergraduate degree in business and politics at Trinity College. It was at that point she began training with Barry O’Connor and Conor Swail, and subsequently brought two horses over from Calgary. “Ten years later I can firmly say Conor is one of the world’s best coaches,” she says. “I still keep horses with Barry, who helps us find prospects and keeps the European horses in great shape for me.
“The Irish have such a unique affinity for horses and are some of the world’s most talented riders. I didn’t anticipate becoming so attached to Ireland during my four-year degree, but now I wouldn’t feel right without visiting Ireland a few times a year. It has definitely become my second home. The Irish are also unique in the way they band together and support each other, and I’m grateful to be part of the Irish scene.”
Although her horses are kept at the family’s Hawkridge Stables when she is home in Calgary, Mannix admits to being something of a nomad. Dividing her time between the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, select North American summer venues, and a handful of European shows, Mannix credits the support of her team at home.
“I am nearly always on the road competing, and I’m grateful to have a great barn manager in Pippa Stanley and rider James Chawke to keep things so well organized and the horses in such great shape. It’s a lot of logistics and preparation to be able to land at a show and be competitive, and I couldn’t have better people helping me get to the ring.”
Her current string includes Grand Cru Vd Vijf Eiken, an 11-year-old stallion by Contact VD Heffinck, who was purchased in Belgium as an eight-year-old. “I knew right away after the first few jumps that we could do some big things together,” she says. “He’s extremely rideable and kind, and you literally cannot build the jumps big enough for him. I’m comfortable saying he’s one of the scopiest jumpers in the world and he is definitely my horse of a lifetime. He is the shining star at the moment.” This summer the pair finished a strong fourth in the $380,000 Pan American Cup and third in the $500,000 RBC Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows.
Rising up the ranks in her string is Chemas, who has just stepped up to the 1.50m level and “would live in your pocket if you let him,” says Mannix, laughing. Dooley’s Deluxe, or ‘Danny,’ is a Swedish-bred 13-year-old gelding horse with which Mannix has had a longtime partnership and a lot of success in the speed classes. “He has a hilarious personality. I have to say he’s my favourite to be around in the barn because he’s always up to something borderline against the rules, but in the ring he’s a very loyal and competitive teammate.”
Another standout success in Mannix’s career thus far was Rubens LS La Silla, a horse that Swail had picked out as a seven-year-old jumping at Spruce Meadows with Simon Nizri in the 1.30m division. “My experience producing and competing Ruben is one of those fairy-tale scenarios,” explains Mannix. “We originally tried him as a horse for Conor, but ended up buying him for me, even though I never sat on him and had actually never even ridden a stallion before. I had a lot of fun and success bringing him all the way from the medium amateurs to international grand prix. He’s a very easy-going stallion with an incredibly generous attitude – but he definitely knows he’s a big deal! Every single time I rode him into the ring, whether a tiny training show or Saturday night lights at WEF, he did a huge trumpeting neigh as he cantered through the in-gate just to make sure everyone was watching him.”
In 2016, Mannix felt she and Ruben had reached the limit of their competitiveness as a team and passed the reins to Swail. The new partnership clicked immediately. “I felt really proud watching Ruben get results at the very highest level after three successful years competing him myself, and I can definitely say watching is more nerve-wracking than riding in some ways!
“We got approached by his new owners and I knew it was the right decision to sell, [which] means I can buy a few younger prospects. One in particular has already arrived and I’m excited to now have Ruben’s six-year-old son in the barn. Hopefully Zinedine turns out even half as talented as his dad.”
Writing out specific goals has been a huge motivator for Mannix. “I set targets for how many ranking points I want to win, top-10 placings earned, and prize money won,” she explains of her system. “One goal at the outset of 2017 has been to jump the CP Grand Prix at the Masters with Cru. I’d also like to focus on finding a couple of new horses. The process of developing an up-and-coming seven-year-old into a grand prix horse has been very rewarding, so I’d like to find a few more potential stars. Long-term I think every athlete dreams of representing their country at the Olympics, and I am no exception!”
Favourite Netflix show: Orange is the New Black (“Read the memoir!”) and The Crown
Last book you read: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts
Coffee or tea: Only caramel frappuccinos, please
Favourite band: Lady Gaga or anything country
If you could ride any horse in the world, who would it be?: My chestnut mare, Valerie. Unfortunately her jumping career is over, but she was the most fun horse to ride. The good news is she’s newly pregnant, so hopefully a new superstar in the works!
• 4th, $380,000 Pan American Cup (Grand Cru)
• 3rd, $500,000 RBC Grand Prix (Grand Cru)
• 1st 4* Grand Prix of Coapexpan, MEX (Grand Cru)
• 6th, $500,000 5* Rolex Grand Prix, WEF (Grand Cru)