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Riders, coaches and course designers share their stories

Some in attendance could reminisce of shows gone by, while others still are only just starting to compile their book of memories. Either way, the annual Rick Smith Memorial hosted at Foothills Farms this past weekend creates a wonderful venue for the northern Ontario equestrian crew, with a flavour all of its own.

“It is completely different than elsewhere in Ontario,” noted long-time coach Shelley Ellis. “We promote that to the children and the clients, that you will not find a circuit like this, anywhere else. There is an “all for one” attitude.”

Few know that sense of shared learnings more than the son of the man for whom the weekend is named. Climbing the ladder of those who tackle course design as their fancy, Jedd Smith returned home to help out, remembering the site where it all began.

“I actually started working as part of the ring crew, when I was 14 years old or so, helping my dad set up when he was course designing at some of these Trillium shows and some of the “A” shows,” said Smith. “I kind of built an interest off that.”

Despite not garnering the full extent of Rick's tutelage, the highly passionate horseman still walked off with more than enough knowledge to form a solid base upon which to grow. “He helped me a lot in the hunter rings, because that's where I worked with him when I first started,” said Smith. “For me, that was probably the biggest help.”

“Unfortunately, he passed when I was still too young to really do much in the jumper ring. That was something I missed out on.” Based on Jedd's progression to date, dad made the most of their limited time together. “I've been lucky enough to work at some of the biggest shows that we have, places like Spruce Meadows, assisting at some of the big international events that they have there,” said Smith, still only 26 years of age.

“I aspire to design at the top level.” Pan American Games, World Cup finals, World Equestrian Games and the Olympics are but a few of the opportunities afforded to those who are among the truly elite of the course design craft. “You have to be a Level 4 to design in those events, so I'm a long way off, but it's something I look forward to in the future.”

In the meantime, a trip back to the old stomping grounds is still much appreciated. “I'm reminded a little bit more here about why I love course designing so much,” he said. “It's got that home feel for me. I still take it quite seriously, but I can relax a little bit more and enjoy myself.”

Enjoyment is right near the top of the list for coach Ellis, who lasted only three years in the teaching profession before venturing back to the one career that is clearly her calling. “I think I most enjoy being able to develop a rapport with the kids, outside the classroom,” explained the operator of the Eastwood equestrian facility in Powassan.

“Riding really develops their life skills, outside of the ring. I have a degree in Phys Ed, so any physical training of any kind is sort of our interest anyways.” Like most who launch themselves full bore into their love of horses, Ellis came by the affection quite naturally.

“My dad was like a hobby cowboy,” she said. “The ranch he went to on the weekends, well, I was kind of tied to it, by the ankles. My pony would follow his pony everywhere it went. I clunked along behind and that's how it started.” Married, at the time, to a provincial police officer, Ellis would call lovely outposts in Porcupine, Moosonee and Powassan home, all as she returned to her roots.

Cathy (Inch) and I have been in northern Ontario pretty much all of our lives,” she said. “Well, I came from southern Ontario 35 years ago. We've been coaching here on the northeast circuit, since its inception. I came to live with Rick and Cathy years ago, for about a year. We've kind of had “shared custody” of a lot of the young riders in the north.”

“At events like this, if I'm not available at a ring, Cathy will help my kids, and vice-versa.” Still, Ellis holds dear the reputation that she and her husband (Norm) have created at their Eastwood home. “North Bay is not a particularly affluent community, so we have kids who deal with a much stricter budget than a lot of their competitors.”

“We do what we can with what we get, so it's that never say die attitude.” Of course, kids being kids, the love of horses is seemingly quite naturally ingrained. “My mom had a friend and they were going out for a riding lesson, just for fun, and she asked me if I wanted to go,” noted 10 year-old Ella Palladino. “I wanted to try, because it sounded really cool.”

There is, however, far more to reaching the standard of taking a horse in the ring for competition than what folks in the movies make appear as something supremely cool. “It was a lot different than what I expected,” said Palladino. “At first, it's really hard work and all the boring stuff.”

“At the beginning, you have to learn your position and make sure that when you're on the horse, you don't fall off. And you learn how to trot and how to canter. The more interesting stuff comes later, like jumping over really pretty jumps.”

A truly delightful interview, blessed with an engaging personality and an obvious gift of gab, Palladino is also quite the quick study. “I feel like since it's my first year jumping, I'm doing really well,” she said. “All of my coaches are really helping me.” No question of her focus, as she followed up our discussion with a first place finish minutes later.

“Every time I canter, you need to have the right lead, and he (her horse, Reagan) keeps on swapping leads. So now, if I'm going to the right, I pull out my right hand, just so he knows that I'm going to stay that direction. If I'm crossing diagonal to go a different way and have to change the lead, I pull out my left hand, so that he knows that he has to change the lead on that leg.”

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