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A Girl, Her Horse, and a Dream: How Halle Duke & Ilana Defied the Odds

Halle Duke & Ilana (c) Ben Radvanyi Photography/ Courtesy of Jay Duke

Sports are tough. The sport of show jumping is really, really tough. 

The combination of horse and rider working together as teammates to clear huge obstacles at blazing-fast speeds (while dealing with half-stride distances and rails that knock down with the lightest touch) is spectacular to witness. The number of things that can go wrong on course—where every fence presents its own, unique, challenge—is incalculable. 

Watching a stranger compete in an international show jumping competition, especially one representing your home country, can be both breathtaking and nerve-wracking. Now imagine watching your kid compete in that ring. 

You can take those emotions and multiply them by a thousand. Or a million. 

That was my experience watching my daughter Halle compete at the 2022 North American Youth Championships. And now, imagine the feeling as I watched her crash at the very last fence, on the final day, while sitting in medal contention. So much heartbreak, what-ifs, and ‘WTFs happened?’ followed. How could your child, who has trained for 16 years, come one fence away from a medal at an international championship and have this happen?

Jay Duke (left) and Halle Duke. (Courtesy of Jay Duke.)

It was a roller coaster year.  

Over the next nine months, I watched Halle’s confidence slowly erode. Her winning results, which had always been there, suddenly went away. As a father, though, I felt pride; seeing her continued hard work, determination, and willingness to keep fighting. She was still at the barn, mucking stalls, grooming, putting in 16-hour days seven days a week. She watched the wealthy kids come and go, riding horses from Europe that cost five, maybe 10 times more than her little locally bred mare from a small, Western Canadian town. 

I first saw that horse, Ilana, five years ago, when I was coaching at a show in Calgary, Alberta. Lorrie Jamison asked me to watch her then-5-year-old mare, who was at her third horse show. I watch hundreds of different horses every month, and to be honest, I only see top talent in one of every 200. So, when I like one, I remember that horse. And I liked this horse. 

At the time, Halle had one older jumper that she was showing in the 1.20m classes and a couple of catch rides. Her riding talent was apparent, but at 16, she was under-mounted. The reality was our family was not in a position to buy her even one horse of the caliber that she needed to progress, never mind multiple mounts like many other riders in her position. 

I spoke with Lorrie about Halle riding Ilana and promoting her for sale, and immediately Lorrie said yes. Halle and Ilana were a great fit from the start. The biggest issue was teaching Halle to stay with her jump, as she had never sat on a horse with that much power. Ilana’s competitiveness was clear to see, and that attitude is very important in a young horse. A horse can have all the talent, but without the desire to fight for the win, they will not end up consistently at the front of the victory gallop. 

Halle Duke & Ilana (c) Ben Radvanyi Photography / Courtesy of Jay Duke

A week later, Ilana and Halle were off to Tbird in Langley, B.C., and relationship between the pair was already starting to blossom. Ilana is incredibly sweet and kind and she was loving all the attention from the teenage girl who doted on her. They quickly progressed to the 1.15m classes and had great results, winning two classes in two weeks, even though they were not attempting to be fast given Ilana’s young age. The second week of competition at Tbird almost turned into heartbreak, though, as it looked like Ilana would be sold. 

A professional who was looking for a talented prospect tried the mare twice during the shows. The trials went great, the pre-purchase exam was perfect, and it looked like we had done our job and fulfilled our responsibility to Ilana’s owner. 

Then, on the day Ilana was to depart for her new home, the trainer’s investor backed out of the deal as she was driving to the bank. We were all very relieved, and eventually, with the help of an investor partner and my family, we were able to purchase Ilana for Halle in 2019. But that was just the beginning of our growing pains.

In February of that first year, Ilana, Halle, and I headed to California to compete at the Desert International Horse Park (DIHP). Ilana was… impressed to put it mildly. Hand walks were an adventure, the wheelbarrows in the corners of the warmup rings were terrifying monsters, and even standing tied in her stall while being brushed and tacked up took weeks to make happen. In one 1.10m class at that show, Ilana jumped so huge over a fence she put Halle in the dirt. That meant an ambulance ride to the hospital, a concussion, and a week off as a result.

And then, the pandemic happened. Torrential rains and Covid-19 ended the California circuit early that year. Little did we know that would also mean an end to competition for one and a half years, as the restrictions in Canada were much harsher than what people experienced in the U.S. Halle spent this time working on her riding: lots of gymnastics, pole work, and cavaletties kept her program with Ilana fun and challenging. 

The mare always displayed a natural work ethic, which matched Halle’s drive and personality perfectly. When the shows finally resumed, their results were immediate, and the ribbons plentiful. 

Halle accomplished her childhood ambition with a victory in the Atco Cup in Edmonton, followed by championships in Calgary. She graduated into the U25 division at Tbird, where she and Ilana earned top-5 finishes. Their first CSI 2* Grand Prix in Vancouver was a true breakthrough: Ilana had a top-12 finish and, more importantly, everyone could see their potential for the big classes. 

One month later, they competed at the Canadian Championships in Calgary, proving they could also elevate their game under pressure. They jumped four clear rounds and received the gold medal as Canadian Champions of the U25 division. Halle was 18 and Ilana just eight and competing in her first indoor competition at the time.

That winter, the pair went off to train in Wellington, Florida with Andre Dignelli of Heritage Farms, where Halle was a working student. In the spring, Halle became a working student for Olympic gold medalist Leslie Howard. A championship at Tryon and good showings at WEC Ocala in the 1.50m classes followed for her and Ilana. Not long after, they were named to represent Canada at the 2022 North American Youth Championships in Traverse City, Michigan on the Senior B team. 


When you are riding on a team and representing your country, everything changes. It truly is the ultimate experience in sport. Everyone wears the team apparel; the horses are all decked out beautifully, wearing the flag; the parade of nations—it’s completely different from any other horse show. 

As a father, watching my daughter’s hopes become reality was a special time. It was also nerve-wracking beyond what I could write. A 4th place finish on Day 1 was exhilarating, and a bit shocking, to be honest. These were 40 of the best U21 riders in North America, and the skill level of the horses and riders was stunning to watch. 

Then, after the second day of competition, Ilana and Halle were sitting in the bronze medal position! My nerves were off the charts. During my own time as a rider for Team Canada, I would rarely feel much—it was all about the focus and the course. Now, as a parent, there is nowhere to put all that tension. 

That final day was going great, until the last fence. Ilana was jumping in great form, handling the very technical 1.50m course with ease. Halle was on point and riding well. But as they landed off the second last fence, something went wrong. 

To this day, nobody watching can clearly explain what happened. Ilana started throwing her head in the air (much more than she usually does) and they had trouble making the turn to the last 1.55m/1.60m oxer. Halle did a great job of getting to the fence, but was unable to manage the distance, resulting in a refusal. I was in shock. 

In that 4-second period, after a tack malfunction of some form, our improbable “perfect” week was over. 

That was the start of a difficult competition season for Ilana and Halle. We struggled to find the right bit for Ilana, and Halle’s confidence—which took such a big hit at the Championships—just kept getting lower. But she kept working, and I was so proud. At the end of the winter circuit, I flew down to California to drive with Halle to Ocala, Florida, where she would start a new job at Redfield Farm working and training with Emil Spadone. 

Emil made building Halle and Ilana’s confidence his top priority, and to do so, he consistently entered them in 1.30m classes. They would jump a bigger class, then move back down again. Details, precision, perfection, over and over and over. Dropping down was a frustrating process for Halle, and Ilana was bored jumping 1.30m and not particularly competitive. But from afar, watching every class by video, I could see the weekly improvement. I knew they were on the right track, the process just needed time. 

One year after their crash in Traverse City, it was time for the North American Youth Championships once again. The team atmosphere that year was incredibly positive and supportive. Canada was in 7th position after Day 1, but they rallied, climbing into the #2 position on Day 2. After what had seemed like a longshot just 24 hours before, a Team medal was now a possibility. 

On the final day—and one, 2.5-hour rain delay later—Halle was in the lead-off position for her nation. This time, she and Ilana put in a flawless, clear round, helping to secure the win for Canada. Watching the gold medal being put around Halle’s neck on the podium, listening to the Canadian anthem, relishing and appreciating every single moment, was something I’ll never forget.

(c) Ben Radvanyi Photography/ Courtesy of Jay Duke

A couple of years ago, I asked Irish rider Nikki Galligan if he was going to sell his top grand prix mount, Java Miss Jordan, after their CSI 5* victory at DIHP. I’ll never forget what he told me: “You don’t sell a dream.” 

Four years of hard work, smiles, tears, laughter, and frustration—and the financial sacrifices. Many, many months of barely paying the rent, being behind on payments, and working 16-hour days, week after week. I’m sure many of you are thinking I’m crazy for not selling Ilana years ago. I certainly would not argue with that psychological assessment. 

I feel so grateful to the dozens of people who have helped us through that period, financially and otherwise. And the biggest thank you of all goes to Ilana: the 16-hand mare with a heart of gold and some major hops in her. 

Watching my daughter on the podium that day, there was no question that we’d made the right choice: our dream had come true.

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