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Joe Meuleman: For the love of horses - and volunteerism

Whether it was growing up on a farm in Timmins, or working alongside his father at a dairy enterprise in southwestern Ontario, or tackling riding lessons with his daughter as a hobby on the side of a 22 year career in teaching in Sudbury, Joe Meuleman has always maintained a love of horses.

The equestrian community, both in northeastern Ontario, and right across the province, are extremely thankful for that.

Born in Holland, Meuleman and his family immigrated to Canada in 1951, when he was just eight, initially settling down in farm land outside of Timmins. As had been the case in the old country, the eldest of eight kids in the family, as well as his siblings, grew well accustomed to life around animals, and horses, more specifically.

"In Timmins, we had a team of horses that I worked with, helping dad with plowing and such," said the soft-spoken yet eloquent 77 year-old recently. "Occasionally, we would jump on their backs, but they were old lumber horses and very calm. Yes, I loved animals."

Having a thorough understanding of life in the dairy industry, with the Meuleman clan relocating to southwestern Ontario, Joseph could not envision the seven day a week, 12-hour a day all-consuming devotion that is required of the craft. Instead, he would attend the University of Toronto, pursuing a career in education and moving to Sudbury in 1966 to accept a job as a teacher at Lasalle Secondary School.

The home of the Lancers would remain the home of Joe Meuleman for the next 32 years.

Meanwhile, his passion away from the classroom would only truly come to light a decade or two later, not long after his daughter and son were first introduced to the joy of horse riding, attending a summer camp in London with four of their cousins.

With his familiarity with horses, Meuleman could offer some very helpful advice to the children, though clearly not from a technical riding or jumping point of view. "The horses that she trained on were different than the ones on the farm, but nevertheless, working with animals in general, I was able to give some advice about being safe around horses," he said.

"Even when I first started with lessons, I had confidence in myself that I was not necessarily going to be a great rider, but confident in that I was not afraid of the horse, that I was comfortable in feeling that I was able to handle the horse."

"That lack of fear is big, around any type of animal."

With his daughter taking lessons and progressing at Foothills Farm, Meuleman would simply follow a very natural instinct. "First of all, I am an inveterate volunteer," he said. "That's just my nature. Once my daughter started to get into riding competitions, I thought about what I could do to help, rather than just standing on the sidelines."

Initially, he was an extra set of hands. When Janet Bradley needed an announcer, Meuleman stepped in. Eventually, he would get involved as a show steward, writing all the required tests to tackle the role. "They are the rules person at a horse show," Meuleman explained. "I'm not a good judge, but I am a very good rules guy."

Effectively, this opened the door for the local man to climb the ladder, both regionally and provincially, ascending to the leadership position that is the president of the Ontario Trillium Hunter Jumper Association, a position that he held for roughly six years. On a regional level, Meuleman has served as president of the North Eastern chapter of the association for about 15 of the past 20 years.

"I've always had a fairly good skill at bringing people together, very seldom by forcing a vote, but more so by building consensus," he said, acknowledging that experience can serve as a wonderful teacher, having been a key union activist during the lengthy teachers' strike in 1980.

"That ability of drawing people together towards a common goal is a skill that I could bring to the table."

And while his daughter has long since left the scene, backing away from her riding at Foothills at about the same time she commenced her university studies, father remains an important cog in the wheel. Understandably, Meuleman speaks with a great deal of pride when addressing some of the advances in the sport over the years.

"When my daughter first started competing (late 1980s), we were travelling to a variety of venues with conditions that were a lot less than ideal, in terms of footing for the horses, as far as equipment and such," he said. "From an equipment and safety point of view, we've come a long, long way."

"In terms of the quality and abilities of the coaches, the quality of the rider training, the people I see leading the sport, it's vastly different than it was 20 to 30 years ago."

As for his continued involvement, Meuleman sees no particularly good reason to back away. "I work with a great group of people, and we share a love of horses and being around horses," he said. "That's a common starting point to any conversation."

"I loved teaching because I loved the kids, loved being around young people, and now that I've retired for 23 years, this keeps me active with young people."

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