Canadian High Performance Aiming for the Top with Focused Plan, Bolstered Support and Leadership

Karl Slezak and Hot Bobo. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Canadian riders have proved their mettle time and time again in international sport, and the eventing riders we’re most familiar with are well-respected for keeping their top horses competing for many seasons.

Yet, it’s no secret that Equestrian Canada and Canadian High Performance have met their fair share of challenges (and with those challenges, criticisms) over the years. With multiple leadership changes and a struggle to amass results on the international stage, particularly in the sport of eventing, the program has wanted for an overhaul.

The lack of success, whatever the definition of success you’re using, isn’t for a lack of effort or talent.

In an attempt at getting the program back on track, in January of 2022 rider representatives Mike Winter and Shandiss McDonald led the way in the creation of a new Canadian Eventing High Performance Advisory Group (HPAG), chaired by Emily Gilbert. The group was quick to hit the ground running, prioritizing areas that needed improvement as well as organizing Team Canada’s needs in advance of the rapidly-approaching Eventing World Championships at Pratoni, held last September.

Among the HPAG’s first tasks was team selection and funding for World Championships, as well as a priority on communication to the riders – something that has been one of the largest areas of criticism in the past. Emily says, “We’ve really tried as a group to improve communication with the riders, first and foremost, but also with supporters and owners to really try to rebuild the Canadian High Performance community.”.

With Pratoni looming just months beyond the creation of the HPAG, the group also had to put a high priority on what Canada’s plan for World Championships would be. “We wanted to get everything out to the athletes and make changes that affected them in a positive way as quickly as possible, that was our number one goal.” Emily says, ”So we did everything in order of what was going to most positively impact the athletes: making sure they confirmed financial support from Sport Canada, naming a selection panel, and getting the infrastructure set up around the World Championships. And then we pushed forward this effort of getting a team to the World Championships.”

Part of HPAG’s plan for getting a Canadian eventing team to Pratoni was the launch of their ‘Pratoni. Let’s Go!’ Fundraising Campaign, which succeeded in raising over $300,000. This effort served to kickstart a long-term fundraising program to help ensure the possibility of Canadian Team representation not just at Pratoni, but also thinking forward to this year’s Pan-American Games **where they are looking to qualify for the 2024 olympics** and continue to build a positive performance trajectory.

When asked about the plans for the HPAG going forward, Emily broke their “big picture” strategy down into four key components:

  • Maximizing global competitive opportunities
  • Increasing athlete education and support
  • Recognizing and building owners and supporters
  • Building a sustainable financial model

Mike Winter and El Mundo represent Team Canada and a variety of social causes at FEI World Championships for Eventing in 2022. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Maximizing Global Competitive Opportunities

With Canadian riders based across the world, having support from Equestrian Canada and the High Performance program is essential to their competitive and developmental opportunities. HPAG is aiming towards building bursaries and providing funding for Canadian participation in Nations Cup opportunities (both in North America as well as overseas) and all major Games. “This would include people based in the UK coming over here to go to Kentucky or people here being able to go over to Badminton, and making sure that we have the infrastructure there to support those experiences as a group,” says Emily.

Most recently, the HPAG announced a new initiative that will provided significant financial support to riders competing on two FEI Eventing Nations Cup teams in 2023. One team will compete on home soil at Bromont, August 11-12, while another will hop a plane to compete in the Nations Cup leg at Arville (Belgium), August 17-20. Canadians Kelly McCarthy-Maine and Shane Maine have offered robust financial support to the athletes named to each team, including a $1,000 CAD per each athlete named to the Bromont CCI 4*-S and $2,500 CAD for each named entry to the Arville CCI 4*-S Nation’s Cup teams. Additionally, North American-based athletes who declare for the Arville Nations’ Cup are also invited to apply for an additional travel grant valued between $20,000 – $25,000 CAD.

“The Nations Cup plans for 2023 are exciting. They are perfectly in line with the strategic plan of the HPAG, directly support the athletes, and help Canada prioritize and maximize opportunities for team sport, something that is fundamental to the growth of this program,”Canadian athlete representative on the HPAG and 5* rider Mike Winter commented.

Colleen Loach and Vermont. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Recognizing and Building Owners and Supporters

There is no high performance without the owners, sponsors, and financial backers, and HPAG is placing an emphasis on recognizing and building these relationships. ”I think acknowledging and appreciating the risk investment and role of owners and supporters in building the sport within Canada is an important part and something that has been overlooked in the past,” Emily explained.

Indeed, the fundraising effort for Pratoni in 2022 was spearheaded by a large donation from Kelly McCarthy-Maine and Shane Maine. “They really helped support us, we had a huge contingent of supporters at the World Championships and it certainly made a big difference that they we communicated with, involved in the team atmosphere and appreciated along the way”. The HPAG is also exploring sponsorship and partnership opportunities to provide not only financial support, but athlete and horse services as well, something they intend to build rapidly in the coming years.

Kelly McCarthy Maine and Cooley Cardento. Photo by Irish Eventing Times.

Building a Sustainable Financial Model

Another major and future-determining goal of the HPAG is building the foundation to create a financial model that extends not just to this year’s Pan-Ams or Paris 2024, but for the long-term future of Team Canada as well.

Emily’s vision for the group is far-reaching: “We have to be building a sustainable financial model so that we can continue to build a program instead of being in a position where we’re having to fundraise for years. We want something that is long-lasting, and we want there to be a legacy for the passion that we have for the sport in Canada so that in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, there are resources for up-and-coming riders to be at the height of the sport, representing Canada. This year we’re focused on a broader fundraising initiative to make this happen.”

All donations received are tax-deductible in both Canada and the USA and go directly to the High Performance Group by donating to the Canadian Olympic Fund (click here to access the donation page) — be sure to select “Horse Power – Eventing” from the dropdown menu.

Kendal Lehari and Audacious. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Increasing Athlete Education and Support

Equestrian Canada and the High Performance program garnered criticism in the past for a lack of support for the athletes – something that this HPAG is determined to change. They’re placing an emphasis on educational opportunities, helping riders build syndicates, enhancing horsepower, social media support, or any other needs that the rider’s bring forth.

The HPAG has also brought on a nutritional partner to advance their sport science, Mad Barn, who are leaders in the equine nutrition industry with an emphasis on developing state of the art equine nutrition technology, funding equine nutrition research and most importantly for horse owners, and in particular high performance athletes, providing support on best nutrition practices to optimize performance and well-being for the horses. Mad Barn’s MSc and PhD nutrition team have been working directly alongside the athletes and their horses to keep them in top form throughout the season and will continue to provide this customized support to the entire squad.

Beyond this, “The HPAG as a collective has a really diverse skill set,” Emily says. “I’m a scientist. We have a lawyer on the panel. We have Rebecca Howard, our chef d’equipe who has incredible competitive experience and Matt Ryan who is a triple-gold medalist in the sport for Australia as well as many more incredible individuals, so we’re really taking all of that together to improve athlete education and planning comprehensive support.”.

Several of HPAG’s ideas are already in-progress, including their expansion of educational opportunities for Canadian riders. To that end, HPAG hosted a clinic with world #2 rider Jonelle Price (NZL) in Ocala, FL for Canadian riders, comprised of one show jumping day and one cross country day.

Jonelle Price works with Team Canada during an off-season clinic in Florida. Photo by Mipsy Media.

Jonelle’s Advice

On show jumping day, riders were treated to a nice deluge of rain to accompany their focus on adjustability. Jonelle set up an exercise comprised of poles and small fences to be ridden back and forth on a serpentine, asking riders to practice discipline and precision. She was complimentary of many of the horses and their training, but reminded riders to continually “raise the bar” and hold themselves and their horses to a high standard.

Her exercise proved challenging, but beneficial, for all the horses and riders, and left the spectators with some excellent one-liner quotables, including “Straightness is kingpin”, “Train your weakness”, and “Margins are small, so small mistakes matter”.

From the warm-up exercises, the riders then moved to course work, where Jonelle placed a heavy emphasis on pace, reminding riders that “you’re better off to start your course with too much canter than too little” and “always make sure you have enough canter – you shouldn’t be pushing to the base of the fence.” The attention to detail under Jonelle’s tutelage created noticeable improvements for the horse-and-rider pairs.

Moving into cross country day, several of Jonelle’s main points stayed the same. Riders warmed up over lines of poles, working on adjustability between them and the ability to make quick adjustments both forward and back. There were three poles in a line, equidistant, and riders were asked to first ride it in two strides to two strides, then three strides to three strides, then three to two, and finally two to three.

This exercise, the simplest one of both days, was one of the most challenging aspects for some riders – something that Jonelle seemed to expect, proclaiming, “it’s much harder than it looks!” with a wry grin, before showing the group a video of Chris Burton doing a seamless two strides to four strides in the same exercise. Her point? This is the level of riding that you must aspire to in order to compete with the best in the world.

From the pole exercise she moved on to angled planks, making the angle more and more impossible-looking as the riders went along. A few struggled, mostly because they weren’t committed to the line, earning a quick “always fight your way to the other side!” reminder from Jonelle.

Photo by Mipsy Media.

As the riders moved to course work you could again see the confidence grow under Jonelle’s guidance, which was always encouraging and positive, but certainly not lax. There’s a reason she’s ranked world #2. Her main takeaway for the Canadian riders was simple: “You have to expect yourselves to ride like top class riders and believe in your ability to get the job done.”

Also in attendance at the clinic was James Hood, the High Performance Director for Equestrian Canada. Enthusiastic and certainly patriotic, James is also excited about the future of Team Canada and the HPAG plans.

“We had to figure out how to upskill and provide world educational opportunities and training opportunities for the riders, which was part of the genesis behind the clinic,” James said. “These are training enhancement components that will help the athlete, the horse, and the coach to be able to improve the level of focus on our skill sets. And certainly the commentary from Jonelle Price was on spot-on as we look at where we were. We have some very talented riders, we have some great horses, and we need to move the whole program further forward”.

Team Canada, helmed by chef d’equip Rebecca Howard at FEI World Championships for Eventing, Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy. Photo by Cealy Tetley.

Putting the Pieces Together

In addition to the riding aspect, Equestrian Canada is also placing an emphasis on the mental health and well-being of their athletes, with plans in the works for resources to help athletes both on and off the horse.

James explains, “This is an area of focus in the Canadian government and the Canadian Sport system, but also from the organization itself as we look at reframing wellness plans, looking at the support mechanisms in our system for athletes and coaches for mental health and moving those dynamics forward. And that it truly is the mental health perspective, not just the mental performance, which is another add-on which is in the works where we also help the athletes advance and be able to look at their skills for competition.”

While Emily and James are clearly both focused on Team Canada’s goals and have been busy outlining what the path to success may look like, they’re also both quick to say that this is only the beginning.
One of their biggest shared concerns is the financial aspect, with being able to fund the teams adequately to ensure that all these big plans actually stand a chance of coming to fruition. When asked what they consider to be the biggest challenge facing the High Performance program today, they both had the same answer: finances.

“Number one is the financial aspect,” James reiterated. “With money comes the opportunity to create additional programs and enhancement programs, because the goal of equestrian Canada is not to replace their daily training, it’s to be able to support and create interesting initiatives that do that. Those things all require financial backing.”

When posed with the same question Emily was even quicker and more decisive: “The financial side is definitely the biggest challenge. In light of our growing dreams and the positive trajectories of our athletes, we want to continue to deliver and our number one challenge is funding.”

The HPAG has goals and ideas around continued fundraising efforts and is dedicated to continuously looking for more opportunities and supporters. “Our goal is to be able to fundraise what we need in collaboration with Equestrian Canada to deliver technical leadership, rider development, have the selection panel at event, build a world class sports science team, compete at Nations Cup, have owner and supporter infrastructure, and keep building for the future including putting money aside so that we can grow the program in the long term.”

While there is still much work to do, and plenty that is already underway, there is no doubt that the level of enthusiasm among this current Canadian Eventing HPAG and the entire High Performance team in Canada, including the athletes seems to be at an all-time high.

It’s easy to find yourself hoping that this dedicated group of people will help put Team Canada back on track – back onto the podium.

Already we’ve begun to see some results, particularly with a decisive win from Canadian rider Karl Slezak in the CCI4-S at Kentucky this spring with his rising star Hot Bobo. Karl followed up that effort with a fourth place finish at the Tryon CCI4-L, adding only one rail to their dressage score. Canadian riders, both veteran and junior, had strong showings at MARS Bromont CCI this month, with Colleen Loach best-placed in the 4*-L with her own and Amanda Bernhardt’s FE Golden Eye, Kendal Lehari hit the podium in the 3*-L with her own Mitchell, and several other Canadians had banner weekends and gained valuable experience at one of North America’s toughest events.

Lindsay Traisnel and Bacyrouge impress at Bromont’s 4*-L in June. Photo by Abby Powell.

When asked how she’s feeling about the future of Team Canada, Emily didn’t hesitate. “I’m excited. Already, I think it’s incredibly inspiring for us. Every single one of us on this committee is dedicated to making decisions that are right for the athletes as a collective and we all love to sport and will keep pushing to move things in the right direction”.

On the subject of this year’s Pan Ams, her enthusiasm didn’t wane. “We are excited for the Pan American Games. Our goal there obviously is to get that Paris qualification. And then the goal for Paris will be the same, to just continue on a positive trajectory. Instead of focusing exactly on the numbers, we’re really focusing on finishing on your dressage score, that’s our goal. The concept being to push for excellence. We’re in a growth phase, but we’re in a growth phase on a positive trajectory. We recognize that. Positive trajectories are really what we have to focus on, with the goal of really being within striking distance at the podium for 2028 in LA.”

James shares a similarly positive sentiment. “I am hopefully optimistic. This is going to be a very different Pan American Games for most of our disciplines. We have very few North American teams that have qualified for the Olympic Games in Paris for 2024, which means the discipline to get those valuable qualifying slots is going to be a challenge. This is not going to be an easy Pan American Games, and not that they ever are, but vying for those important spots for Paris is going to be a fight. We have good riders across all of our disciplines. I am hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to get the slot that we’re looking for but it’s not going to be easy. It is going to be a fight.”.

While it’s true that Equestrian Canada and the HPAG have a lot of work ahead of them, it’s hard not to want to pick up a red and white maple leaf flag and root for them. With everything they’ve been through in the past, what a true “Rising from the Ashes” story it would be. The country hasn’t seen the Olympic podium since taking bronze at the 1956 Stockholm Olympics… given the quality of horses and riders that have competed under the Canadian flag since, that just doesn’t seem right.

Canadian Eventing is long overdue for their turn in the spotlight on the international stage, and we’ll be right there cheering them on. Go Canada! Go Eventing!

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