“I said to Ilan [Ferder] before I walked in, ‘I’m going fast, right?’” shared Erynn Ballard of the moment before she rode into the tbird Arena to contest Gregory Bodo’s jump-off in the CSI5* MLSJ Grand Prix of Vancouver. 

“He said, ‘You’re going to win.’”

Those words would prove prophetic. 

Ballard captured the first 5* Grand Prix title of her career on Sunday at Langley, BC’s Thunderbird Show Park. It was also the first 5* Grand Prix win for her mount Nikka vd Bisschop and their first 5* Grand Prix together.

Widely considered the best catch rider in the world, the Canadian Olympic hopeful demonstrated just why she’s earned that title on Sunday. Nikka vd Bisschop, previously campaigned by teammate Beth Underhill, joined Ballard’s string just three months ago.

“I think by now everybody knows it’s a very new partnership with Nikka and I. [It was] my first five star Grand Prix with her and my first chance to get my certificate to qualify for the Olympics,” said Ballard, who is short-listed for the Paris 2024 with four horses.

“I thought she handled the first round beautifully. I was joking that the certificate is eight faults or less in a 1.60m [class] that’s designated an Olympic qualifier. So when I was cantering to the last two jumps, I was [thinking], even if I knock these last two down, I still get my certificate,” smiled Ballard.

“I would say that there was a sense of relief, even midway through the first course, that she was jumping so easy, riding so well, going the way that I needed her to go.”

Their good form continued in the seven-horse jump off. Third to return, Ballard set the time to beat in a speedy 41.59 seconds. Then the excruciating wait began as the final four chased it.

“At 1.60m, it’s hard to go fast on any horse and be accurate and be careful and have your timing [let alone] going that fast on a horse that you don’t know. I mean, that’s a different level. But I feel that she’s the kind of horse that is right there with you,” continued Ballard.

“I would say not knowing her well, I know she’s reliable. And I believe in her and I think that she believes in me.”

Ballard was less sure whether their time would hold, however.

“It was hard for me to watch the last [riders],” she said, confessing that she stood away from the TV monitors and the ring while Johnny Pals (NED), David O’Brien (IRL), Nayel Nassar (EGY), and Skylar Wireman (USA) tackled the short track.

“In Mexico [last year], I was leading the [MLSJ] Grand Prix before Richard [Howley] went in. It’s obviously nail-biting when you have anybody following you. Skylar was so fast in the first round and Nayel is fast. I was like, I can’t watch this anymore.

“I heard everybody else tell me that I won. So how cool is that?”

Three months and three horse shows in, Ballard’s growing partnership with Nikka is “pretty cool” too. The mare helped Canada to a team silver at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago and a Nations Cup win in Wellington with Underhill. In seven international rounds with Ballard, the mare has pulled just two rails (Jumpr stats).

“I’ve said from the very beginning, Nikka has no bad days. You ride her on a Tuesday, she has a great day. You bring her out for a class, she has a great day,” continued Ballard. 

“She’s got a big personality back at the barn. She’s always at the front of her stall. Her head is always out. She’s always looking for treats. And she has Clémence [Rességuier] that’s taken care of her for as long as I’ve known the horse and I think that’s important too. She has her person on the ground, she knows the people that are there for her.

“But I’d say she wants to win. She knows why she’s here.”

As does Ballard. Just two months ago, the Canadian team staple captured her first 3* Grand Prix win. Now with a 5* Grand Prix title under her belt, the call up to Paris seems all but inevitable.

“There is nothing that is more cool than listening to the Canadian National Anthem [play from the podium].”