Kids and horses—there’s something about them that just goes together. And when they do, magic happens
For as long as she can remember, Jami McWilliam has loved horses.
“When she was two, we gave her a toy riding horse for her birthday and it was love at first sight,” remembers her mother, Michelle McWilliam. “After that, everything was about horses. She was able to ride a few horses when she was three and four and loved it so much, she couldn’t stop smiling.”
On her fifth birthday, the Ottawa girl’s parents surprised her with horseback riding lessons, and she’s been riding since.
Now 17, McWilliam, who does jumping and dressage, coaches and teaches trial lessons and beginner/level 1 at Ottawa’s Royale Equestrian Centre, is one of many young people in the National Capital Region who have fallen in love with riding and horses in general.
Melissa Miller was another one of these young people. The now-mother of two had grown up riding on Linsell Farm in Dunrobin, which is owned by her mother, Pia Thomas. The Christmas she turned eight, she got a four-year-old pony, Ebony.
“He was young and I was young,” says Miller, a Pakenham resident. “It was a rough combination. I fell off… a lot. We grew up together. I learned to do everything on him. We did eventing, hunters and jumpers. We either won everything, or got eliminated because I fell off.”
Horseback riding is an incredibly popular sport and increasingly so now that it’s starting to become much more accessible with horse farms being closer to the city, says Emily Bertrand, CEO of the Royale Equestrian Centre (REC).
Co-owned by Bertrand, 37, and her mother, Dawn Patterson, the farm was rebuilt in 2007 after Bertrand’s brother, Elliot, found a run-down NCC farm property for sale. Herself a rider since the age of four, Bertrand had a lot of experience in all aspects of riding. She built the farm with goals of fostering a positive, friendly environment with lots of opportunities to learn; providing quality horses and care; being inclusive of all levels regardless of financial backing; being a place that offered the opportunity to grow up learning about and working with/around horses and gaining valuable life skills; and most importantly, “being a quality farm that brings great friendships, value, and belonging though a strong community of horse lovers and one that had a far-reaching impact on the local community.”
REC instructors teach the fundamentals though to dressage, show jumping and eventing to age groups from four to 75 in the tiny tots to youth and adult programs. A second location set to open this year, the Royale Ranch, will offer western lessons as well.
“One you develop a love for horses, you will never lose that passion,” says Bertrand. “It’s a lifelong sport… A large majority of our students continue riding for the long term. We have students (like McWilliam) that started with us right from the beginning and now they are coaches at the farm teaching the next generation of up-and-coming young riders.”
Speaking of which, Miller’s pony, Ebony, is still going strong, having taught many children from the next generation—including Miller’s two children, Colton Campeau, 9, and Kealey Campeau, 7—how to ride. “I love that my kids now ride him and he’s taught so many kids so many life skills,” she says.
But you don’t need ownership of a horse to love riding. At REC, students get to ride a wide variety of the farm’s 30+ school horses (with breeds including quarter horse, thoroughbred, warmbloods, halflinger, newfoundland pony, welsh, and miniatures) requested by the coach based on the rider’s age, height, weight, ability, and particular aspects of the riding that they are working on. This is done for a reason. “Each horse a rider gets to work with is an opportunity to develop existing skills and learn new skills,” says Bertrand. “Each horse has its own character and strengths, which makes riding a wide variety of horses an incredible asset to developing students.”
This doesn’t affect the student’s ability to build a bond with the horses. McWilliam, for example, doesn’t own her horse, but still has a bond with one she rides. She and Diamond, a 13-year-old thoroughbred mare, “understand each other, which is important because the more you know your horse, the better you work together,” she says.
All riders agreed that riding gives back in terms of life lessons. “You learn all the normal sports things—you win some, you lose some; perseverance; dedication to improvement etc.—but it has the added fun of having another animal involved,” says Miller. “One that’s way bigger than you, and doesn’t speak English. You get to learn how to communicate effectively, and be a team with an animal. I think riding shaped every aspect of my life. I can make sense of any situation in my life by thinking of what I learned in the barn. I literally can’t go through my day without relating back to what I learned growing up in the barn. And I owe everything I was lucky enough to experience and learn to my mom, and her love of horses that started it all.”
For McWilliam, riding has taught her time management skills and to be responsible. The immense benefits of riding to students are truly priceless, says Bertrand. “It teaches them to not only care for an animal, but to learn to work with a 1000 lbs+ animal using understanding, verbal cues, paying attention to details, building leadership, using problem solving, communication, empathy and focus,” she says. “Horses are not machines and react and live in the moment, which is so valuable as one must learn how to become an empathetic leader with them. The connection, patience, resilience, responsibility, and invaluable life skills one gains by learning to work with and ride horses truly is unlike any other sport.”
Even after the life lessons, riding continues to give, even—or especially—during the pandemic. Her lessons on hold during the lockdown, McWilliam continued to go to the REC daily to ride and spend time with Diamond.
“I’ve been riding extra horses and ponies too, because they aren’t being used regularly in lessons like they should be for the exercise. It’s a nice distraction from school… It’s also good exercise,” McWilliam says. Miller says Colton and Kealey also rode through the pandemic, which helped keep some normalcy in their lives, as well as somewhere safe to exercise and learn. “It’s nice because it’s basically impossible NOT to social distance when you’re on a horse, so it was nice to feel like we were in our own little world away from the chaos of COVID,” she says.
“We have been hearing from all of our riders how impactful the horses are, especially right now,” says Bertrand. “It’s providing the much-needed outlet, comfort, connection, and escape from daily stress, that everyone is desperately craving… you feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after each ride.” There are many mental and physical benefits to being around horses, Bertrand adds. “For many, it’s really helped them get though these challenging times.”
The pandemic itself has been challenging for REC. Although horseback riding is considered one of the most COVID-safe sports due to having to naturally social distance while riding and the large outdoor spaces, the REC had to change some ways in which they operated during the pandemic (which included three closures during just as many stay-at-home orders). They used some of the time to knock down its ongoing list of upgrades and improvements to the farm, including adding a fourth outdoor sand ring and a barn, and improving drainage on the farm.
In the end, it all comes back to love—between the rider and the horse, and for the sport.
“I grew up riding and it’s something I couldn’t imagine my life without,” says Miller. “It would be incomplete.”
“I love everything about riding,” says McWilliam. “Just sitting on a horse makes me so happy, it’s my happy place. I plan to keep horses in my life forever.”
Busting the money myth
Starting to ride isn’t as expensive as you may believe. “To start out, you don’t need too much,” says Bertrand. “A riding helmet and riding boots are enough to get going.” Bertrand says that Decathlon on St. Laurent Blvd. offers affordable horseback riding equipment, including approved riding helmets starting at $30.
Can adults learn to ride?
Yes! Adults love it just as much as the kids do, says Emily Bertrand. “Adults find being around the horses and riding incredibly stress relieving. With both youth and adult lessons, the goal is to develop riders that are safe, confident, and balanced in the saddle.” While with very young children, there isn’t as much of a focus on horse care, adult riders learn horse care right from the onset. “While the lessons are designed to be fun and engaging, they also incorporate more direct and in-depth instruction that is more suitable for adult riders.”
“I was instantly a horse lover from the first time I rode. It’s hard to put into words the deep love developed for these special animals, but they provide such a feeling of acceptance, freedom, kindness, and awe.” – Emily Bertrand