Plenty of laughs and many winners in Equi-Challenge this year

Seasoned international rider and coach Peter Gray, of Orangeville, is equally at home on the back of a galloping event horse or an elegantly moving dressage horse.

But on Aug. 26, he found himself in unfamiliar territory as he attempted to whack a ball from atop a spirited polo pony, and he then careened around barrels on a blistering-paced quarter horse at the second annual Equi-Challenge.

The sold-out event, held at Halton Place, was in the name of good fun and a good cause.

Gray and other equestrian leaders and legends “changed hats” to thrill the crowd at a fundraiser to benefit the Ontario Veterinary College’s new Equine Sports Medicine and Reproduction Centre, at the University of Guelph.

Among the participants in the unique team competition were show jumpers Erynn Ballard, Orangeville;  Mac Cone, King; and Yann Candele, Caledon; jockeys Sandy Hawley, Jim McAleny, and Chantal Sutherland; dressage rider Julie Watchorn, King, and David Marcus, Campbellville; standardbred driver Jody Jamieson; barrel racers Stephanie Leyzac and Jodi Hendry; roper Jason Thompson; polo player Dave Offen, Aurora; and other world-class riders from  across the sport of horses.

Judging from the laughter and wide grins, it was difficult to tell who enjoyed themselves more: the participants or the 500-plus paying guests cheering from the ringside, a fully catered VIP tent.

“This is my first Equi-Challenge and I had a lot of fun. The most fun was being with the all the riders in the warm-up. We were having a hoot. It was terrific,” said Gray, who has competed at the Olympic level as an eventer, shows grand prix dressage, and is one of Canada’s few Level 4 coaches. “I have never done barrel racing and that was definitely the highlight of the evening. It was very fast and very fun. It was exhilarating.”

Polo proved to be more of a challenge for Gray.

“I have never played polo and I always thought if I did, I’d be hopeless – and I lived up to my expectations.”

Show jumper Erynn Ballard was equally enthusiastic.

“It was really exciting – I’d never played polo and I never have barrel raced, and though I’ve taken dressage lessons, I’d never been in a situation to have to ride a test before,” said Ballard. “I enjoyed all of it. The whole event, the crowd and the people who supported it were terrific, it was for a great cause and I think it looks really good for our industry. All the show jumpers – Mac (Cone), Roberto (Teran), Yann (Candele) and I were ready to make career changes.”

Jockey Chantal Sutherland was “very grateful that I got the opportunity to do it. It was a lot of fun. I upset every barrel in the barrel race and in the dressage, I rode an Arabian horse with the costume and veil. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place and I hope I get invited back next year.”

Even a fall during show jumping couldn’t keep racing legend Sandy Hawley down. He gamely got back on the horse, completed the course and returned to compete in dressage on a western reining horse. Despite joking that he’d “need a couple of Advil when I get home,” he said he plans to return next year.

A new twist this year was the participation of a group of “mystery riders” who challenged the winners of each class. Grand prix show jumpers Hugh Graham (a former rodeo competitor), Frankie Chesler Ortiz (a former barrel racing champ), and Halton Place owner Timur Leckebusch challenged the top barrel racers, while show jumping legends and Mexico Olympic team gold medalists Jim Day, Jim Elder, and Torchy Millar, joined by Kelly Hall-Holland pitted their skills against the night’s leading show jumping rookies.

Before the opening ceremonies, it was announced that the University of Guelph has received $2-million from the E.P. Taylor Equine Research Fund, to support clinical research in the health and performance of racehorses at the new Ontario Veterinary College Equine Sports Medicine and Reproduction Centre.

The night’s winning Equi-Challenge team was Team Novartis, which included Mac Cone, Chantal Sutherland, Julie Watchorn, Dave Offen, and Jason Thompson.