During one of the first evenings of the 2022 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the EC High Performance Advisory Group (HPAG) – Eventing co-chairs Emily Gilbert and Greg Paull were presented with the Jordan McDonald Award. The award recognizes passion and dedication to the sport of Eventing and is named in honour of Jordan McDonald, a Canadian Eventing athlete who passed away at the Nunney International Horse Trials, near Frome, UK in June 2014.

I am EC: Emily Gilbert, Co-Chair EC High Performance Advisory Group - Eventing

Gilbert and Paull were celebrated for the work they have done to restructure and reinvigorate the Eventing High Performance program over the last year including spearheading the Pratoni, Let’s Go! fundraiser that helped get the Canadian Eventing Team to the World Championships in Italy in September 2022.

We were able to meet up with Gilbert at the Royal and talk to her about the HPAG, learn about her background, what has driven the group and its success over the last year as well as some personal insights about why the award is so meaningful to both her and her co-chair.

When asked about how she got into Eventing, Gilbert, like many equestrians, referred to her childhood. “I’ve always been incredibly drawn to horses and equestrian sport,” she said. “When I was young, I lived for the Royal Winter Fair, watching Spruce Meadows on TV and for any time I spent out of the city with horses.”

During her younger years, Gilbert did not own horses, but part-boarded horses schooled in different disciplines. She was eventually matched with an event horse, “Joker” and although she planned to compete him as a hunter-jumper, she was convinced early on by his owner to take him cross-country schooling at a clinic. Gilbert fell in love with the sport that day and the rest, as they say, is history.

She then moved to Patricia Fitzgerald’s Wolf Run Farm in Caledon East, ON where coincidentally, Canadian Eventing Team rider Karl Slezak had just moved in with his string of event horses. “He needed a groom one weekend, and asked if I could tag along,” Gilbert shared. “I ended up spending most of that summer and fall at Eventing Competitions throughout North America helping him. That’s where I learned the ins and outs of Eventing, including FEI competitions.” 

I am EC: Emily Gilbert, Co-Chair EC High Performance Advisory Group - Eventing

Slezak helped Gilbert find her own event horse, “Phatima”, who she competed with at the lower levels while in graduate school at the University of Guelph studying neurobiology. It was during those years that she got to know many of the high-performance riders who train and compete in Canada during the summer months. And as a fervent team supporter even then, she also tried to sneak away when she could to attend FEI events and cheer on the Canadian riders.

“I’ve been on the periphery of the sport, engaging when I could,” said Gilbert. “All along, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about Eventing at the highest level.” In the last couple of years, balancing demands as a full-time researcher at University of Toronto, has meant adjusted time in the saddle. “I’ve switched my focus to dressage and have been riding with Shandiss McDonald, who is one of the rider representatives for the Eventing HPAG.”

Being connected to McDonald was serendipitous, because when the new high-performance group was being put together, she and Mike (Winter) asked Gilbert to help. “They asked me if I would be interested as someone who was passionate about the sport of Eventing in Canada,” shared Gilbert. “And who had expertise in communication, marketing and strong critical thinking skills from years in science.”

In her application for the role, Gilbert referred to herself as a ‘high performance scientist and an amateur event rider’. She was enthusiastic about the opportunity to be involved and grateful for the consideration from the rider representatives. With the amount of time, energy and effort that has gone into the committee over the past year, while she admits it has been a lot, she feels it has been equally as rewarding. 

I am EC: Emily Gilbert, Co-Chair EC High Performance Advisory Group - Eventing

“When I came on board as a non-voting member,” Gilbert explained, “my objective was to improve communication and engage the riders.” Shortly after this, Chair Greg Paull, was recognizing that the HPAG needed to accomplish a lot in a short period and that meant the need for more help. He thought Gilbert would be the right person to assist and asked her to step up to be co-chair.

“I look back and admire his forward-thinking and am flattered that he thought I was up to the task!” said Gilbert. “This has been one of the most incredible opportunities of my life. It is a very meaningful way to give back to the sport and riders who have been so formative in my love of equestrian sport.”

Both Gilbert and Paull have found the bringing together of the team to be effective for growth and have taken a continuous improvement approach overall. “I truly appreciate that the role changes every day but what I really love is the problem-solving,” explained Gilbert about how her methodology has helped both her and the group.

“I try to bring this scientific method to the team where we talk about what is working, what could be working better and what needs to be revamped completely. We make a plan, we think about what is going to work best, we execute the plan, and then we see what worked and what didn’t, and then we refine, again, and again and again!”

Co-chair Paull brings knowledge and experience with his historical background to the helm as a previous upper-level Eventer and having been Eventing Team Manager for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and Eventing Team Manager and Chef d’Équipe for the 2006 World Championships.

It’s clear the two complement each other. “From the first meeting that we had, I really respected Greg for his ability to be very methodical,” Gilbert explained. “He thinks through problems, and about how every decision we make is going to affect support staff, horses, our relationship with EC, and of course, most importantly, the riders. He’s taught me a lot in the role as co-chair and, and we hold a lot of respect for each other.”

Together, the group has been driving momentum and the development of high performance Eventing in Canada in hopes to ensure its sustainability. Gilbert further articulated the position and said, “I think we’re all passionate about this becoming a strategic, smart and successful program that supports all stakeholders including the riders, grooms, owners, supporters and fans!”

I am EC: Emily Gilbert, Co-Chair EC High Performance Advisory Group - Eventing

A big accomplishment of the HPAG was their “Pratoni, Let’s Go” initiative that was successful in getting a Canadian Team to the World Championships in Italy in September. The co-chairs really felt that the group connected in this collective goal. “I think our ability to be a united committee,” she said, “and to conduct ourselves with professionalism and also have fun in the process was our greatest asset in terms of what we delivered.”

From a fundraising perspective, there was an infusion of excitement when donors Kelly McCarthy-Maine and Shane Maine stepped up to support Canada and the development of the program. “That was a huge deal,” Gilbert said. “They really believe in our vision and their donation was vital to the success of the goal. They also continue to be incredible supporters of Eventing high performance.”

Gilbert admits that one of the questions they often get asked is about the results of the team in Pratoni, as they did not achieve Olympic qualification with their performance. “I fundamentally believe that if we’re going to move the high performance program forward,” she shared, “we have to get out and operate as a team in Championship environments and competitions. How all those pieces fit together, and meld is a crucial piece to generate the competitive outcomes we’re striving for.”

“If you look at countries who have crept up the rankings and gotten more competitive, they’re not doing that by staying at home. They’re going out there, they’re learning, evolving, and refining when the outcomes are not what they had predicted or hoped for.”

Gilbert feels that the intangible results are an important foundation to build on for future competitions. She indicated that the high functioning group dynamics in Italy with the athletes, grooms and support staff were a big highlight. In addition, the support from owners, families and Canadian Eventing enthusiasts was a huge asset to the riders and the program.

The Eventing community believes that with Gilbert and Paull’s leadership, things are working. The Jordan McDonald award was a testament to that but for Gilbert, it meant even more.

“It’s really hard for me to put into words,” Gilbert conveyed. “Ultimately, it means so much to receive this award in Jordan’s honour because I respected him as a rider, competitor, and most of all as a very close friend. He was someone that was incredibly supportive of me when I was an athlete in the sport and one of the very best and funniest people, I’ve ever crossed paths with.”

When Gilbert was learning about the sport in her early days grooming and competing, McDonald was someone who always offered up thoughtful, real advice on the sport, and on life. So, it makes sense that his advice has been a common thread of her decisions in building the high performance program.

She shared these sentiments with McDonald’s mom just before the award presentation at the Royal. “I told her that Jordan’s approach, which was very focused on the horses,” Gilbert shared, “as well as his ability to navigate politics, cut through the complexities, make real decisions and have real conversations with people, is something that has always inspired me.”

She and Paull are both very thankful to be recognized in this way and are appreciative of the McDonalds for selecting them as co-chairs. “To be recognized in this way,” she continued, “it makes me feel like we are making progress and we are changing things, which was our number one goal.”

After the Royal and the celebrations of this past year’s successes, the group is looking forward. They’re putting together a small task force to focus on development, including, but not limited to young event horses and young riders, in addition to developing support for the current string of riders, horses and owners. They’ve established a fundraising sub-committee to help move the dial of Canadian competitiveness on the world stage and hope to offer bursaries to help athletes get more experience overseas.

The group’s goals of learning, training and improving are supported by the technical plan spearheaded by Rebecca Howard, the team’s Chef d’Équipe in Pratoni. Part of that plan includes Team Training days to bring athletes, coaches, the HPAG, owners, grooms and supporters, together as a tight-knit, positive and supportive Canadian Eventing community.

I am EC: Emily Gilbert, Co-Chair EC High Performance Advisory Group - Eventing

Chef d’équipe Rebecca Howard and Emily Gilbert
Photo Credit: Cealy Tetley

It also includes putting attention towards the Pan-American Games and the Olympics and dedicating resources to send Canadian teams to Nations Cups in Bromont, the UK and Europe next year.

In true form, Gilbert shared how committed they are to continuous improvement. “Really, the change is endless,” she said. “And we’ll continue to add more to the plate, trial new approaches and seek feedback as we go. We’re focused on increasing support of our Canadian riders, making things happen efficiently, and as the enthusiasm grows for this work, building a multi-layered team. It’s motivating for sure!”

The enthusiasm is palpable and even with the work ahead, it doesn’t seem like Gilbert, Paull or anyone else involved in EC’s Eventing high performance program is ready to slow down. She was also quick to share the accolades of the work thus far. “The entire HPAG deserves so much recognition and really the McDonald award acknowledges all of them.”

She continued to share what has made the group both successful and enjoyable to be a part of. “Whether it’s a 7am phone call or brainstorming session, a great back and forth during a planning meeting, or an interaction in person,” Gilbert reflected. “Every single member of this group has stepped up to the task, is always game to weigh in or support the cause. They’ve all been so incredibly thoughtful, valuable, and effective.”

Getting to work with all of them and making sure that the things they talk about and dream about become actionable has brought great satisfaction and joy to the passionate scientist. “How lucky am I?” Gilbert asked. “I say it all the time to my colleagues in the lab and to friends and family outside of the horse world; I don’t think that I’ve ever been as inspired or supported by a group of people as I have been through this group.”

Just like the late McDonald, the group is making real connections and working through complexities together in consult and conversation. And through that spirit, it appears that it’s not only working but fueling it.

“I find the challenge of it really energizes me and I know it will continue to do so for years to come.”

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