Keeping up the family tradition – One gold medal at a time


Keeping up the family tradition – One gold medal at a time

I first attended the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in 2015. I was riding my mums old two-star horse Paddington- a 20-year-old, 14’3, welsh quarter-horse cross. Needless to say I wasn’t counting on bringing home a medal, I was pretty thrilled just to finish in the top twenty! Western Canada was able to field its own team that year with three riders, but unfortunately one of the team members eliminated in show-jumping, which bumped us out of the top placings. Carmen had been planning on competing that year as well; however, it didn’t end up working out for her that year.

The following spring, I was able to qualify on an Irish Sport Horse mare named Grace O’Malley. I had been riding Grace for four seasons and brought her up through the levels myself. Although not the flashiest of horses Grace has a lot of try, and that spring we won two events at the preliminary level. I knew that Grace didn’t really have what it took to be competitive against some of the amazing horses we would be facing at young riders, but I had myself convinced that we would make some amazing underdog comeback and win the whole thing. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work as well as I had hoped, well not for me anyways.

Carmen had had a challenging spring with Spartacus. They did well in the jumping phases; however, their dressage was definitely a work in progress. We all knew that Spartacus had all the ability to do extremely well, it was just a matter of getting it out of him. Throughout the spring Carmen struggled to tame the little black beast, and for all but one of the events we competed against each other in that spring, Grace and I beat her and Spartacus in dressage.

Seeing as Ontario had already filled its team, and we were the only two western Canadian riders, Carmen and I were technically competing as individuals. Despite this fact, Carmen and I, as well as everyone else who came along to support us- from grooms to coaches to our chef d’equipe- were a team in every way except on paper.

By the time young riders came around Carmen had managed to improve Spartacus’s obedience in dressage by leaps and bounds, and they truly rose to the occasion once they entered the arena. Carmen and Sparty scored a 45.9 in dressage and managed to finish on that score to win a gold medal.

My weekend with Grace was much more lacklustre. She and I put in our best dressage test to date, which scored a 48.3, but a couple of seconds time cross-country and a rail showjumping knocked us down to finish outside the top ten. It wasn’t quite the result I had been working myself up for.
Although I was disappointed that had been unable to bring home a good result at young riders for the second year, my overwhelming feelings were of excitement for Carmen. I was thrilled that she had been able to do so amazingly well, especially with a horse that was so complicated and required as precise and skilled ride as she was able to give him.

One week before Carmen and I competed in Colorado, we had been at Rebecca Farms. While there we decided to try out a twelve-year-old, 15’3, OTTB competing training- not exactly the first thing that pops into your mind when looking for a horse to be competitive at NAJYRC the following year!
We had first seen Fiat, owned by Judine Maki and ridden by Kylan Maki at the time, a year before in a clinic, where Carmen and I were in the same lesson as Fiat and Kylan. We spent the weekend fawning over him, but didn’t act on it- why would we buy an eleven-year-old horse who was only just starting his show career?

The following spring, we were in California while Fiat was running his first events at the training level. He was for sale at the time, which we knew, but once again we decided not to act due to his age and the fact that we weren’t really looking for another horse at the time.

That summer at Rebecca Farms Fiat was running the Training Three-Day, and Carmen convinced my parents that we should at least sit on him. Carmen warmed Fiat up and jumped a few fences before my dad told Judine not to let anyone else sit on him and asked my mum to organize a vet check. My dad has bought and sold many horses that went on to compete at the three and four-star levels, and he immediately saw Fiat’s potential. Fiat passed the vet check with flying colours, and we were officially the new owners of this quirky, opinionated, big-hearted thoroughbred.

That fall I upgraded Fiat to Preliminary, and qualified for NAJYRC at Galway Downs. We faced our fair share of difficulties last fall and into this spring. With Fiat being green to the level and myself not having much experience with a hotter horse, I failed to ride him as effectively as I could have a few times cross-country, resulting in one fall and a run by a skinny, as well as crossing my tracks in a combination this spring. Our dressage also suffered as Fiat lacked experience when it came to the more advanced movements of the higher levels, and is generally a ‘hotter’ horse than ideal in the dressage ring.

Throughout my career, I have ridden with my dad, Nick Holmes-Smith, for jumping, and up until last fall I had worked with advanced event rider Sara Sellmer in dressage. Sara helped me out a lot, but this spring- with my sights set on young riders- I decided to start riding with a straight dressage coach. I began working with Joni Peters in April and took lessons with her leading up to the championships. Joni is a very talented rider and instructor who has ridden to a high level in both eventing and dressage. I was very lucky to work with her and learned a tonne. Unfortunately, working with a straight dressage rider meant that I didn’t have anyone helping me out at shows, which made me nervous going into young riders. I had worked with Clayton Fredericks in dressage with Paddy a couple of times, and found him be amazing at making improvements last minute, without trying to make huge alterations to my system right before the competition. My mum suggested that I ride with him at young riders, and having a coach in the warm up definitely gave me the extra competitive edge that I needed.

Our dressage improved steadily throughout the spring, and I had been able to get a pretty good system with Fiat for cross-country and show-jumping. Despite this, I still questioned whether Fiat and I would pose a threat against such a competitive field. After the previous year’s reality check, I was hesitant to let myself believe we had a shot at a medal- but Carmen had done it so I knew in the back of my mind that it wasn’t completely out of reach for me.

NAJYRC is an amazing experience; however, anyone who has competed at young riders can attest to the fact that it is also very stressful and tiring. Despite having only one horse, and a groom to help take care of them, it seems as though there are endless meetings or other activities that need your attention. Being a veteran to the competition I was well aware of this fact, yet still, I decided to bring a second horse. While competing in the championships, I was simultaneously riding my other horse, Tom, in the intermediate. Although Tom is a pretty low maintenance horse to have at shows, having two upper-level horses, in different divisions, stabled separately, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Fortunately, Carmen was able to help me throughout the weekend as she was only competing one horse in the Preliminary horse trials. Carmen was able to help take care of Tom, who was stabled with the rest of our horses, but she also seemed to always be in the young riders stabling helping my groom, Emma, and I take care of Fiat, force feeding me Chick-fil-A, and generally making sure everything was in order. I’m not sure how I would have gotten through that week, with both of my horses, if it weren’t for all of her help.

This year Ontario sent only three riders in the CCI1*, which meant that I was able to join their team and compete alongside three amazingly talented riders. Our team was extremely supportive of one another, and surprisingly competitive considering I was the only rider with more than six months of experience at the level. Chloe Duffy finished in fifth place on her dressage score with her own thoroughbred, Oro Veradero. Sisters Eva and Ella Marquis completed the team as they were able to qualify this spring, despite only being allowed to compete at the level since January! Ella finished a strong twenty-first place, but Eva had an unfortunate fall on cross country.

With the help of Clayton warming us up, Fiat and I had our best dressage test to date and scored a 47.2, which put us in eighth place going into cross-country. I was thrilled that Fiat was able to remain relaxed in such an electric environment, as opposed to his usual belligerency in dressage and notorious habit of doing only medium trot after entering the arena. He still jigged in his walk, but I think we can all agree that no one wants to watch walk for that long anyways… Even the judges were probably glad we sped things up a bit.



Fiat can be very strong cross-country, and since I started riding him I’ve jumped around with different bits. This spring I was riding him an a corkscrew pelham and a crescent noseband, which gave me enough brakes, but wasn’t great for turning and he sometimes fought it too much before the fences. Right before young riders my dad and I decided to downgrade to a full cheek corkscrew with the same noseband, which made it harder to slow down, but Fiat was generally happier with this set up and it made for a much smoother ride. Cross-country is definitely our strongest phase, so I was hoping for a tough track which would allow us to climb the leaderboard. Ian Stark designed his typical long, bold, testing track. Ian’s style served us well as there weren’t too many technical or turning questions, and Fiat made light work of the maxed-out fences. We crossed the finish double clear and moved up to third place- the same position Carmen and Spartacus had held entering show-jumping one year prior.

Fiat and I are a pretty solid show-jump team, but neither of us is perfect so I knew the round could go either way. Fiat felt amazing in warm up and was energetic despite our fast cross-country the day before. After a close call at fence one, Fiat cleared every other jump on the course by a mile, and we put in one of the few double clear rounds of the day. Carmen was the first one to congratulate me and give me a hug as I left the arena, followed closely by my parents. We watched as rails fell for the second, and then the first place riders. I could scarcely believe what was happening. Just as Carmen had done the year before I moved up to the gold medal position, and was also able to help my team to a bronze medal finish.

Carmen and my NAJYRC medals hang on an old wooden carousel horse by the front door. All the important awards members of our family have received over the years are there, and there wasn’t much room left. Luckily we found some scrappy old medals of my dad’s that we were able to cover up with our own shiny new ones! He said they were individual and team gold at the Pan Ams but they look pretty small and dinky…probably from the dollar store… Sounds like fake news to me! The other one is just some participation medal for “Moscow 1980”… Those damn baby-boomers and their participation awards- typical.

This fall I qualified for the CIC2* at young riders next year with both of my horses, Fiat and Tom Riddle. My plan is to compete Tom at young riders next year in the CIC2*, and possibly Fiat as well, to defend my title! Carmen is in her third year of sciences at university, which means that her eventing career has been put on the back burner for the time being, but her support for me as I continue showing means the world to me. Throughout our eventing careers there have been times at which Carmen and I have felt competitive against one another, but overall, we remain extremely supportive. I’m so grateful to have someone as driven and talented as her by my side at big competitions cheering me on.

Scroll for more top stories on Eventing Connect