I have been around horses for as long as I can remember thanks to their constant presence on our family farm just north of Killam, Alta. One of the first times I sat on a horse is etched in my mind as clearly as though it was yesterday; I was probably only three or four-years-old when I discovered that feeling of connection and power and peace, the intoxicating scent that permeates every fibre of you. My interest in horses soon turned into a rampant obsession, and when I was 14 I made the decision to pursue the English disciplines, like show jumping and dressage, with my mare.
Our time in the English world only added to my love of horses and the sport. I was fortunate enough to bring my horse with me to a barn outside of Calgary while I attended Mount Royal University for two years so I could continue to ride. I strove to improve in every area I could with the hope that my effort would be reflected in my show results. I knew I wouldn’t have what it took to get to the Olympic level of the sport, but I still researched all I could on how a person might get there.
Now that I’m on the brink of graduation, my riding future seems a lot less sure. My last horse show was in July of 2019, and if it weren’t for the fact I’m back living on the farm because of COVID-19, I’m sure I would have had to sell my horse by now. I can no longer rely on my parent’s income from the oilfield and farm. I’ve already taken on most of my riding expenses myself, so if I want to move to Calgary full time I won’t be able to bring my horse with me until I can afford to tack on another $1,500 to my monthly expenses. My passion will have to wait.
From the top down
According to Equestrian Canada, the national governing body of horse sports, there were an estimated 855,000 people involved in horse sports in Canada in 2010, the most recent year data is available. The same study said that there were approximately 62,300 horse-owning households in Alberta; the most in Canada.
Going deeper, roughly 129,000 adults partake in what’s known as the FEI [International Equestrian Federation] disciplines (show jumping, dressage, and eventing), with a staggering 50 per cent of these participants competing in jumping.
Despite an abundance of riders in Canada, those who have the means to make it to the top are relatively few and far between. Only a handful of riders are able to consistently represent Canada at the top levels of the sport around the world, like the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games. Only four riders represent Canada in each team even at the Olympic Games, assuming they qualify for a spot.
There are several factors that contribute to the difficulty riders face when searching for a road to the top. Most notably, quality sport horses and everything that goes into them are expensive. On average, a single horse can cost around $10,000 or more per year, which goes towards things like board, feed, and vet bills. This average often doesn’t include its initial purchase price, which varies depending on factors like breed, age and training of the animal.
However, there’s also a distinct lack of clarity surrounding the outlined pathway for riders aiming for the top levels.
The main document that Equestrian Canada, or EC, currently works with is their ‘Long Term Equestrian Development Plan’ [LTED] which serves as a guideline for athletes throughout their lifetime.
As of January 9, 2020, Edmonton native James Hood is the high performance director at Equestrian Canada. In an email to me, he admitted that EC’s rider development pathway “is not as clear as it needs to be.”
Hood has had a prolific career in the swimming world, working with major organizations in the sport, including the Olympic and Paralympic Canadian swimming teams. However, Hood now finds himself closely involved with the LTED.
The LTED also doesn’t mention the financial aspect of horse sport until the last two sections of the document, where riders are theoretically already competing at the very top echelons of the sport.
When I mentioned this discrepancy to Hood, he explained that the LTED is a living document, and is likely to continue to evolve alongside other aspects of the sport.
A quote from Christina Keim in a 2017 article on Horse Network reflects these issues, saying “if an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals, and put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.”
Despite the issues that face equestrian sports in Canada, the riding community is passionate about continuing to share and enjoy the sport they love so much.
One of these people is Annie Coward, a 21-year-old dressage rider based in Calgary whom I reached out to over Instagram. While COVID-19 limited the contact I could have with Coward, it was evident even over a Google Meet just how incredibly passionate and enthusiastic about horses she is.
Coward’s been competing in dressage since she was just 10 and immediately fell in love with it.
The combination of quality instruction and talented horses have allowed Coward to earn a spot as one of Canada’s top up-and-coming riders.
Coward’s current horse, whom she’s owned since 2019, competes at the U-25 level and is more of an experienced ‘been there done that’ type.
“She [Coward’s horse] was really able to help me progress in my riding quickly. She’s taught me so much, and because of that, there was no real confusion. She knew what her job was. She was a really great teacher to me,” Coward explains.
With Coward’s immense talent, it’s no surprise she was named to the Talent I.D squad in June 2020. Hood says athletes are named to the squad based on their individual progress and the competitions they’ve been able to attend and perform well at. Many times, riders are scouted through an informal network of coaches, trainers, riders, and officials throughout the Provincial and Territorial Sport Organizations or PTSOs.
However, Coward says she didn’t know she’d made the Talent I.D squad until she looked it up herself, and thinks stronger communication between Equestrian Canada and athletes is important.
Coward has had the chance to travel across North America to compete, even representing Canada at the 2019 North American Youth Championships hosted in North Salem, N.Y., something that comes at a huge cost of money and time.
Coward’s involvement in the sport is credited to her family’s financial backing; she estimates her parents, who both work for a Calgary property management company, have spent more than $1 million over her lifetime of riding.
Depending on the location of competitions, Coward says her riding costs anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year, which is obviously not something that the average person can afford.
Riders aren’t the only ones who may face financial difficulties pertaining to the sport. In 2019, the Canadian government provided $1,439,500 to Equestrian Canada, just 17 per cent of their annual funding.
According to Hood, the remaining 83 per cent comes mainly from sport license fees and competition fees. However, 2019 saw decreases in EC’s funding from corporate donations and government funding.
Hood also explains that much of this money goes back into the development of the sport and covering the cost of major competitions, like the Olympics, for members of the Canadian Equestrian Team.
Within the province of Alberta, government funding makes up just eight per cent of Alberta Equestrian Federation’s annual budget. Sonia Dantu, the executive director of AEF says that memberships make up 60 per cent of their funding, and grants make up another eight per cent.
Like Equestrian Canada, AEF also saw decreases in funding in 2019 from areas like grants, memberships, and advertising and promotions. Like EC, this money also goes back into the province, helping with education and development initiatives.
Middle class success story
Riders with resources like Coward’s aren’t common– but average riders like Lacey Jacobsen are. Lacey is my neighbour, and we ended up riding together at the same barn for a few years before I graduated from high school. But now the 17-year-old is a high school senior in Sedgewick, Alta. and currently competes in show jumping up to the 1.15 metre level.
Lacey’s mother, Bea Jae Jacobsen, says Lacey’s success in the sport came in part because of the timely purchase of Lacey’s current horse, whom she’s owned for almost three years.
The mare cost $10,000 but Bea Jae says the horse let Lacey “step into the next level” and “gave her the confidence she needed.”
However, Lacey is now thinking about her future in life and the sport, saying “if I want to go to school one day, then horses are pretty expensive to be at the high level. That’s very hard for me to do.”
Currently, Bea Jae estimates that Lacey’s riding costs around $20,000 a year, which includes showing, lessons, travel, and basic care.
She laughed when I asked her to give me an estimate on the total amount that’s been spent on Lacey’s riding, saying, “you know what, I haven’t actually sat down to think because I’m kind of scared of that number.”
Bea Jae, who retired from her work as an office administrator in February 2020, says Lacey’s riding was made possible mainly due to her husband’s work in the oil field.
I also asked Lacey about the cost of her shows, and she told me a three-day show could cost around $2,000. She adds that “you save up your money and then you can almost afford them. Like you can, but it’s still a lot of money to spend even on one horse show.”
Finances will likely be something the Jacobsen’s have to juggle as Lacey progresses through the LTED and the sport. Currently her main focus is on post-secondary education, an added level of challenge to continuing to ride.
Sport from a coaches perspective
Athletes themselves aren’t the only ones who deal with lack of clarity around athlete development. Ashley Bishop, an Equestrian Canada certified riding coach and dressage competitor whose business, Cointreau Stables, is based in the tiny community of Strome, Alta. gave me my first introduction into the world of hunter/jumpers. She also knows the difficulty of defining the path for riders and ensuring that the sport is financially doable.
In Bishop’s eyes, the need for a plan is made more complicated because “it’s not just us competing. We also need the appropriate horse in which to compete with and move up the levels with.”
When it comes to her own clients, Bishop has had to get creative when it comes to keeping riding affordable with solutions like sharing horses and being pickier about which shows to go to, saying “it can be difficult, but if you’re creative and if you have a coach that will help you be creative in those solutions, I think it is doable.”
Ultimately, Bishop remains optimistic about the sport and its ability to become more mainstream, saying she would like to see the sport “as common as hockey.”
For comparison’s sake, the average cost of a beginners hockey season costs roughly $700- $3,500.
While it’s clear that the future of equestrian sports faces some challenges, those in the industry have come prepared with solutions. The most glaring obstacle is cost, and while horses will never be as affordable as other sports, there are certainly things being done to help.
Bishop spoke enthusiastically about a program introduced by Equestrian Canada in 2019 called Rookie Riders which introduces children ages 6-12 to horse sport using basic gymnastics and a barrel in place of a horse.
This makes it ideal for places where access to horses is difficult; it can be taught to larger groups of children at once and can be a first step in making horse sport more common. It also eliminates the cost of owning or borrowing a horse.
Coward shares a similar sentiment surrounding the issue of access to horses. She believes that access to better quality lesson horses would let kids be sure they want to continue to compete before they commit to the price of their own horse.
Hood says that riders “need to be able to build relationships that allow you to access the right animals or the right horses for you to be successful.”
He added that EC currently offers several funding opportunities to NextGen riders, including the Jumping Youth Bursary and The Brosda Olympic Bursary, which can be used to help with the cost of competing, especially at higher levels.
AEF also offers bursaries and scholarships to riders specifically within Alberta that go towards several areas, including post-secondary education within the industry.
When it comes to the athlete pathway, Coward again draws from her own experience, suggesting that perhaps each PTSO (Provincial and Territorial Sport Organization) have its own Talent I.D. Squad to help foster rider development across the country.
When the issue of clarity for riders comes up, Hood explains a system dubbed Gold Medal Profiles, or GMPs. He explains that a GMP is essentially looking at top athletes across the sport and finding similar qualities that can then be identified in up and coming riders.
Hood explains that while having both human and equine athletes does add a level of complexity to equestrian GMPs, EC has developed profiles for both humans and horses.
According to Hood, the widespread use of GMPs could help give Canada a “pipeline of human and animal that can perform at the world level.”
Looking to the future
While horse sports in Canada are filled with challenges and changes, there is no doubt that there’s hope and an effort to find new solutions to keep the sport progressing.
Everyone I spoke to is optimistic for what is to come in horse sports. Bishop, a self-described optimist, is looking forward to the potential for the sport. She summed up the feelings for the future well, saying “it is such an incredible sport. It’s a rewarding sport to get into.”
For myself, I can breathe easier knowing that while the short term future of riding with my mare remains uncertain, she can start her early (and temporary) retired life at my parents farm. I’ll focus on building my career and establishing myself in adult life, and when the time and circumstances are right I’ll be able to start riding, and eventually competing, again.