Riding around the Sky High international warm up ring at Thunderbird Show Park gives a direct sight line to a trio of hunter rings that line the west side of the property. It’s real estate with which Tiffany Foster is intimately acquainted.

The Canadian Olympian grew up competing at tbird. As a young rider, she made a name for herself winning countless hunter and equitation championship titles in the Langley area.

On Saturday, she added another to her record—her first five star Grand Prix win: the MLSJ Grand Prix of Vancouver.

“I look down [the ring] every time I’m warming up and I see these little kids jumping all these hunter rounds and think of how many hunter rounds I’ve jumped here. And here I am,” said a disbelieving Foster, “winning a five star Grand Prix. Pretty cool.”

Pretty cool, indeed.

Thirty-three combinations contested Olaf Petersen’s 1.60m track. With six riders in the world top 50, three in the top 10, plus a handful of Olympians and an always strong Irish contingent, it was the deepest start list fielded at tbird to date and featured a course to match.

“It was big,” said Foster. “It was what it should be for the amount of money, that was a true five star Grand Prix in that ring.”

Petersen said he’d be surprised if five qualified for the jump off and he wasn’t far off. Only four managed to find a clear path around the technical course. Canada’s Erynn Ballard was first to accomplish the feat with her Herning 2022 mount. It was another 14 horses before Foster and Northern Light assured the capacity crowd of a jump off. World no. 10 Shane Sweetnam (IRL) on James Kann Cruz and world no. 35 Lillie Keenan (USA) aboard Fasther completed the set.

Four championship riders. On four proven horses. The stage was set for speed.

©tbird/Mackenzie Clark
©tbird/Mackenzie Clark

First to return for the short track, Ballard laid it all on the table, but a rail at the tbird vertical followed by the last fence left the door open.

Foster and Northern Light moved to close it with a double clear met by electric applause from the packed house.

“When I got through the outside line, I was like, I’m just going to wing around this last one and hope for the best. When I was in the air [over the last jump] I could hear the crowd already starting to cheer,” smiled Foster.

Then the nerve wracking waiting game began.

Sweetnam’s horse is widely considered one of the best in the world at the moment. The pair boasts a 71% top 10 finish average at 1.60m, according to Jumpr App, making them a safe bet for the win. But an uncharacteristic early rail put paid to their hopes. “I’ll take the blame for that [rail],” said the Irish Olympian. “I just wanted to be tighter to the triple bar, and the distance didn’t really come up.”

Last to return and hot off a 5* Nations Cup win earlier in the month, Keenan was as likely a contender. She and veteran partner Fasther winded up for a win, setting a galloping pace that put them on track to take over the lead when a drive-by at the penultimate fence ended their bid.

“My horse could not have done any more for me and I made a really stupid mistake. That’s how the sport goes when you’re trying to win,” said a disappointed Keenan.

For Foster, it was five long minutes of mental gymnastics as she waited to learn her fate.

“In my opinion, James Kann Cruz is the best horse in the world. I was like, okay, well, fine, we’ll be second or third. But then when he had a rail down, I was, okay, I’m not going to keep watching. I’m going to hope for the best worst case. Now I’m second. And then Lillie made a little, little error and it hit me.

“It was, oh my God, be cool. Be cool. And then I just couldn’t hold it in any more,” said Foster. Her happy tears were met by a flurry of hugs and congratulations, many by the very people who watched her all those years ago in the hunter ring at tbird.

“It was really emotional for me. I also haven’t won a class in a while. So it just came at a really great time,” she shared, eyes still tear brimmed. “It still kind of hasn’t quite hit me, but I think it hasn’t hit me because I’m at Thunderbird—I’m at home. But I’m so happy and I’m so happy that this happened here.”

©tbird/Quinn Saunders

Northern Light has been in Foster’s string since age eight. Former teammate and chef d’equipe Eric Lamaze (CAN) found the horse and immediately identified her as an ideal Foster mount.

“He called our owner Andy Ziegler and he said, this is the perfect horse for Tiff. And as the Zieglers have always done, they stepped right up and bought her for me.”

Considered Foster’s third mount, behind 5* veterans Hamilton and Figor, Foster never thought “Nora” would be the horse to deliver her first ever 5* Grand Prix win—let alone one on home soil.

“I’ve called on her a couple of times to step up and jump some of these big 1.60 classes. But in general, I sort of keep her in the 1.50/1.55 slot,” explained Foster.

“I was telling Shane in the paddock earlier, she’s the kind of horse who doesn’t like to jump that big every single week just because I think she has to make such a great effort. So I have tried and played with jumping really small rounds, 1.30m, and just sort of keeping her happy, comfortable and relaxed. And I think that I’m figuring out a bit the formula with her.”

The two things the 12-year-old Swedish mare does like: a smaller sand ring and a big crowd.

“She knows. She’s a girl. She’s so smart. She’s very intuitive. She’s a wonderful, wonderful horse and her breeder [Ingrid Ragnarsson] loves her so much and has followed along [her career]. She’s going to be so thrilled because this horse, you can tell, has been loved her whole life. And she just loves you back.”

Much like tbird and Foster, you might say.

Feature image: ©tbird/Quinn Saunders