Ashlee and Jacqueline Steffens may not seem to be household names in Wellington County – but that changes when considering the Steffens sisters’ role in the Equestrian world.
Both are top notch riders in their field, competing at the national and international level, and those championship skills have gotten 12-year-old Ashlee in the movies as well.
Their father, Peter Steffens, said his family moved to their Minto horse farm several years ago.
In recent years, Jacqueline and Ashlee competed in South America, where Jacqueline was the best foreign rider and one of the top three in her class – despite having the “distinct disadvantage” of choosing from a pool of horses provided by the host country.
Steffens said the family has about 14 horses, with six actively showing right now and competing at the national level.
He noted the sisters compete in a number of divisions, with 12-year-old Ashlee the youngest by far in one of those divisions where the only requirement is being an amateur or junior rider.
“So, she’s even competing against adults in that division,” he said, adding she iss also near the top in a Hunter division. That will allow that horse to qualify for the Royal Winter Fair.
Jacqueline, 15, has locked up one championship already, he said, adding, “no one’s even close.” He explained that domination came on a horse ridden by Eric Lamaze, who won Canada’s third gold medal at the Beijing Olympic Games.
“Because the girls are good, they’re asked to ride other horses for other people,” Peter said. Those owners bring the horse, pay the bills, pay the entries and the girls ride to give the horses or ponies experience in the show ring. If the horses show well, the owners may want to sell them.
“It’s called giving them mileage,” he noted. Ashlee is also giving a couple of horses mileage in one of her own divisions.
He cited a division in which Jacqueline was competing against adults and said, “She’s jumping at the highest level that’s allowed for amateurs in Canada.”
During one competition, Ashlee came to the attention of a movie producer through a Canadian stunt coordinator. As a result, she appeared in a recent CTV/Sullivan production of Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning.
For that role, Ashlee rode bareback – without a tack or stirrups – which, Steffens said, is the type of riding that would usually require an adult stunt person.
“That really kinda opened the door for Ashlee,” he said. Indeed, since the Anne of Green Gables movie, Ashlee has been involved in three or four other movies.
She will appear in the coming Amelia Earhart movie, Amelia, starring Hilary Swank in the title role and co-starring Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor.
Steffens said the director wanted a young girl in the role of a young Amelia. He was surprised the American producers brought a film crew of about 80 people to Canada to film Ashlee’s scenes, including one with a pilot and Ashlee as a young Amelia, galloping down a field runway.
The family has been waiting about a year for Amelia to be relased in theatres (the film’s North American release is set for Oct. 23).
“What’s amazing about [the Anne of Green Gables production] and in the Amelia film,” Steffens said, was the amount of staff involved.
“In Amelia alone, they had 78 to 80 people on set for the two days to film these clips that were just Amelia as a young girl riding, waving to a plane,” he said.
“It will probably only amount to 30 or 60 seconds.”
He believed it was part of a small flashback sequence when the main character was flying somewhere – looking back on how her fascination of flying first started.
Ashlee has also done work in two or three other movies, including one as a vampire doing basic stunts. But to do that, Ashlee had to join the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Canadian actors’ union.
Thus far, Steffens has been most impressed with the Amelia shoot, although he admits it might be in part due to his own aviation background, or because the movie is being released in theatres this fall.
A property with a grass runway, with corn and wheat growing beside it, was scouted north of Toronto for the Amelia scenes, and producers brought in vintage – not a replica – aircraft for the film shoot.
“These were original aircraft from the early 1900s,” Steffens said.
Fire department crews were hired to be on the set in case of an emergency, along with an ambulance. A small aircraft hanger on the site was torn down for the filming – and then rebuilt following the shoot.
Although the film required only one horse, three were brought in for the film to provide back-up in case one did not work out. As well, cowboy wranglers were hired in the event the horses got wild or carried away, as producers were not sure how the horses would react.
Steffens explained in one of the scenes Ashlee is literally galloping down the runway about 15 feet from the plane’s wing tip on one side as it was taking off, while a helicopter with a camera mount was getting one shot, and a Mercedes SUV rigged with a camera arm was driving down the runway following her.
“Which is why they were reluctant to put just anyone in there,” Steffens opined. “They were trying for an authentic look. It was just take after take.
“The part that blew me away was how much money was spent.”
He estimated the cost of a helicopter alone was a couple of hundred thousand dollars – just for the day.
He also took time to offer a viewing of video shot on-site with the family camcorder.
“Isn’t it crazy the equipment brought in for one quick little shot which may or may not even make it in,” he said.
When asked for her opinion, Ashlee said, “It was really fun doing all the stunts. It was a really good experience to see everything and the people.”
When she was on the horse with the plane on one side and the helicopter on the other, “It was hard to get the timing right, but it was really fun to be doing that. It was very exciting.”
However, she said “The riding is more part of my dream.”
Her father added there are a lot of people struggling to make it in the movie industry, and they work hard at it.
“Those were awfully long days,” he said.
He noted on the set, tutors were brought in to help Ashlee keep up with her education and the director would need to be reminded that Ashlee needed lunch and then to be with the tutor for her schoolwork.
The union insisted on that to ensure there is some school time.
“We’re not encouraging the kids to pursue this … [and] even though she’s been paid really well for this,” Steffens said that money is being put aside for university.
“The riding is what the girls really enjoy. What we’re proudest of, is not just how well they do in their riding, but how hard they work at it.”
He pointed out the night of the interview was considered a “light” night for the girls. He said normally they come back from school, start their chores, have supper and go back at it until around 8pm – and then they do their homework.
“And if their marks slip at all, it’s real simple … We just don’t go to the next horse show,” Steffens said.
He explained they are working harder than many kids, or even as he or his wife did growing up.
On the horse side, the girls would like to continue to compete, but he tried to instill that it is a difficult way to make a living.
Jacqueline said there are a lot of people who want to continue riding or get into coaching, but do not end up making it. Which is why both are being encouraged to pursue their education.
But their success in riding has led to other opportunities which have been fun and may last for a period of time. Even Ashlee has no long-term aspirations of continuing in the movie business.
“It’s a stage,” she said, adding once she reaches a certain age, she expects adults will be brought in to do the stunts.
“Plus, it can get kinda dangerous as a way of making a living.”
Steffens used the example of one movie scene where Ashlee was required to fall off of a train – even if it was moving slowly.
Steffens, is general manager of National Engineered Fasteners Inc., in Kitchener, which boasts about 25 employees.
He has brought the girls in and shown them the business to impress upon them the need to continue their education.