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 Magazine - - Volume 18| Number 1 - BY JANET UREN PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIE OLIVER

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

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