Erynn Ballard’s (Olympic) Time is Now

Langley, BC – When it comes to playing the long game, Erynn Ballard (CAN) is a master of craft.

She’s pretty talented at show jumping, too.

The world’s second-ranked female jumping athlete is a championship veteran, having represented Canada at the 2022 FEI World Jumping Championships; the 2023 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final; the 2019 Pan American Games; and the FEI 2018 World Equestrian Games. Notably, she rode four different horses in those championships.

Ballard has become known for her ability to “catch ride” and compete at the highest levels of the sport aboard horses she hardly knows. It’s come with the territory for Ballard, who grew up the daughter of equestrian professionals and who for the past 10 years has been the primary stable rider for Ilan Ferder, one of the largest dealing stables in North America. 

“If we’re doing our jobs as a dealing stable and selling all the right horses, it gives us the opportunity to keep horses,” Ballard said. “Ghakir, I’ve had for four years now, and I feel like I’ve had a lifelong partnership with him. And Libido has been with me for a year.”

The Olympic Games is the one thing noticeably absent from Ballard’s lengthy resume, but maybe, not for long. She heads full steam ahead toward the 2024 Paris Olympics, loaded with four equine candidates: Gakhir, Libido van’t Hofken, Nikka vd Bisschop, and Coconet. 

How do you choose between four elite mounts, when you’re known for being able to ride any horse put in front of you? Ballard’s worldview is simple: She’s happy to let the selectors decide.

“The good thing is that I don’t personally have to make that decision. Somebody will make that decision for me,” she said. “I believe in all of the horses and all of their abilities, and I think it says who I am as a rider that I don’t need just one horse.

“It doesn’t take me too long to create a partnership with a horse: That’s sort of my style and what I do. So whoever they believe is the right horse for the job, I [agree].”

The Dealer’s Perspective

A decade ago, Ballard’s options were far more limited, but she had one stellar horse in the KWPN gelding Appy Cara. At the time, Ballard hadn’t competed at the top levels of the sport in nearly 10 years and had only recently recovered from a career-threatening injury to her scapula. Appy Cara helped bring her back to the top level, catapulting her up the World Rankings and earning her a place on the 2015 Canadian Nations Cup team in Mexico. 

With the 2016 Rio Games on the horizon, Ballard’s name surely had to be mentioned as a candidate. But instead, Appy Cara was sold. The chestnut did go on to compete in the Olympics, jumping at Rio with Argentina’s Ramiro Quinta.

“I don’t think that you can dwell on it too much. Unfortunately, part of my job is also to be a rider for the business, and the right opportunity came for the business to sell that horse for the Olympics,” Ballard recalled. “I was equally as proud to watch Romero ride him at the Olympics as I maybe would have been if I was there myself.”

It’s that kind of mental fortitude that has allowed Ballard to fight her way into the world’s top 50 athletes and remain there as horses have come and gone through her string. But even at an event as grueling as a championship, the hardest mental component is riding fewer rounds and having too much energy.

“I’m used to coming to the show and showing in 10 or 12 or 15 classes a week,” she shared. “I would say I’m like a horse that needs a good lunge in the morning. I need to be a little bit quiet to be focused, and by the time you put me on so many [horses], I have the ability to just be calm and walk in the ring and do my thing. [At Championships], it’s about how I manage my day to make sure that I don’t have too much energy going into the ring. That’s the big challenge.”

Strong Prospects

Ghakir-Ballard’s “heart horse”—is safely qualified for an Olympic bid should he receive it, having jumped with Ballard at the 2022 FEI World Jumping Championships in Herning (DEN). Libido has his certificate of competency, having finished second in the CSI5* MLSJ Grand Prix in Monterrey (MEX) in the fall. At 10, Coconet is the youngest of the group but a mare on the rise, winning a CSI3* Grand Prix in Wellington, Florida (USA) in April. And while the newest partner, Nikka vd Bisschop might be the most exciting, having helped Canada earn their Olympic qualification at the Pan American Games (PER) with Beth Underhill. Ballard has had the mare in her string for less than two months.

“I have to jump well the next three weeks and prove our partnership,” Ballard said. “But so far everything’s going in the right direction, and she’s like a dream horse.”

But the equine that might represent Ballard’s best chance at a long-awaited Olympic opportunity is not one of the above.

“In 1991, I rode a large pony named Polaris Smarty,” Ballard shared. “It turns out that [Laura Kraut] also rode the pony as a 3-year-old. She’s been to the Olympics.

“Rusty Holzer, who rode for the Virgin Islands, rode the pony after Laura. He’s been to the Olympics,” she continued.

“McLain Ward rode the pony after Rusty. He’s been to the Olympics…

“And now it’s my turn. Laura told me, ‘This is your year. This is your year for Smarty to go to the Olympics.’”

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