Wendy Christoff and Pfalstaff competing in Aachen, Germany, in 2010. Photo: Bob Langrish.

Love of horses embedded in riding, teaching

Wendy Christoff of Delta, B.C., loves horses. She's been riding since she was eight years old, but the self-proclaimed "horse nut" found her true calling in 1979 when she watched a dressage demonstration by an acclaimed Canadian rider and Olympic competitor.

"I'd always enjoyed trail riding and pleasure riding, but once I saw Inez Propfe-Credo's demonstration at the Pacific National Exhibition [in Vancouver], I knew that dressage was what I wanted to do."

That defining moment began a journey with horses that has led Christoff to great success at national and international competitions, and her journey continues today as she aims for a spot on the Canadian dressage team at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.

Christoff particularly enjoys the communication and harmony between horse and rider which is the essence of dressage, and her greatest career achievements resulted from the special bond that she experienced with Pfalstaff, whom she nicknamed Panama.

"I had great success with him," says Christoff. "I was a short-listed rider for Canada and a reserve rider for the World Equestrian Games. I travelled to Pennsylvania and California and spent nine weeks travelling to different shows in Europe. It was an incredible year, and at the height of my career I was ranked 106th in the world."

Christoff's dreams of competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games were dashed when Pfalstaff died suddenly in 2011, but her love for horses helped to sustain her as she dealt with the devastating loss of her riding partner as well as her plans for their future.

"Panama had no ambitions; they were my ambitions," Christoff says. "If it was just about winning when Panama died, I would have quit. But there's nothing like that connection between the rider and the horse, so I went back to the barn because I had students who needed to be taught and other horses that needed to be ridden."

While Christoff knew that she could never replace Panama, she continued her work with Aleden, a young horse that she had already begun training. And when she realized how much she missed competing at the upper levels, Christoff acquired Di Scansano (Disco) — an older, more experienced horse.

Although still unsure which of the two horses she'll ride in her bid for the Pan Am Games, Christoff's goal is to have both of them ready for 2015.

"They're athletes and it takes years to train them to be that strong and that sensitive and able to do those intricate movements," explains Christoff. "It's a very complicated task, and they need to have the strength and the mental ability to concentrate that hard."

Christoff also emphasizes that sports psychology and mental training are essential for her as she prepares for competition. In addition to working on her own individual strengths and coping skills, she relies greatly on her coach Leslie Reid as well as the others in her support group who help her cope with the highs and lows of competition.

While Christoff's daily training routine involves three to four hours of riding, she also devotes two hours a day to teaching and coaching. That's an aspect that she really enjoys.

"I look for students who love horses and love riding," says Christoff. "And I enjoy helping them put the pieces together to help them succeed. Dressage looks beautiful and calm, but it is a very tough sport. So the level of dedication and the desire for harmony with their horses is huge. I love helping them understand that."

In addition to the time she spends training and coaching, Christoff also believes in giving back to the dressage community as well as the community at large.

For the past 10 years, she's been a board member for Dressage Canada and has chaired the coaching committee. She also sits on several other committees, including the organization's criteria and competition review committees.

Christoff has been co-manager of an all-youth dressage show called Rising Stars which is a qualifier for North American Young Rider Championships and Canadian Youth Championships but also includes fun classes for the kids.

"We wanted to bring fun back to the horse shows for kids," explains Christoff. "So we took the idea of ‘kids' camp goes to a horse show,' and we have learning activities, fun meet-and-greet activities and fun classes along with the serious dressage."

The highly successful show, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in August, is a model for competition directors across Canada that encourages more youth to get involved in the sport and "gets the kids off the iPads and onto their horses."

Christoff is also a board member for the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's (WCVM) Equine Health Research Fund (EHRF). It's a fund that she's supported for a long time, and she's gratified to be involved in screening the research projects that are vital to horse health.

Projects such as Dr. Fernando Marqués' studies exploring equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) in racehorses are particularly interesting to Christoff who works with high performance animals that are also vulnerable to EGUS because of the stresses they experience.

She also commends the EHRF's Memorial Program which enables veterinarians to pay tribute to their patients and clients by donating to the fund and facilitates donations from horse owners and friends who wish to memorialize either horses or horse owners.

"It's a very thoughtful thing to do, and it means a lot. I know how devastating it is when you lose these animals," says Christoff. "It just gives you a good feeling to have someone donate in memory of your horse."

As Christoff considers the future, she's hopeful that she will be a member of Canada's dressage team at the 2015 Pan Am Games, but she's thinking this will probably be her last push for an international team spot at a major game.

After 2015 she looks forward to spending more time with her husband Gordon at their newly constructed equestrian facility, Blue Heron Farms. She plans to continue riding and competing in local competitions, and she's happy to share her experience and her love of horses through coaching.

"I want to create horsemen as well as riders and competitors. I love coaching, and I love helping people understand that it's not all about winning. Teaching them the joy of riding on top of their love of horses – that's what makes it worthwhile for me."
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