RIDING A CLEAR ROUND
Ottawa’s Shirley Thomas smashed through the glass ceiling on horseback in the 1950s. From her farm on the shores of Big Rideau Lake, the legendary equestrian talks about the thrill of the sport, breaking down gender barriers, and the triumph in soaring
Ottawa’s Shirley Thomas smashed through the glass ceiling on horseback in the 1950s. The legendary equestrian talks about the thrill of the sport, breaking down gender barriers, and the triumph in soaring over obstacles
It was a birthday to remember. In 1954, when Ottawa-born Shirley Thomas rode into the arena at White City Stadium in London, England, she had just turned 19 and was already a world-class equestrian. She was not thinking about the date or her age, however, as her horse danced into the ring; she was entirely focused on the task ahead. Concentration is everything, she says. “Out there in the ring, you don’t hear anyone. You’re alone.”
But as she rode in, the lights in the stadium suddenly went off. When they came on again, the entire audience was singing “Happy Birthday” to the girl
British Sporting Life had called a “teenage jumping ace.” Young as she was, Thomas was the first female equestrian to ride internationally under the Canadian flag. At the end of that European tour, she would become the first woman rider ever to win the World Cup.
It’s true that with her long ponytail and bright blue eyes, Thomas was terribly young. But she was also brave, competitive, and tough. During that first week of the 1954 tour, she suffered a fall and broke several ribs. The doctors taped her up, and she went right back to the ring. “I rode the rest of the day in pain, and at the end of each event, I couldn’t get the saddle off my horse and had to ask for help to weigh in,” she recalls from her home on the shores of Big Rideau Lake.
That same tenacity took her almost immediately on to Ireland, where she won the Government of Ireland Trophy. She was the only one of 65 riders there to deliver a clean round over one of the world’s most challenging courses. “I didn’t know how big an event it was,” she says. “But I knew I had never seen such jumps, such steep banks and solid stone walls. I thought, ‘God, they want me to jump the Empire State Building.’ ”
Born in Ottawa in 1935, Thomas grew up in Rockcliffe Park, attending Elmwood School until the age of 15. Her father was Christopher Trahearn Thomas, owner of Thomas Supply & Equipment, an Ottawa-based company that in 1941 won the lucrative rights to manufacture and sell Revlon products in Canada. Her mother was Laura Boreham, who, before she married Thomas, had founded her own beauty and retail business in Ottawa; later she developed her own line of products, called Laura Thomas Cosmetics.
As the daughter of busy, highly driven, and athletic parents, Thomas came honestly by her love of competition. Her mother, in particular, enjoyed golf, skiing, and curling, but it was horseback riding that the family truly loved. After moving to a farm on Aylmer Road, they bought and bred palominos. Young Shirley was first put on the back of a horse at the age of three; she was five when she rode in her first competition, and after a series of victories in hunter and children’s classes, she and a horse called Pale Face took their first red ribbon at the Toronto Pony Show in 1948, when she was just 12 years old.
Her timing was impeccable. Male and female equestrians competed together at the Olympics for
the first time in 1952 — though not in jumping events, as they were considered too dangerous. Thomas began her rise to stardom the following year, when, as a 17-year-old, she fought for a place on the Canadian national team. She rode her little palomino mare, Princess Midas, into the Toronto ring and flummoxed the judges by triumphing in three of the six trial events. “After that, they couldn’t say no to me,” Thomas recalls.
In her first international show, Thomas travelled to New York with her teammates and two horses — Princess Midas, a little horse “with a great turn of speed,” and the larger, showier White Sable, 17.3 hands (about five feet nine inches). White Sable was a former hunter-jumper that Thomas had retrained for show jumping. Together, they won the International Goodwill Challenge Trophy at Madison Square Gardens. In doing so, they beat out British superstar Pat Smythe, another female pioneer of the sport and fourtime winner of the European Ladies’ Championship. At 17, Smythe was also the youngest competitor ever to win that prize. That year, Thomas became the first winner of the newly inaugurated Ottawa Sports Award.
Thomas was just getting started. In 1954, she won the Nation’s Cup in Toronto, riding the only clear round and qualifying to ride alongside the Canadian team on that year’s European tour. The four members of the Canadian Equestrian team were led by veteran Major L.J. McGuinness, who had founded the Olympic team in 1951. Teammates included Jim Elder and Walter Pady: Pady had already attended the Helsinki Olympics in 1952; Elder’s Olympic laurels were still to be won.
Of course, the team also included horses, and they were harder to transport. When the Canadians flew to England in 1954, the plane had to be modified to create secure stabling. Thomas recalls coaxing Princess Midas and White Sable through the low door and worrying about her mounts as the aircraft rattled and droned its way across the Atlantic. The horses and trainers later travelled from England to Ireland and then on to the continent. Throughout, two grooms looked after the horses.
It was not all work and no play. At night, the riders often dressed up and went to receptions, where Thomas typically poured her drink into the nearest potted plant. In their free time, the younger members were glad to let off steam. Thomas recalls running through empty London streets at night and jumping hedges out of sheer exuberance. When it came down to business, however, she was deadly serious: in three of five competitions, she was the leading rider.
Riding was one of the sports where men and women could, theoretically at least, compete on a level playing field. However, a lot of men resisted the change. “It was a fight, jumping against men who didn’t like it,” Thomas recalls. “There was a man in Montreal who tried to get me ruled off.” The tough young Canadian was not upset by the discrimination — she was energized. “It was a red flag in front of a bull.”
Shortly after returning to North America, Thomas retired from the sport.
She had been badly injured and was advised that it would be best to retire at the top. Furthermore, she had accomplished everything she wanted to as a competitor. She “wanted to do something else” — and she was married at the age of 21, just two years after she performed at White City Stadium.
Eventually, Thomas began to buy racehorses and went to live at Box Arrow Farm on the shore of Big Rideau Lake. This is beautiful land, with green fields and wooded copses stretching out along the lakeshore. Thomas lives here today near her stable of racehorses, hunters, jumpers, and western horses. Her daughter enjoyed years of horse riding, and now her granddaughter rides Western.
The stable at Box Arrow has sheltered many generations of horses over the decades, but if you ask Thomas which animal she has loved most, she does not hesitate. “Beau Fasa,” she says firmly of the 29-year-old horse that still lives on her property. He was the long shot that paid off, the outsider that won. “People pay millions for racehorses,” says Thomas, “and have done very well. No trick there. But I ‘claimed’ a horse in Fort Erie in 1994, and that was a thrill. It was a buying race, you see. You put in a claiming slip, and there’s a lottery among all those who claim. In this case, there was just one claiming slip, so I got the horse for $2,500.
“Everyone laughed,” Thomas continues. “They ran the race on a dirt track that day, and Beau Fasa came in 12th out of 12. He couldn’t have beaten a fat man running up that track. The trainer said to me, ‘No one has ever run this horse on grass, but both sides of the family ran on grass. Let’s see what he can do.’ So we took a chance. We bought the horse and ran him for a mile over grass and flipped our lids. He smoked ’em!”
Beau Fasa went on to a shining career on the track, winning some $500,000 in races. He has long since retired, although Thomas has not. While her champion grazes peacefully in the fields at Box Arrow or nibbles oats in the stable he shares with some 30 other horses, Thomas remains on duty. Every morning, she gets up at five o’clock and goes down to look after the morning feed. “The boys come in at eight and take over,” she explains. But every night, at nine or so, she is down at the stable again for a last check.
Thomas is still active in the world of horses, and that world has not forgotten her. In 2008, she was inducted into the Jump Canada Hall of Fame, and a few years later her name was inscribed in the Heritage Registry of Who’s Who. Closer to home at Box Arrow Farm, there are more personal mementoes in a num- ber of big albums crammed to the point of overflowing with photographs and clippings, as well as a long wall of glass-fronted cabinets jammed with dozens of cups and trophies.
When Thomas began to ride competitively, only a few women were competing at the highest levels internationally, and not one of them was Canadian. With every victory, the young girl with the bright blue eyes hammered away the prejudice against women riders, broke down barriers, and soared over obstacles. In years to come, scores of Canadian women followed her over the hurdle, but it was this talented Ottawa-born youngster who took the first leap.
Top left Thomas at the age of 10 with Autry’s Golden Blaze — a stallion sold to her father by Gene Autry, the American singer who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Bottom left Thomas on her wedding day with her first husband, Kenneth Ernest Nelson, with whom she had her three children
Middle Thomas with her favourite jumping horse, Princess Midas
Top right A nasty fall at White City Stadium in London in 1954 saw Thomas suffer a number of broken ribs. Despite this setback, she proceeded to complete a successful season
Bottom right Thomas rides the only clear round in Ireland in 1954, winning what would later become the World’s Cup
Looking back When Thomas began to ride competitively, few women were competing at the highest levels internationally. With international titles and a string of victories, she forged the way for other female competitors in the elite world of jumping and was inducted into the Jump Canada Hall of Fame in 2008. Here, Thomas poses inside the main house of her sprawling 500-acre farm on the shores of Big Rideau Lake beside cabinets lined with trophies and photo albums that document her riding career. Thomas turns 80 this year but is still active in the world of horses