Once an awkward, shy nine-year-old girl aboard her first little pony, Georgia Tooke, now 15, has always dreamed of making it to the Olympics of young riders – the North American Junior Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC).
This summer, the dream is finally becoming a reality. Tooke has qualified for Young Riders in dressage and will represent Canada at the Kentucky Horse Park, July 17-21, in Lexington.
Young Riders is the premier equestrian competition in North America for riders ages 14-21. Athletes come from Canada, U.S., Mexico, Bermuda, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands to vie for team and individual FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) medals in the three Olympic equestrian disciplines of show jumping, dressage and eventing, and the FEI world equestrian games disciplines of reining and endurance.
“Dressage to me is like a way of expressing yourself through dance,” said Tooke, a Vernon secondary student. “Except instead of dancing by myself, I am teaching and training a horse to dance with me. We dance together.
“To me, dressage is about the connection and the bond that is built between the horse and rider. My goal is not to win the competitions but ultimately to achieve unity with my horse.”
Tooke’s dance partner is Magic, a 13-year-old Friesian gelding owned by Chelsea Balcaen of Coldstream Dressage.
Magic has been to Lexington before, pairing with Armstrong’s Sylvie Fraser for the event in 2009. He has competed at the highest levels of dressage, which has afforded Tooke the learning opportunity of a lifetime.
The duo has worked tirelessly with coaches Danielle Hirkala of Vernon and Christina Seidel of Rimbey, Alta. since the spring of 2012.
Dressage is often compared to the freestyle portion in figure skating. Tooke prefers dressage over other riding disciplines because she believes everything a rider does is for a reason. It is a discipline that requires constant communication and harmony with the horse.
“Every detail makes the whole picture more beautiful,” said Tooke. “Dressage is all about the relaxation of the horse while performing extremely challenging feats of athleticism; all the while making it look effortless.
“From the day I started riding dressage, to where I am now, I have constantly been improving. I love growing as a rider. With dressage, I feel like I learn and grow as a rider every day.”
In order to compete in Kentucky, a rider team needs to declare for the championships then qualify at recognized competitions in front of a panel of judges. Although the team has not been finalized, Tooke’s scores are well above the qualifying requirement. She is the only declared B.C. rider from the Okanagan.
It will take four days and about 9,400 highway kilometres to get Magic and company to Kentucky. The long journey in a trailer is challenging for horses as they constantly need to shift their weight and rebalance to the movement of the vehicle.
Once there, Magic will have five days to acclimatize to the southern humidity and 40-plus C heat.
Reflecting on her years of dedication to horsemanship, Tooke said: “Horses have taught me leadership and self-confidence. They won’t cooperate if you are not an inspirational leader.
“They are a lot of work and very expensive, so they have taught me responsibility and value of hard work. They have taught me humility, the importance of staying in the present moment, and above all, unconditional love.”