Timing is Right for Natalie Popham and Jillz at Thunderbird Show Park

Natalie Popham got introduced to high performance equestrian sport later than many of her peers contesting the MarBill Hill U25 division at Thunderbird Show Park.

The 21-year-old young professional, based out of Victoria Island, Vancouver with Lizzy Gingras’ New Heights Equestrian, didn’t get her feet wet in competitive equestrian sport until she was in her teens, having spent nearly seven years taking lessons at a riding school.

She may not have known about international show jumping, but she knew that riding was all that she wanted to do. Horses dominated the conversations she had with her parents, and she spent all her free time in the barn.

“A lot of my peers have been coming [to tbird] since they were 9 or 10 and showing ponies, but I skipped that part,” Popham said. “I don’t have horsey parents, and no one else in my family rides. I was slow getting to the competitive part [of riding], at least the higher-level aspect of it.”

It was when Popham followed some friends to train with Brittney Turner that she had her first experiences on the “A” show circuit. She later found her way to Gingras, who for the last three and a half years has helped take Popham’s riding to the next level. Wednesday at tbird’s April Spring Opener, Popham and her 10-year-old KWPN mare Jillz jumped double-clear for a top five finish in the first U25 class of the venue’s 2024 show season.

As it’s turned out, Jillz was also delayed in reaching her potential in the sport. After Popham acquired her as a 7-year-old from Langley-based Highland Farms, Jillz missed nearly a year and a half due to injuries sustained in a trailer accident.

“I was on my way to Thermal with my mom, and we were in Oregon when we got the call,” Popham recalled. “[Jillz] had gotten her leg over the center divider [of the trailer], and when the trailer door was opened, she was basically hanging from her leg.”

Jillz also broke some ribs in the accident, greatly delaying her competitive pursuits. Popham spent the next year and a half attending vet appointments and rehabbing her horse.

“It was pretty traumatic. I had just gotten her when it happened. We had done one horse show, and I was super excited to kick off our partnership,” Popham expressed. “It’s been slow for sure.”

Popham and Jillz stepped into the U25 division during tbird’s 2023 show season, but it was mostly for experience—”We made it through the year, but it was challenging,” she said. This year, Popham feels a difference in both her horse and in her own riding.

“I feel a lot more confident with the way she feels. She’s jumping better and better. She’s paying attention, and she’s happy overall,” she shared. “We’re slowly able to go faster and turn tighter. I’m not quite at a place that I can gallop down to a vertical the way Georgia [Knight] and Ashley [Arnoldt] did with their horses, but we’re slowly getting there. She’s jumping up [to me], and she’s opening her step up.”

While the show record may be lighter, the homework has been extensive. During Jillz’s downtime, the pair strengthened their relationship on the ground—despite the mare not being the most personable in nature—and since they’ve gotten back to work, adjustability and rhythm between the fences have been the focus.

Ultimately, horse and rider are eager to simply have some competition consistency. After spending the winter in California, they’re hitting their best stride—this time, with perfect timing.

I am really hoping to have a consistent year,” Popham said. “We’ll probably stick with the U25 [division] this year, but the goal is to get up to a higher level and jump some Grand Prix [events] and FEI [classes], eventually.”