Holly Jacks-Smithers one step closer to Olympics in Rio

Last year, the Wellington Advertiser followed local equestrian Holly Jacks-Smithers and her horse More Inspiration as they set their sights on qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Since then, the pair has advanced consistently.

Jacks-Smithers was one of the three members of the Canadian Eventing Team to cross the finish line of the challenging CICO 3* Aachen cross-country course last August.

Canada successfully completed the German leg of the FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) Nations Cup Eventing Series as a team for the first time ever, finishing seventh overall.

Recently, Jacks-Smithers and her horse, also known as “Morris”, were nominated to the Canadian Eventing Elite Squad. A component of Equine Canada’s new High Performance Program, the Elite Squad is composed of five members who have preference in the Olympic selection process.

All aspire to ride for Canada in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August.

“Equine Canada (EC) has definitely raised the bar. Last year, I didn’t think Morris and I would qualify but we met the targets,” said Jacks-Smithers.

“There is still more to do before we are officially named to the Canadian Olympic Team, but the members of the Elite Squad will be given added support to help us get there.”

Equine Canada’s High Performance Program also includes a National Squad whose eight members are hopefuls for future Team Canada competitions.

The program has been developed to corral Canada’s most dedicated and talented equestrian athletes, providing support and targets to help them succeed in international competition such as the 2016 Summer Olympics, the 2018 World Equestrian Games, and the 2020 Summer Olympics.

“These select groups are provided with a secure and motivating environment in which they can train, share information and centralize processes,” said Ozzie Sawicki, a Canadian chartered professional coach, and an advisor to the Eventing High Performance Program.

There has been a huge effort to improve Equine Canada’s selection process, beyond looking at accumulated competition scores. The program has developed measures for variables to account for things like the competition venue and consistency in performance.

The program is also looking at international best practices and now includes fitness scoring and fitness training for the rider, as well as mental training to help the rider focus and deal with stress.

Training camps will follow a logical progression, and individual coaches will be encouraged to communicate with the squad’s head coach, Clayton Fredericks.

“Being on the Canadian Eventing Elite Squad also allows me to bring other horses that I am training to the preferred coaching clinics, which is a bonus,” said Jacks-Smithers.

She has managed to pursue her dream of representing Canada in international competition by making a business out of training horses and coaching students. She is the sole owner of Morris, so the cost to train and compete on him are all her own.

To help finance her effort to get to the 2016 Olympics, Jacks-Smithers held a fundraiser at Woodbine racetrack last fall.

“There was an outpouring of support for the silent auction, which I really appreciated,” she said. More than 120 supporters attended the fundraising dinner.

“Where there is a will, there is a way. If you don’t fixate too much on the financial barrier, things have a way of coming together.”

Jacks-Smithers said she is encouraged by the cultural shift in equestrian sport development.

“Equine Canada’s High Performance Program is growing and building. It’s going to be great,” she said.

As a stepping stone, Equine Canada has developed the NoBoundaries program to provide a pathway and recognition for young riders that are the future stars of eventing.  

NoBoundaries provides an annual Event series in Canada and the United States, connects with experienced spotters at key events, provides coaching and integrated information resources, and coordinates an athlete and coach education seminar series.

The Equine Canada strategy builds on provincial programs developed by organizations like the Ontario Horse Trials Association and the Ontario Equestrian Federation.

For young riders who hope to follow in Jacks-Smithers’ footsteps and compete on a Canadian Equestrian Team, she recommends they take the opportunity to ride every horse they can.

A professional or a winning amateur has to have ridden many different horses under different conditions to really excel, so getting a broad range of horse experience is a start, she explained.

She added that to learn the industry from the inside out, riders need to immerse themselves as a working student, and in Wellington County opportunities for working students abound.

“The biggest investment in the sport of eventing is dedication,” said Margie Godson, of Myrddin Equestrian Centre in Hillsburgh.

Myrddin has a fully integrated working student program which provides lessons, coaching, mentoring, accommodation, and in some cases wages in exchange for labour.

Jacks-Smithers has worked hard for her success and has never owned a horse worth more than $2,000.

“Some people work their way up the ranks on expensive horses that pave their way, but on the whole, equestrian sport development begins with the working student,” she said.