A Grade 6 student at Carl A. Nesbitt Public School in Sudbury is currently ranked first in her division on the national equestrian circuit.
Holly Heikkila, 12, and her 10-year-old pony Leroy Brown are vying for a spot at the Canadian National Championships at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto this fall.
Only the top 12 ponies in the country will earn the opportunity to compete in the finals. To date, Holly and her equine partner have achieved Reserve Champion at three of six competitions. They ride in the Large Pony Hunter Division, which is open to all riders up to the age of 17.
In this division, the judges rate riders on accuracy over a course of eight to ten jumps. The horses jump two feet, nine inches. There is also a style component to the competition. Judges rate the overall quality of the horse’s jump and the position of the rider.
“With such a large number of talented horses and riders in her division, the competition is very tough and nothing is guaranteed,” said Carl A. Nesbitt Public School Principal Jim Wachnuk.
“With the show season ending in September, anything can happen between now and then. But for now, Holly is feeling really great to have achieved some early success in such a competitive field of riders and horses. And she is among the youngest riders in the division, which is quite impressive. It gives us great pride to cheer her on.”
Holly has been riding since she was old enough to sit on a horse. “I started riding competitively at a local level at the age of five, and a provincial level at seven,” she said. “Now I split my time between the National Gold level shows and the provincial level Trillium circuit.”
Holly was introduced to riding on her grandparents’ horse farm. Her mother is also a competitive amateur rider, so she spent a lot of time around the farm and at horse shows.
“Since I can remember I have been in love with horses,” she said. “I know I would be a rider even if I didn’t have a family involved in the sport. I love sports in general. I also play hockey, but there is something special about the bond you have with your horse. Also, the feeling of jumping a horse is just amazing.”
Holly rides at Foothills Farm in Chelmsford and trains with Cathy Inch. One of a small group of high-performance coaches in Canada, Inch has been inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame. She is also a recipient of the Ontario Equestrian Federation’s Coach of the Year award.
This is Holly’s second show season with Leroy.
“When I first started with Leroy, I could barely jump an X-rail, which is the smallest jump possible,” she says. “Being together for almost two years has really given us the opportunity to grow together and develop a partnership.”
Leroy Brown is owned by Karen Jackson of Flesherton, Ont. Holly says that although the owners don’t live near the competitions, they regularly attend the shows to offer support.
As a school principal, Wachnuk encourages students to participate in extra-curricular activities at school and pursue their interests outside of school, whether in sports or clubs. “These activities complement what students learn in the classroom,” he says. “They provide another venue for students to develop their full potential as confident, caring members of society.”
Holly says horseback riding teaches many lessons – with the first being humility. “One week everything feels great and you’re both on the top of your game, and then the next week one of us might be a little off and things come apart. The line we use is ‘sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn’, and there are many learning opportunities,” she says.
Riding also develops responsibility. “Since another athlete is part of the relationship, as riders we need to always consider the other half of our team,” she says. “For every hour spent riding, there is easily two hours back in the barn spent taking care of your horse. Keeping Leroy fit, managing his health, and understanding his needs are important aspects of our success.”
She adds: “I think riding teaches you compassion. Creating a partnership with a horse requires attention to his well-being, attitude and particular likes and dislikes. Leroy’s health and happiness is the focus of every ride and every trip to the barn, and I think this focus contributes to success in the ring.”
In the next couple of years, Holly has her sights set on representing Canada in the North American Youth Championships. “Not counting the partnership I have with my horse, show jumping is very much an individual sport and the idea of riding on a team, and especially representing my country, is a big goal of mine,” she says.