Despite the pandemic limiting the usual amount of preparation, Caitlin Darte of Benchview Equestrian Centre is not at all surprised by the success of three of her students at last week’s West Zone Provincial Silver Series in Erin, Ontario.
After all, the combined 30-plus years of riding experience of Paige Hoadley, Sydney Brousseau and Sarah Laughton, all under 18 years old, made them ready to handle just about anything.
“These girls have been riding since they were six or seven,” Darte, manager and coach at Benchview tells The Local. “They have worked hard. All three are performing at an intermediate to advanced level.”
There were three zones that were competing from across central Ontario. The girls qualified to move on to the next competition via their accumulated points throughout six horse shows this summer.
Hoadley, a 17-year-old A.N. Myer Secondary School student, won her division riding Bella, whose show name is A Fine Design. It was her first time participating in the competition, and the aspiring Olympian had to get over some first-day jitters.
“This was my first time showing her, our first time off-property together,” Hoadley says. “Our first experience in the ring did not go quite as we planned. We didn’t know the course. There were more stops than jumping. We came back the next day and got our heads in the game.”
Hoadley says she knew what to expect on that second day of competition, leading to a bronze finish overall and qualifying her for this month’s Ontario Jumper Championships.
During the pandemic, Hoadley and the others had to adjust to COVID-19 rules and protocols, which allowed only two riders at a time to train at the Benchview facility on Concession 6. That is, when the facility was actually allowed to welcome any riders at all.
“It usually takes six to seven months to prepare,” Darte explains. “We had three lockdowns, but we actually had an additional lockdown because we lost one of our horses to an equine infectious disease.”
Pippin, a 14-year-old horse, exhibited signs of the neurological disease. Within less than two days he began to lose function of his body, and he succumbed to the malady. Caitlin and her siblings Jasmine and Matthew were forced to quarantine the barn for a full month following the tragic loss.
When the three girls returned to the ranch, they had to adjust to self-guided solo lessons rather than working in groups, where they could offer each other encouragement and advice. And instead of six to seven months of preparation, they had six to eight weeks.
“It was a lot of just flatting (working on walking, trotting and cantering with a loose rein), which I didn’t think was as important before,” says Hoadley. “But after coming out of the quarantine with all that groundwork, it definitely helped.”
A.N. Myer graduate Sydney Brousseau concurs with Hoadley’s assessment of the modified training plan. She and her horse Jude (show name: Hey Jude) competed in the Jumper competition, where the horse and rider are judged by how quickly they can complete a course of jumps with the fewest errors, or faults.
Jude is relatively new to equestrian events, having retired only two years ago from the racing world. Brousseau was able to convince her parents to let her purchase Jude, promising to pay them back “for the rest of my life” if she had to.
“We had a lot of bonding time, during COVID, when we couldn’t have lessons,” Brousseau says. “We just worked a lot with each other on the ground, and it really helped our relationship, and helped with our training too. Once we got back into training we had a better understanding of each other.”
The pair qualified for the National Championship coming up in late October.
Brousseau, who is concentrating on riding during a gap year while also working at both Benchview and Great Wolf Lodge to help pay for Jude, says riding helps her calm her anxieties. She knows though, that when she steps into the saddle, Jude can sense whether or not she is feeling confident. That confidence resulted in a great year in competition.
“The fact that her first season, she came out almost on top of her class, she was just incredible,” Brousseau smiles. “She went through a whole round clear. I felt super proud. She handled everything like a champ. She amazes me.”
Sarah Laughton, the youngest of the group at 15, rode Zoe (show name: Believe it or Not), the oldest of the three mounts, in the Hunter competition
(jumping discipline scored by a judge’s subjective score on the horse’s form and manners going around a course of jumps). Though she did show with Zoe four years ago, 2021 was her first chance to work her on her own in preparation for Erin.
The Grade 10 Laura Secord Secondary School student credits Darte’s encouraging manner for her progression in riding since she first started nine years ago.
“She’s been great,” Laughton raves. “Tough on us sometimes, but it helps us grow stronger and grow to be what we want to be and to achieve what we want to.”
Like the other girls, Laughton had to mentally prepare for the competition last week. Their previous events were all held in Caledon and they had never experienced the course in Erin.
“We had no idea what to expect,” Laughton says. “Once we got there it was definitely much better. We settled in and just kind of looked around. Zoe is great. She’s always so calm with me, but she senses anxiety, and I worked hard to calm myself as well.”
Laughton placed second in Caledon and fifth in one of the rounds in Erin, in which she was competing against 55 others.
“Most of the divisions this weekend had up to 60 horse-rider combinations to compete against,” Darte explains. “It’s a great accomplishment to qualify and compete against such great talented riders. The pressure was real, and they handled it with professionalism and determination.”