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Michelle Ingall

Achievements

About Michelle Ingall

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From FEI Event Horse to Therapy Horse to FEI Paralympic Horse

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ingall.

As the Executive Director and Head Coach at Canada’s largest therapeutic riding and equestrian therapy centre, I see a lot of “potential” therapy horses come and go. Sadly, only a small percentage of horses and ponies we are offered make the cut and end up being successful as a therapy horse.

The reasons for this are many, however the biggest one is typically a lack of “been there, done that” experience.

Many event horses, especially ones that have competed at the upper levels, have not only been there and done that, but they’ve got the t-shirt, and are probably ON the t-shirt!

Let me give you an example. We’ll call this Exhibit A: Grover, also known by his show name Daytrader. I bought Grover back in 2000 as a barely halter-broke 5-year old (whose name was actually Kevin — but that was quickly changed!) from a place called The Ranch in Pritchard, BC. (Haven’t heard of Pritchard? Not to worry, neither had I!) Grover was a diamond in the rough, and I bought him sight unseen at the advice of Sarah Bradley, my coach at the time. It was the best decision I ever made.

Not only did Grover become a successful FEI one-star and Intermediate horse, he was legendary in the eventing community because he is half Percheron. Luckily the other half is Thoroughbred, but nonetheless he is a big dude, and stood out among his peers. His huge heart and willingness allowed me, an adult amateur, to take him all over British Columbia and Washington, to California, Montana and Colorado. But I digress.

One day during the height of Grover’s eventing career, International Paralympic Team Coach, Mary Longden, was in town for an FEI Paralympic qualifier with her team from Australia. She needed a horse with an FEI passport that might be suitable for one of her athletes, as the one they’d arranged for previously was unsuitable. So, I offered them Grover. He competed for the Aussies, winning three silver medals for his rider, and qualifying scores for Beijing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have loaned my horse to a competing country! This was Grover’s second foray into the world of FEI competition.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ingall.

It was all this experience that created the foundation for a successful second career as a therapy horse, after a high suspensory injury on one leg and a check ligament injury on another, led him into retirement at the age of 19.

Grover is a great para-dressage horse, and even took one of my students with autism to a few three-day events. (BTW – nothing is more nerve-wracking than watching your former Intermediate horse leave the start box at 550 mpm when they’re only supposed to be going 325!)

A few years ago, I was approached by Para Equestrian Canada – would Grover be available for another Paralympic qualifier for a rider coming out from Ontario. So, I dusted off his FEI passport, got it updated, and Grover gave this up-and-coming para-dressage athlete, Jason Surnoski, his first exposure in the big leagues. Jason is now ranked 6th in Canada in the FEI standings. Grover didn’t go to Rio, but he was a contender!

At Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities (PRDA) where I work, Grover isn’t the only retired eventer that has made a name for themselves as a therapy horse. We’ve had Lance, Ben, Deion, Alex, Ohana, Kovu, Galaxy, Maestro, Happy and Jerome (and that’s just off the top of my head)!

A good therapy horse has to accept change easily. They have to be brave, and versatile, and able to focus. They need to know they play an important role in their riding partnership, and I don’t know and other type of horse that fits that bill better than an eventer. Therapy horses need to be steady and reliable, and able to take a joke. Sound like someone you know?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ingall.

Many of us wonder what our horse can do once they retire from the competition life. We worry they will be bored, unhappy or unsound. As a therapy horse, they will be greatly loved and hugely appreciated. They will get lots of gentle exercise to keep them limber and help keep arthritis at bay.

But most of all, they will have a worthy job, and their bodies and minds will stay active and healthy for many years to come.

Grover is now almost 24 years young, and in my humble opinion, one of the best therapy horses at PRDA, teaching all kinds of people with a wide variety of challenges and disabilities. He is showing them respect, giving them dignity, and rewarding them with the gift of freedom, and I couldn’t be prouder.

So when your eventer looks at you with a bit of a tired look in his eye, consider a second career for him as a therapy horse, and see how truly special your horse really is.

Cross-Train for Better Performance: How a Ski Lesson Helped Me Ride Better

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ingall.

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon at Manning Park Resort in British Columbia, and I was just starting my second shift as a volunteer with the Canadian Ski Patrol when a few of us were offered to session with one of the mountain’s best ski instructors, Chris Gilbert. Always the first to jump at an opportunity for improvement, I was excited to see what Chris had in store for us during the next couple of hours.

One of the strongest points Chris emphasized was how difficult a sport skiing is, because no two runs are alike. The snow is always changing underneath our skis, and even if you try to find the same line you just took, your experience will be different every time.

I couldn’t help but find similarities in what he was saying to my other favourite pastime, three-day eventing. As a rider first and foremost, the horse is like the snow underfoot, as he is always moving and changing. Even if you jump the same jump several times or ride the same 20-metre circle over and over (boring!), no two will be the same.

Of course, I think riding horses is the most difficult sport, as you are also sitting on a living, breathing (and sometimes moody and unpredictable) animal that weighs 1,200 lbs!

So, here’s what I learned in my ski lesson:

1. You must be sensitive. You must trust your instincts and your muscle memory.
2. Look ahead. And use your peripheral vision to provide information about your immediate surroundings. Always stay focused on what’s ahead – don’t look back.
3. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Strive to be better.
4. Practice the technical stuff. Do this on the easy terrain and it’ll help you in the tougher stuff.
5. Enjoy every moment. We’re doing this for fun! Sound familiar? I thought so too.

So, I got back to the barn the next day and rode my horse Eddie (my other mountain). I was sensitive, I was focused on what was ahead of me. I was brave and I practiced the hard stuff. (Ever notice how doing lots of dressage makes your jumping better? That’s not an accident!)

And guess what? I had fun! I enjoyed my rides all week while I kept this focus, and I did all kinds of things from light flat work rides, to a walk in the park, a good jump school, and yes, I even did my damn dressage!

The opposite can also be said.

My dear friend and coach Chelan Kozak and I were skiing at Whistler one day. I was enjoying our roles of student and coach being reversed for once, when Chelan asked me how much power and speed was ideal in the mogul run. I answered, “It’s just like a coffin canter, you need balance and control, but with enough impulsion to get the job done.” She immediately understood!

On another occasion, I was skiing with a friend (also a rider) who had recently suffered a couple of strokes and was getting back into physical activity. We were skiing a black diamond run that was a bit tricky with the uneven terrain and recent dump of fresh snow. He got halfway down and stopped and said, “ I think I’m half-halting way too much in this stuff!” I laughed and said, “Exactly! Only half-halt when you’re losing balance or need to adjust your speed, but keep the rhythm and power.”

As skiers and riders, we have to be balanced and athletic in our position. Use the strength required for the terrain and speed. (Cross country, anyone?)

It doesn’t matter what your other sports may be – whether it’s skiing, triathlons, running, swimming, or simply brushing your horse every day (think “wax-on, wax-off) – do it with the goal in mind of how that can improve your time in the saddle.

If you run, think about the rhythm and tempo of your gait. If you swim, think about the symmetry of your body and how each muscle plays a role. And while you brush your horse, try to use both arms equally to help develop even muscle tone.

If you think about it, the possibilities are endless!

And if you’re ever in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and want to hit the slopes, you can find me practicing my coffin canter on the mogul hill.

Michelle has been riding for over 30 years and a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol for 26 years. She is the Executive Director at Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities, Canada’s largest therapeutic riding facility and is a keen eventer. Michelle rode her Percheron/TB cross, Grover to the Intermediate level (he’s now a full-time therapy horse), and currently competes her OTTB, Eddie, at the Training level. Michelle will tell you she’s a better skier than a rider, but her husband will tell you “Michelle NEEDS to ride. She doesn’t NEED to ski.”