Olympic team bronze medalist Ashley Holzer tells the story of how she fell in love with dressage at first sight, as told to Carley Sparks.  

I was about 10 years old.

My parents had bought tickets for the evening performance at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto and there was a dressage exhibition. Three riders—Christilot Boylen, Barb Stacy, and Cindy Ishoy—did a pod de trios. I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, these horses are just dancing! This is unbelievable!

I was enamoured with Christilot, in particular. The horse seemed to be floating on air.

That was it. That was the moment I caught “the bug.”

I begged my parents to ride after that. I’m not from a horse family, my parents immigrated from Scotland where a lot of kids ride but no one in my family did. They said, “No, no, no. We can’t take you riding, it’s crazy.”

I begged and begged and begged.

Finally, I convinced my mom to phone Sunnybrook Riding Stables to ask about lessons. It’s the only school string in the city and still exists to this day. She relented and said, “Okay, you can have one riding lesson.”

Well, I went down to sign up for my lesson and was told, “You can’t have one. You have to have four people in a group.” So I rounded up my brother, my best friend, and her brother for our four person group.

They all hated it and I loved it!

I begged a bunch more and my parents eventually signed me up for riding lessons. 

Chrisilot went on to be my coach for a long time. She taught me a great deal about attention to detail, which is so important in this sport, and discipline, which is probably most important of all. At least, for me. I was not the most talented rider when I started. 

It’s funny, years ago, I bumped into someone who had started riding at the same time that I had. We were at a bookstore and he asked, “Well, what are you doing these days?”

I told him, “I’m actually getting ready to go to the Olympics.”

He couldn’t believe it. “But you weren’t good,” he said.

“But I never stopped practicing.”

I learned that if you work really, really hard and you have a passion for it and find a great horse and a great instructor, you can achieve wonderful things. As my dad used to say, just put on your riding pants every day. 

And you have to love what you’re doing. Let’s face it, it’s not easy. It can be very hard sometimes, very disappointing because you’re dealing with horses you love very much. But if you try very hard, great things can happen. 

This year, I coached one of my students at the Royal Winter Fair as she competed against Christilot, all these years later. It’s amazing how these things turn out.

I think it’s wonderful that, that event has remained a tradition, to have a show in the city allows kids who maybe are never exposed to horses and don’t have that opportunity. For me, it was Christilot Boyle riding her dressage horse at the Royal when I was 10 years old that made me want to ride.

Maybe this year, we passed the bug onto another young girl or boy.