One of Rebekah Oakley-Woolhead's riders in 2006.

Coach says success begins with bond between horse and rider

It’s early on a Sunday morning. Dressed in coat and work boots, Rebekah Oakley-Woolhead is headed out the door to the barn. Her horses want breakfast.

“My whole life revolves around what the horses need,” she said. “The horses come first.”

Rebekah Oakley-Woolhead
Rebekah Oakley-Woolhead (Courtesy Rebekah Oakley-Woolhead)

She was 13 years old when she started riding. At 49, now she owns and trains 17 horses for the Trillium Circuit, which features shows governed by the Ontario Equestrian Federation (OEF) for the Hunter and Jumper disciplines in English riding.

The Hunter discipline is judged on the horse’s movement and form, as well as the rider’s capability to remain stable on the horse. The Jumper discipline is similar, but is judged on the timing of jumps in the ring, whether or not horse and rider knock down a bar or refuse an obstacle.

Randy Roy is an international judge, active in the industry for 42 years.

“We’re looking for the best jumper, how the horse and rider look, the turnout, the movement and attractiveness,” he said. “All the rest are added features, but we want all of the ingredients.”

The judging is tough on the riders whom Oakley-Woolhead trains. They compete in 12 shows, training for 12 months a year for a season that is just five months long.

“Typically a rider that is showing would ride three to four days a week, every week,” she said. “In order to be prepared mentally and physically for the showing in the summer months.”

One of Oakley-Woolhead’s riders since 1996 is Samantha Dusome. She traded in high school slumber parties and Friday night movies so she that could establish herself as a rider.

“I spent the most time at the barn helping Becky (Oakley-Woolhead) do chores on weekends,” she said.

The horses need to be fed twice a day, and some of them have restrictions to their diet. Oakley-Woolhead has a nutritionist come in to assess diets, a blacksmith to trim their feet every eight weeks, as well as a veterinarian who comes in once each month. Beyond these basics, a rider has to have a horse ready for competition in every respect.

“They have to be physically fit. We ride them. We do gymnastics exercises,” she said. “After we train, we clean the barn. It all takes time. We body clip them we pull their manes. We clip inside their ears.”

Even on days when horse and rider are not competing, the process can still take five hours on a regular day.

“The morning of the show, they … take about 20 to 30 minutes to groom them,” she said.

Oakley-Woolhead maintains, however, the most important ingredient for success in these competitions is the relationship between rider and horse. Dusome said bonding with her horse, Cotton, took four-years. She said initially their union was bittersweet because her horse would often buck her off.

Oakley-Woolhead remembered when Dusome first trained Cotton and how the bond grew. Eventually the horse would do anything for her.

“It didn’t happen over night,” Oakley-Woolhead said “But when you find that bond, or when you find that match, it’s sometimes hard to replace that.”