My name is Cate and I am a rider and trainer based in Kenora, Ontario. I decided to start this blog as a space to share knowledge I’ve developed in my experiences with horses and share my thoughts on riding, the horse industry, and the many lessons I’ve learned through horses, especially developing green horses and starting out on my own as a young professional in Northwestern Ontario.
Depending on who’s reading this, you may know me as your riding coach, your riding student, that girl you rode with as a child, or the weird horse girl who’s always pontificating on Facebook about accessibility in equestrian sports. The common theme is that I am, and always have been a horse girl, so what better way to start than with the unedited version of how I got my start with horses and found my way back after a long hiatus from riding.
My obsession with horses has always been all-encompassing: As a child growing up in Toronto, there were horses on all my t-shirts, I wore beige pants and navy cardigans because I thought this outfit gave off a professional equestrian vibe, and I had a picture of a horse I rode once on a trail ride taped to my school binder, which I told people was “my” horse that inexplicably lived in Montana. Fortunately, most of my classmates did not care enough about me or horses to point out the plot holes in that particular story line. When I was around eight years old, my parents placated my interest in horses by signing me up for weekly riding lessons at a popular lesson barn in Mississauga.
Despite my obsession with horses, I was absolutely terrified of riding and spent the entire car ride on the way to every lesson with knots in my stomach. You could take this as a sign that I might have been better suited for another career, but I did not let my fear of riding deter me from my dreams of becoming a professional show jumper. Although I was much more comfortable putting a saddle and polo wraps on the sofa table behind the couch in my parents’ house and “riding” along with the riders on TV at Spruce Meadows than I was cantering a circle on a real live lesson horse, I spent the next five years counting down the days to my weekly lesson (then nursing a terrible anxiety-induced stomach ache on the way there), reading every horse-related book and magazine I could find, training my dog to jump like a horse, and begging for my own horse, highlighting classified ads in the local paper and writing my parents letters explaining why purchasing a horse would be a sound decision.
My first step up from lessons came when I was around 12 and leased an obese Welsh Quarter Horse cross from a farm near our family cottage on Lake Huron. “Blaze” was about 13 hands, notoriously stubborn, and broke my toes by stepping on them on multiple occasions. More notably, he dumped me in the exact same manner nearly every day: by stopping suddenly on the landing side of a crossrail, sending me out of my Wintec dressage saddle headfirst into the arena footing, a questionable blend of beach sand and garden mulch. Even though at this point I had read every book by Bill Steinkraus cover to cover, there was a glaring disconnect between my theories about classical riding and my actual riding ability. My lease ended when I went back to school in the fall with my toes still taped together, and the next spring when I showed up unannounced on my bike at the farm for a visit, I was devastated to learn that Blaze had been sold to another family.
The man himself, Blaze
Shortly thereafter, I began a search for a new riding opportunity and found a listing in an online classified advertising show ponies for lease. One evening after work, my Dad phoned the number listed in the ad while I listened in silently from another phone upstairs. He explained that we were interested in the opportunity to lease a pony, and the woman asked what my riding goals were.
“She wants to go to the Olympics!” My dad said proudly, and I grimaced into the receiver, mortified. The woman scoffed audibly and said “let’s be realistic”, which made my heart sink as up until this point no one else had pointed out the obvious deficits in confidence, talent and finances that would later prove to be substantial barriers to my Olympic aspirations.
Despite her off-putting commentary on the phone, we went for a trial lesson at her farm. The barn was dark and dingy and as far as I could tell had no turnout, and the woman spent the entire lesson in the dusty indoor arena yelling at me to canter in a half seat, a concept I could neither understand nor perform.
“Haven’t you seen the girls showing ponies at the Royal?” she shouted from the middle of the ring. “You look nothing like them, cantering around with your butt in the saddle.” The overall atmosphere was so unpleasant that it was a deterrent from the logical choice of leasing an experienced pony and instead my parents finally caved to my pleas and gave me a budget to shop for a horse of my own.
Original ISO ad circa 2001
Horse shopping in the absence of any experience or professional guidance is a dangerous endeavor almost guaranteed to end in some form of heartbreak, and my experience was no exception to this rule. My first trial was a wild ride on a very forward Haflinger I could barely steer. Next, my mom inquired about a pony in our [very modest] price range advertised by a local breeder, who wisely told her the pony was too green for my experience level. We should have taken her advice and sought out an older pony, but instead we eventually went back to the farm where I had ridden Blaze and purchased Echo, a completely inappropriate, dead green 7 year old Appaloosa Arabian cross owned by the same family. We kept him at their farm and during the school year I only rode sporadically on weekends, so Echo was always fresh and would whinny and prance around whenever I showed up to ride him, which I found terrifying. Needless to say, everything about my foray into horse ownership was completely misguided.
Nonetheless, I finally had my own pony. I graduated from the Wintec dressage saddle to an ancient (real leather!) Argentinian relic, took occasional lessons from a local trainer of dubious credibility (her most memorable advice was that I practice my two-point position at home while sitting on the toilet), and made my local show debut with Echo at the fall fair where I jumped one crossrail then got run away with, galloping in circles while concerned onlookers shouted advice: “Drop your crop! Bail off the side! Run him into the fence!” (I was eventually able to stop him using the latter technique, then cried in the horse trailer for about 30 minutes out of sheer embarrassment.)
Echo at the fall fair. I presume the reason there are no photos of me riding at the show is because my parents spent the whole time too concerned for my safety to take any.
My chance at redemption at another fall fair a few weeks later got cancelled due to rain, and soon enough winter descended on rural Ontario and we arrived at the farm one weekend to discover Echo stranded on the far side of a frozen creek that ran through the pasture. Recognizing the welfare concerns of our pony being trapped on the opposite bank of a frozen river, we decided to look for a boarding farm closer to Toronto and sent an inquiry to a showjumping stable in a nearby suburb whose website I came across in my quest to find a coach who could help me reach my goals.
The trainer had an impressive resume and agreed to meet with us at his stable office to discuss my riding ambitions. I told him that I aspired to show in the Green Pony division on the Trillium circuit, and he explained that while they showed exclusively on the A circuit, there were equivalent divisions suitable for a novice rider. We made arrangements to move my pony a few weeks later, neither of us prepared for the culture shock of going from a rural backyard barn to an upscale suburban showjumping program.
I had always envied the girls at the lesson barn with IRH helmets and HDR saddles, and viewed the Trillium circuit to be the pinnacle of competition, class and horsemanship. When we moved my pony to the new farm, I was immersed in a whole new world: one where horses were imported from Europe, grooms got them ready for you at horse shows, and ponies were expected to do fancy maneuvers like flying lead changes. The culture shock went both ways, and while I was a fish out of water in this setting, my trainer also had his work cut out for him, having gone from competing at the Olympics to teaching a 13 year old with a fuzzy barefoot pony, an affinity for purple tack and no idea what a distance was or how you would go about finding one to a jump.
Echo and I at our first A show
Before long, my pony was body clipped and had front shoes, the barn manager showed me how to oil my tack so that my bridle was no longer bright orange, and I was at Running Fox getting fitted for a fancy French saddle that cost more than we paid for the pony himself. Most importantly, I had a notion of what a distance was and how to practice finding them over ground poles. I made my debut on the A circuit that fall, staying on top of my pony around the courses in the Green Pony hunters against all odds, and treasured the photos from my first “real” show, even if I went home without any ribbons.
By the end of the summer, I had outgrown Echo and thus began a series of emotional discussions about moving on to another horse. Let me pause for a moment here to say that my involvement in riding has and always will be based foremost on my unwavering love for the animal. For this reason, I have never been and probably never will be good at selling them. Even today, my horses are pets before anything else and my attachment to and love for them influences all of my decisions.
One of the hardest scenarios I’ve encountered as a professional is how to navigate a partnership between an owner and horse who are mismatched in some way, because I understand from first hand experience what it’s like to be completely obsessed with an unsuitable animal. I was fortunate to find a great lease situation for Echo that allowed me to move on to a small thoroughbred hunter without selling him, but it’s a situation I’ve found myself in on multiple occasions: when I turned 13 and grew 5 inches, outgrowing my pony; when I had the desire to move up to the Big Eq and my goals exceeded my horse’s scope, when I moved to a different barn a few years later and was informed that even my fancy new horse fresh off the plane from Germany wasn’t really suitable for what I wanted to do.
I have been extremely lucky to own several great horses and was immensely fortunate to show on the A circuit for several years, spending winters in Wellington, Florida and completing my metamorphosis from backyard rider to A circuit equestrian. There is no substitute for time spent in the saddle, and the riding and showing experience I was so lucky to gain as a junior was formative to my riding ability, teaching style, and knowledge of how to navigate the show world.
My first hunter, Mikey
As a junior, I dealt with setbacks related to a significant injury to my young horse Cedric shortly after I purchased him, and navigated the challenges of balancing my modeling career with my riding commitments. Throughout my junior years, I often frustrated myself by missing goals in one pursuit because of commitments with the other, the downside of having one foot fully emerged in each industry. After a few years of performing this balancing act, I gave up modeling and went off to college in Massachusetts in 2009.
Initially, I left Cedric in Toronto to stay in a training program to prepare for indoors, and took on a working student position on the North Shore of Boston that allowed me to ride on weekends. I posted a classified ad offering to put miles on green horses in exchange for riding time, which led me to a young quarter horse I drove out to Rhode Island to ride during the week. At the end of my freshman year, I brought Cedric with me to New England and found a comfortable middle ground, showing locally on weekends, competing on my school’s IHSA team, and finding joy riding bareback around the paddock on Sundays.
After graduating, I went back to modeling, moving first to Tokyo then to Los Angeles for three years. During this time, I abandoned my horse girl identity almost entirely, visiting Cedric at a retirement farm near Toronto occasionally when I was home for a job. If anyone asked why I wasn’t riding in LA, I would explain that modeling was a full-time commitment and I knew I couldn’t enjoy horses as a leisurely hobby without getting fully immersed in them again. At one point, getting back into riding seemed so unlikely that I gave away almost all of my tack and riding clothes (in retrospect, a sure sign that horses would re-emerge to prominence in my life).
Living in Los Angeles, I found myself so disconnected from the horse world that I briefly considered selling Cedric and leased him to a friend of a friend. They kindly offered that I could ride him whenever I was home, and I can distinctly remember walking into their tack room one day, seeing all the bridles putting away in a figure eight and realizing that this was the feeling of being passionate about something and what I had been missing in my life. Unfortunately, when I returned to LA Cedric’s soundness issues caught up with him and he ended up moving back to a retirement farm a few months later.
I met my husband in 2016 when I was living in Miami, and moved to his hometown in Northwestern Ontario a year later when he retired from hockey. Against better judgment, he suggested one day that perhaps I could find somewhere for my horse to live closer to home. I didn't want to give him a chance to change his mind, I mean...jumped at the chance to be closer to my best friend and within a week Cedric was on a truck making the 24 hour drive from Toronto to Kenora. I boarded him at a local Western farm and experienced my second horse-related bout of culture shock.
Proving the hypothesis I developed in LA that I was fundamentally incapable of being casually involved in horses, within a few months of moving Cedric to Kenora I had purchased a four year old project horse, rescued two ponies from a livestock auction, and had a growing group of English lesson students at the Western farm. Teaching came easily to me and as the demand for lessons grew, I bought an older quarter horse to use for lessons, allowing a few of the more advanced students to ride Cedric, whose soundness returned with time off and lowered expectations. I soon overcame my reluctance to give up my amateur status, thinking that the likelihood of me ever returning to the show ring in any meaningful way was slim to none. In 2018, I decided that if you wait until you’re ready to do something, you’ll never do it, and returned to the show ring for the first time in 5 years, hauling my four year old two hours to a show in Winnipeg with braids that would horrify any FEI groom.
I hadn’t contemplated riding as a career until the owner of the Western farm suggested I start teaching lessons, believing professional equestrianism to be the pursuit of people who had competed at Young Riders, won Maclay Finals, or had a string of Grand Prix horses. These beliefs were put to the test when I received news that the Western farm was shutting down and I had to find somewhere else to continue riding and teaching. Having abandoned my pursuit of a masters degree to throw myself into teaching lessons instead, I found myself deeply regretting that decision and panicking about how I could possibly run an equestrian business in a town with pretty much no other existing horse infrastructure. Fortunately, my wonderful and enterprising husband has a solution to every problem and suggested simply “building our own farm”. After a few false starts where I had my heart set on properties that didn’t work out, we found the perfect vacant property and took possession on Victoria Day weekend in 2018.
Here I am with my two best friends: Cedric, and my husband Mike
I feel immeasurably lucky that the universe gifted me with the dream come true of owning my own farm, and in the past three years we have built a six stall barn, indoor and outdoor arena, five paddocks, three run-in shelters and an entire course of jumps. I’ve adapted the business to match my goals and evolve with the pandemic and have carved out a niche in an area with a small population of horses and an even smaller interest in the hunter/jumper sport. I’ve been back to WEF three times as an adult, have developed a few young horses off the track into new careers in the hunter/jumper world, am on the board of the Manitoba Hunter Jumper Association and have a wonderful group of clients I’m excited to take to shows when public health restrictions allow us to do so safely.
With my OTTB mare Ruby at an MHJA show in 2019
Running my own farm has not been without its challenges. In addition to the trial and error and logistics of opening any business, geography has presented its own unique obstacles: We are over two hours from the nearest hunter/jumper farm, equine vet, tack store or horse show. I can say without a doubt that I have developed greater independence and problem solving skills. Returning to riding in a different capacity has given me a unique perspective. I’m a lifelong student of the sport still unfailingly obsessed with horses, and I can relate to any rider who struggles with their confidence or lacks the access to resources that feel essential to succeed at riding. I am passionate about the future of the sport, and while it may be the long-form version of tweeting into the void, I decided to start this blog as a way to share my experiences with anyone who might be interested in the misadventures of a young professional who has returned unabashedly to her horse girl roots.
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading, and please reach out with any feedback, questions, or suggestions of topics you'd like to see covered in future posts!