Published in The Link 36.15 on December 1, 2015
To succeed in the demanding and elite world of equestrian sport, athletes can’t just be at the top of their game—their horses have to be too. Brianna Ballard is a full-time journalism student at Concordia, as well as a full-time athlete and a bonafide personal trainer for her horse, Carpe Diem.
She and Carpe Diem—who she calls Cooper—are ranked first in Quebec and third in Canada for under-21 amateurs. All of these achievements have happened despite Carpe Diem being, in her words, “not the greatest.”
It’s been a struggle accomplishing all that they have together. With so much going on, the first-year student knows a thing or two about balance.
Ballard wakes up on her St. Lazare farm at 5 a.m., which in her estimation is only “pretty early.” She feeds horses and shovels manure, before heading to Ste-Justine-de-Newton, minutes away from the Ontario border, to train with Cooper. After that, she goes to school. If she does more training in the evening, she gets home at 8 p.m, to complete chores and homework before going to bed.
“Sometimes it feels like I live two different lives,” Ballard says. “I have two different closets, almost.”
As a student journalist, Ballard says she’s always talking with other people, always working in teams—at odds with her riding experience.
“It’s an individual sport. When I’m training, I have focus,” Ballard says. “It grounds me.” Of course, Ballard is not without Cooper.
She got him when he was six years old, which is young for a horse, and named him Carpe Diem, a decision she attributes to “teen angst.” He’s a Hanoverian Thoroughbred cross, a shiny brown beast with bulging legs that darken to black before rich cream hoofs. He looks sleek, muscular and powerful. He’s a handful—a project, as Ballard puts it, though one she is more than capable of handling.
She’s been doing equestrian sport since she was five, and has lived on a farm—handling horses of all kinds—since she was eight. She and Cooper have been training together for six years.
Every year, she says, they have gotten to higher levels of competition, and now they compete nationally. It’s an achievement they secured through steady, consistent development—training five or six days a week.
“I have to make sure that he’s being developed properly,” Ballard says of Cooper. He has to be fit, his body weight has to be maintained, he has to be balanced—she trains him for it all. “This horse,” she says, “is also an athlete.”
Riding Cooper has made Ballard a better athlete too. While many of her competitors ride horses that may be easier to control, her constant work with him makes her comparatively stronger.
“When they get on a horse that’s like mine, they can’t ride it,” Ballard says.
This proved useful during the Quebec finals for the Canadian Equestrian Team in September. Ballard was in the top four contenders, but there was a final challenge: the finalists had to switch horses and complete a set of jumps. When her opponents all failed to control Cooper, Ballard moved from third place to first.
However at the national competition held in Toronto earlier this November, Cooper wasn’t as helpful. Riders were evaluated on various criteria, including how they look—Ballard dismisses this as unimportant, but it was an issue for them, because Cooper’s balance is poor. He allegedly doesn’t look good running the course. They came fourth overall.
Potential salvation came again, as the top four riders were once again given an extra challenge. Instead of switching horses, the judges gave finalists rapid-fire instructions of a route to ride.
“Jump this, jump that, jump this,” Ballard says. “And then go.” The riders went, their scores reset to zero, and the judges decided their fate. Ballard and Cooper seized the day. They came in third overall.
This is significant because the Olympic team likes to scout for athletes in the national bracket. According to Ballard, they need fresh talent—she says it has barely changed in a decade.
“The people with the most money or the most experience have kind of taken over the Canadian team,” she says. “It’s a problem that I have with the sport; the older, richer people seem to have the monopoly.”
It’s because, says Ballard, horseback riding is a very expensive sport. Simply boarding a horse can cost nearly $13,000 a year, according to Equine Guelph. That’s without competition fees, medical expenses or equipment.
“The trick,” Ballard says, “is finding a sponsor. Or finding some rich person who likes horses and needs a rider.”
Ballard has no intention of slowing down. Sure, she says that the people without resources get shut out of the game. The people that have money keep going up until they reach the top. But that’s because nobody is there to stop them—yet. Ballard finds herself at a crossroads. Decisions need to be made, before the pressure to compete, combined with school life, throw everything out of balance.
“I don’t think in the long run I’ll be able to be a journalist and be an athlete,” Ballard says. “Do I just take the leap?”