Who knew that the local post secondary institutions were home to a large and vibrant community of equestrian riders.
As the Laurentian University Cambrian College (LUCC) equestrian team prepares to compete for their second season under the banner of the Ontario Collegiate Equestrian Association (OCEA), Foothills Farms owner Laurel Scott enters with her eyes much more wide open.
“When the girls planned their tryouts last September, I was absolutely flabbergasted with how many students came out,” said Scott. “We had prepared for an afternoon or so of tryouts, and they had about fifty riders on hand. We added an extra day.”
Leading the LUCC team, this fall, are Leah Blanchette and Kea Koutsoukis, serving as co-captains of the squad. Now twenty-one years of age and entering her third year within the Dental Hygiene program at Cambrian, Blanchette is a known entity to many in the local equestrian circuit, having worked her way through to the Trillium series and having attended the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, at various points in time.
“I was on the team last year and like it a lot,” she said. “It was cool to meet other people, and riders from other schools too.” While she has been competing in the English hunter/jumper classifications for several years now, Blanchette sees some added benefit to the introduction of the LUCC in expanding her knowledge as a rider.
“Before, I would miss out on a winter circuit, but last year, we showed in six or seven shows throughout the winter,” she said. “In that aspect, I gained more experience.” A member of the club board in their inaugural season, assisting with fundraising efforts, Blanchette is looking forward to stepping into her role as captain, with Koutsoukis at her side.
“As a captain, you have to kind of look out for everyone else on the team,” explained Blanchette. “It’s a lot more responsibility in that you have to think of other riders.” Part of the attraction of this group lies in the fact that it truly does cater to a spectrum of skill sets, with riders competing in entry, novice, intermediate and open divisions.
Splitting her time between competitive soccer and her equestrian pursuits early in her youth, Koutsoukis had left the sport for about seven years, returning when the LUCC was unveiled last fall. “Because I am newer at the riding and showing and everything, it helps having all of the support,” said Koutsoukis. “Leah is super experienced.”
“Finding my riding rhythm kind of came back, I kind of remembered. Coming back when you’re older helps you understand things a little easier. But you don’t realize you much strength you actually need. I had a hard time just walking after a really good riding session last year. I work out regularly, and I was sore in many different places that I am not normally sore,” Koutsoukis noted with a laugh.
As for the venue owner, Scott acknowledged feeling more than a touch of anxiety when first approached about this venture last summer. “A little trepidation, because we really didn’t know anything about that show circuit,” she said. “It is a completely different type of show circuit than what we are used to.”
“It’s judged completely on the rider’s ability (equitation), and the fact is that they are “catch riding”, getting on completely unknown horses.” Part of the comfort level that Scott would eventually feel came from a familiar face, as long-time local rider Paige Leclerc passed along her experience from her days in the circuit while attending Brock University. Leclerc would take it a step further, offering to serve as coach for the LUCC team.
“Paige had a lot of the answers for us,” Scott admitted. “When they first approached us, we realized that we had about 16 riders, just from our facility, which attended either Cambrian or Laurentian.” What surprised the group was the level of interest from out of town students.
Still, she could see the attraction, even in terms of the appeal of “catch riding” itself. “You get very complacent and comfortable riding the same horse, all the time,” stated Scott. “People who own their own horse fall into that. Even people who take lessons on a school horse will tend to ride the same horse all the time.”
“Sitting on an unknown entity teaches you to be prepared, to be looking ahead for any eventuality. It keeps you sharp and focused. It’s a true measure of the riders’ skill.” And for Scott, year two offers an added twist, as the LUCC enjoys the opportunity to host one of the shows in the winter season.
To the surprise of many, the OCEA is home to no less than 21 different entries, with the local crew included in the Central Zone that also features Georgian, Lakehead Orillia, Guelph, University of Toronto, Ryerson and York.
Even the competitions themselves offer a fundamentally different atmosphere from the events that are traditionally hosted in this area, during the summer. “I went to one of the shows last year and was amazed by the team spirit and camaraderie,” said Scott. “The teams were actually awarded points for spirit and enthusiasm.”
For good reason, she is looking forward to potentially bringing in a whole set of first time visitors to Foothills Farms this fall. “Our arena is sufficient, in terms of space, for most shows,” she said. “It would not be adequate for the spectators they bring along. Hopefully, we will have it outside.”
The LUCC is attempting to ensure that their show can slide into the schedule early in the season, at the beginning of October, when an outdoor competition can still be hosted comfortably in Northern Ontario.