I caught up with 28-year-old Canadian rider Ali Ramsay at HITS Coachella where she had a triumphant third place finish after Beezie Madden and Nayel Nassar in the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix on Hermelien VD Hooghoeve. Ramsay is a professional rider and assistant trainer at Jill Henselwood’s Juniper Farms. She made her Canadian Show Jumping Team debut in the 2016 Nations Cup of Samorin, Slovakia, riding Hermelien. Upon her return to Canada, Ramsay won the $35,000 Caledon Cup Phase II for her first FEI victory at the Canadian Show Jumping Tournament CSI2* in Caledon, ON. In 2017, they did even better, winning the $86,000 Caledon Cup Phase III at the same event.
Winter Hoffman: What was your childhood like and how were you introduced to riding?
Ali Ramsay: I was born in Edmonton and started riding there when I was 6. I went to horse camp and rode a pony named Buttons! Literally, I never stopped after that.
WH:How did you come to have a passion for the sport -through your parents?
Or through your trainers?
AR: No one in my family was into horses. It just came about when I drove past a field of horses and decided I wanted to go to horse camp! I guess the passion was just inside me and my parents and trainers were all very supportive and always made it enjoyable for me.
WH: You did the Hunters, but what are your thoughts on the Equitation as a foundation for show jumping? You won the CET Medal National Final in 2012 at the Royal Horse Show in Toronto, how did that alter your riding career?
AR: I think the equitation is a great base line for show jumping. I like how it focuses on position and accuracy, two things that can sometimes be forgotten if you’re just brought up doing jumpers. I also found that it was a great way to start learning about dealing with the nerves of big competition. At least for me and the group I rode with that trained under Joanne Orchard, qualifying for the CET medal finals at the Royal was huge for us. So regional finals at the end of every year had huge pressure behind it, and with the 3 phases of flat, gymnastics and jumping at regionals we did some really cool exercises to prepare for it and I really think that background made a huge impact on who I am as a rider today. As for eventually going on to win the CET at the Royal, that just made all the hard work worth it. That really was one of the most amazing wins of my life to date and just gave me the confidence to take the next step in my life.
WH: Was Edmonton, Canada an advantage or disadvantage for your junior show career?
AR: I moved to Victoria BC from Edmonton when I was 8. So I mostly just did summer camps and some riding lessons in Edmonton and don’t really remember huge details about it but it was obviously a good experience if I kept going after! And Victoria has a great little local circuit called Saanich shows in the sun that I grew up on. Starting in the pony hunters to the junior hunters it was always a highlight getting to skip school and go compete. Then the real treat was when we made the trip on the ferry to Thunderbird Showpark for a week or two in the summer!
WH: You went on to train with Jill Henselwood, please tell us how this came about, the high points and what you learned from this experience.
AR: It honestly was just being at the right place at the right time. I met Lizzie Gingras my first year going down to thermal and through her I met Jill. It was supposed to be a one year riding experience getting to train with her and then I was meant to come back to Victoria and get a real job.. but after 2 years I ended up working for Jill and the rest is history. It’s been 6 years now and I owe Jill everything. I’m guessing if I never met Jill I never would have become a Grand Prix rider, or at least not at the level I am today. She truly is an incredible trainer and teacher and I feel so lucky to have her share all that she knows with me.
WH: You must have a very supportive family-please tell us about them. Did they travel with you in your junior years?
AR: My family is the other link in the chain that I owe everything to. Their support is unbelievable really. They have always believed in me, and in this sport that is so financially impossible they’ve done everything they could to help me climb to the top. Growing up I had the best horse show mom. She would come to every show with me, trailer my horse in, help hold and clean and do all the things. It was a really cool way for us to get to spend that time together and share the passion.
WH: What is your view of the sport and how does it impact the training plan and path you chose for you and your horses?
AR: I wish this sport was more accessible to anyone who has the passion, talent and work ethic. I wish everyone had the same shot solely based on that. I’m not saying that this sport is only based on money, I just wish it didn’t play such a big part. The way that impacts the path I chose is that I just have to be more selective with the shows we go to and classes I jump, plus I have to be a bit prize money oriented. It seems everyone at the top has multiple horses so they can go to every show they want and just rotate between their string of horses and hit a big class every weekend. As Hermelien is the only horse I have at 5* level I just have to be careful not to over use her. Not only is it hard to keep in ranking points with but also just staying practiced at big jumps. I’ve been very lucky this year to have my other 2 greener horses really step up and I think I owe a lot of my success with Hermelien this winter to getting the practice from the other 2 and being able to save her for only the big events.
WH: How do you manage the peripatetic lifestyle of an equestrian and the stress of traveling to horse shows?
AR: You know it’s a bit of a roller coaster. On one hand it’s amazing this crazy life we live. It’s really like nothing else and there’s never a dull moment. On the other hand it’s such a relief when we get a month or so home at the farm to relax and train a bit. I guess I just need the balance because if we’re home too long we get bored and if we’re on the road too long we get a bit drained.
WH: What are your thoughts on the current state of showjumping Canada? in the USA and the rest of the world?
AR: I think the subjective nature of the team selection is unfortunate. A lot of people would agree there should be a more clear way to choose the team like a trial or some sort of qualification not just unclear personal opinions on what jumping matters and what doesn’t. That’s for the top of the sport, for young horses Europe has a huge advantage in developing them and I think North America needs to follow that model. Numerous shows all over that you can just ship into for the day to get nice experience and then go home. That would help in one aspect to make the sport more affordable in North America to make developing young horses more affordable and appealing.
WH: What is your favorite piece of equestrian equipment for horse? For rider?
AR: I love the Ogilvy friction free pads combined with the gummy half pads. It’s like a memory foam cushion for their back. Also Equstar bonnets, there’s literally no bonnet that’s comparable in quality and I’ve tried them all! For rider I love my Filli Fabbri boots from Equus Integral plus the Flexon stirrups which have amazing grip and keep your foot angle perfect.
WH: What advice do you have for ambitious young riders?
AR: Just keep working and get as much time in the saddle as you can. I used to go down the road to a little breeding farm and ride the young homebreds at the end of every day after a full day of riding at Jills. It was extra work that I didn’t get paid to do but it was such a great experience learning from the breeders how to start the young ones and it just gave me a whole different side of the sport that I think is important to know about. I think any opportunity you get in the saddle is good opportunity as long as it doesn’t look like it’s going to get you killed. Make yourself available and let people know you’re ready to work hard!
WH: What is your day like? Please describe for the readers your training program.
AR: A typical day at home would be a list of horses to flat, maybe some gymnastic exercises one day. If we’re going to a show we would have a jump school the weekend before going. We focus a lot on flat work and try to save the jumps for competition, only jumping enough to keep the horses fit and the riders practiced if they need it. On a good training day Jill and I will have a list of horses and just flat or school together throughout the day. We get some really incredible work done, some of our best days are in the cold indoor arena when you start in the morning and can’t feel your toes, but as the day goes on we’re getting such cool work done you don’t even notice the cold anymore. That being said I appreciate when we get to California and can feel our toes again.
WH: You have outstanding horses, please tell us a little about each one and what qualities you favor in a hunter or show jumper? What were the high points of the past year?
AR: Hermelien also know as Mya is my main girl. I’ve had her for 5 years, she was 7 when I got her. We started slow because she was pretty green and I didn’t want to make any mistakes with her. I find this relationship so special and rewarding because we moved up the ranks together. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that horse. She has so much heart and capability I don’t know how I got so lucky. Then there’s Casino, he’s such a sweetheart. I’ve had him for 2 years. I knew within 5 minutes of sitting on him, as soon as I picked up the trot I was like yep he’s going to be mine. He has such suspension and power he’s so much fun. He’s pretty quirky but I feel he just wants to be a good boy. When I got him he had just started jumping a couple 1.40/1.45s so he’s just starting to get consistent at the Grand Prix level which makes it hugely rewarding every time he’s successful. Last but definitely not least is Bonita. I bought her as a 6 year old and she’s turning 8 now. I saw her at a show in Europe and instantly fell in love. I wasn’t supposed to be coming home with a young horse plus my trainers told me she’s too green and too small. Well she has proven them wrong! She thinks she’s the biggest horse in the barn and definitely jumps like it. She’s the most sassy but I think that’s what makes her so good. She’s a fighter with all the quality and as long as you keep the fight on your side and don’t try and go against it I think she’ll do anything for you.
WH: How did you transition to the jumper division and what do you love about it?
AR: I was getting pretty fed up with the subjective nature of the hunters and equitation and was ready for the clock to be the only judge! I had spent a bit of time in the jumpers with different horses throughout my hunter years but nothing serious. Then we found my soul mate Alonzo! That’s when I really found my love for the jumper ring. Alonzo was doing the pre green hunters when I bought him and together we made our way up the ranks in the jumper ring. We were pretty hard to beat in the 1.20m amateurs by the end of our time together.
WH: How do you or your trainer(s) prepare you and your horses? How does their coaching differ from the program you were in before? What do they have you practice?
AR: Like I said before our program is very flat based. So we don’t jump many big patterns at home. Lots of flat work, dressage lessons, pole and gymnastic exercises. We only jump big tracks if we’re preparing for a show and feel we need it. That just differs from my last program in Victoria because we weren’t jumping at such a big level there so we were able to have more jumping lessons at home for our own practice and didn’t have to worry too much about saving the horses since they didn’t have as big of jobs as ours do now. Both programs are different but had the same good basics which I think was very helpful for me as a rider.
WH: You must have a routine to prepare yourself mentally before you go in the ring, what is it?
AR: I think it changes every time based on how big the class is. I like to keep busy, not just waiting around to jump. I’d prefer to have multiple horses to ride in the day and I actually love helping someone else during the day, it’s nice to have purpose and feel useful. However I would say before a big class like the million dollar I like to focus on myself. Just flat my horses and get ready and save some energy to just feel as good as I can for the class.
WH: What are your plans for the future?
AR: Sometime in the near future I would like to run my own business. Find some place I can really call home and base out of there with a few clients that would like to travel around to cool shows with me. Hopefully I could keep having a horse or 2 of my own that I could compete internationally and always have a young one coming up. “The dream”
WH: What do you look for in a jumper prospect ?
AR: First is scope. Then you need the perfect combination of careful and brave. I prefer a horse with a good amount of blood, something that wants to go, and just to get the idea from the horse that it has a good mentality; enjoys its job and is happy to do the work. Rideability is a bonus but sometimes you have to sacrifice a bit of that to keep it affordable!
WH: Please describe your favorite place to visit and ride in Canada or another part of the world?
AR: My favorite place in Canada is Hornby Island in British Columbia. Before I moved out east my friends and I used to go camping every summer. It’s the most beautiful place with white sand beaches and crystal clear water and these huge bluffs overlooking the ocean. It’s only a few hours from where I’m from in Victoria so we would go up any time we had a few days off. Really hoping to make it back there this summer.
WH: Who is your favorite amateur jumper rider and your favorite international rider and why?
AR: I have a hard time to pick an amateur rider because I can think of so many but they’re all my friends! So I don’t know how to choose one because they’re all so amazing! As for international I would say Eric Navet and Beezie Madden. Eric because it is like art watching him ride, so effortlessly flawless it should be in a text book, but also so humble and genuine. And Beezie because she’s such girl power. Such an inspiration for all athletes but especially for us girls in the only sport that is co-ed she proves that we can all beat the boys no problem.
WH: Who is your favorite international horse and why?
AR: The first horse that comes to mind is HH Azur. She’s so magestic with effortless scope I love getting to see her. Plus she reminds me of my mare Hermelien, they have similar breeding (Azur is by Thunder VD Zuuthoeve and my mare is Thunder on the dam side) and I just see some resemblance in the character and they way they carry themselves… maybe I’m just dreaming though.
WH: Do you or your family breed prospects for show jumping? If so, which bloodlines do you favor?
AR: No my family isn’t involved in horses so I’ve never been involved in breeding. We always talking about breeding Hermelien and I really should take an embryo. There’s been lots of talk of who to breed her to like Emerald or Quabri de L’isle. It’s a hard choice to make with so many top stallions in the world. I also may be biased but have grown quite fond of the Tangelo line as well as For Pleasure.
WH: Not sure you’re doing the Thunderbird or Spruce Meadows this year, but if so what divisions will you do?
AR: All plans are very up in the air. If I went to Thunderbird I would jump the 5* with Hermelien and hopefully Casino. And for Spruce the goal would be to jump the Grand Prix week one!
About the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Zazou is now an Assist Trainer and professional rider at Meadow Grove Farm in California.