Canadian Young Riders in Full Force at Young Rider Championships in Tryon

Canada’s young riders are out in force in Tryon – and making a serious impression as they tackle the competition. Photo by Ema Klugman.

It’s Friday morning, and a roar goes up from the spectator section in the Tryon main stadium. You would have thought a well-known four-star rider was finishing their dressage test, but no — it’s more likely to be a young rider in the 1* division with a full cheering squad. That’s the magic of team competitions like the Young Rider Championship this week: the riders are here not in an individual capacity, but rather as part of a team unit. And their enthusiasm is boundless.

I spoke with several members of the Canadian teams competing here this week to get their perspective on the competition, the venue, and their journey to get here. Canada is fielding an impressive three teams: an Ontario/Quebec team (competing in the 1 star), an Alberta team (also in the 1 star), and a combined “Team Canada” team (from various locations in Canada, competing in the 2 star).

For most of these riders, this is their first team competition and their first FEI event. More than anything, this weekend is a learning experience for them. They come from different backgrounds and ride all different breeds of horses, many of whom are self-made. For example, I talked with Emma McHugh, an 18-year-old who started riding when she was eight. She first learned about eventing in 2018, and four years later she has two horses in the 1* division here. Both of her horses are thoroughbreds. Lincoln Park and Ricochet are her partners this weekend, the latter of which she got straight off the track just three years ago. She drove two days to get here, and she is studying business in school.

“There’s a big difference compared to the shows at home,” Emma explains. “We liked the jog, and it’s fun having the team experience. It’s also exciting to be here and see the higher levels go.” The Young Rider Championships this year and last year have been integrated with the larger competition at the Tryon Three-Day Event, which also features a 4*-L and 4*-S. The advantage of having the young riders compete in a larger competition is that they can watch lots of upper level riders compete.

Kendal Lehari, chef d’equipe of the Ontario team and co-chair, with Nikki McLellan, of the Ontario under-25 program, won the North American Young Rider Championships in 2006, the final year that it was a long-format event. She now competes for Team Canada, including in Nations Cup events. As she reflected, it used to be three disciplines (dressage, show jumping, and eventing) at the same show, so young riders could watch other young riders competing in the other disciplines. Now, it is siloed, which makes it a different experience for the riders. Young Rider Championships also used to be in the summer (typically in July), but it seems as though it will continue to be in the fall going forward. I asked the riders about this, and they said that it had advantages and disadvantages. The pros were that the later date meant that they had the year to get qualified, but the cons were that the fall event tends to be during or right before exams for those in school.

“There have been big improvements this year versus last year — there is separate scoring for the young riders, separate jogs, and separate events, like a dinner exclusively for young riders, which allowed them to get to know each other,” Kendal explains. The organization around the young riders has helped them really feel like they are at a championship.

“It’s a lot of hours but it’s worth it,” said Megane Sauve, 20, who is competing in the 2* division and also works full-time for Jessica Phoenix in Toronto. She started riding at 13, and her thoroughbred, Nuance, was her very first horse. She got her when she was four years old and trained her up in eventing, and they are now at their first FEI event. Tryon has been different from anything she’s ever done, she explains: “the team ambience is really fun to have. Every day we are together, cheering for each other.”

Coming from Canada, many of these young riders had long journeys to get here. “My GPS said 18 hours but it took about 22 hours,” laughs Cassandre Leblanc, 21, who made the trip from Quebec. Cassandre became a working student for Holly Jacks-Smithers at 18 years old, which is where she got hooked on eventing. She is riding a homebred ¾ TB, ¼ Percheron named Riffel. As she explained, the horse’s mother was saved from a slaughterhouse, so he was not necessarily destined for international eventing. She developed a bond with him because he stopped eating his food, so she would sit in his field and hand-feed him. Eventually, she started riding him, and they are now competing at the two-star level.

“It’s exciting for the sport in Canada to have so many riders qualified and competing,” Cassandre underscores, noting that the U25 program in Canada was just revived as well.

Her team is currently in gold medal position, “and we would like to stay there!” she says with a smile.

Kyle Carter has been an instrumental part of the Canadian Young Riders program – but the riders have shown equal dedication in making their way to his base for training. Photo by Ema Klugman.

Many of the young riders competing here this weekend are in school, so they have had to balance their studies with a lot of travel and taking time off to compete. Their schedules have required real dedication. For example, the Alberta team did a training camp with their team coach, Kyle Carter, in Florida before coming to Tryon. “It took 5 days to get there!” they said, but noted that the experience was invaluable. The Alberta team also emphasized that they did plenty of fundraising to get here, including through silent auctions and a clinic with Peter Gray.

As one of the riders told me, “being able to come here and see all the incredible riders and the incredible facility has been amazing.” Another said, “I just liked riding in the big ring!”. Indeed, for these young riders, learning about jogs, ring familiarization, and all that goes into a successful three-day event is a good experience, not only for them but for their horses as well. Thank you to Tryon and the Dutta Corp for providing this experience for these young riders, and good luck, Canada!

Team scores can be found here.

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