Finding That Silver Lining
Beth Underhill is one of the best-known and most popular riders in the world of Canadian show jumping. Born in 1962 in Guelph, Ontario, Underhill started riding at a YMCA camp in Georgetown. Her brothers had other summer activities lined up and her parents thought horsebackriding might be just the thing for their young daughter. In 1969, she joined the Toronto-North York Pony Club and received its all-round education. Although eventing, games, and dressage were fun, she was intrigued by show jumping and, by the age of fifteen, decided to concentrate on it alone.
“It was different back then. I remember being taught by Christilot Boylen, Tom Gayford and Jim Elder. They were all involved in the Pony Club. Rally was at Jim Elder’s farm.” recalls Underhill.
Underhill’s brothers had gone to school with Hugh Graham. Starting out in rodeo, Graham was a champion roper until an injury forced him out of the sport. Show jumping became his focus and, in 1973, he won his first grand prix. Graham became Underhill’s first formal coach and Scooter, her first junior jumper, was acquired through him.
Her parents, although unhorsey, really enjoyed their daughter’s new passion and happily purchased a farm. Through high school, Underhill competed across Ontario. After graduation, she decided took a giant step forward, selling her horse, and moving to Edmonton, Alberta to ride with Mark Laskin. For almost two years, Underhill worked with Laskin and, through him, found a partner in veteran jumper (and reputed stopper), Sagan.
“Sagan taught me accuracy. He knew his job. If I got him to the right spot, he’d jump anything. If we were off our approach by 6”, either way, he’d stop. And when Sagan stopped, you fell off, every time.”
Practice and persistence paid off when the pair won a major grand prix, a first for Underhill. She returned to Ontario with Sagan and, in 1984 and 1986, were Ontario Open Jumper Champions. In 1989, her thirst to learn still strong, Underhill took a job with Torchy Miller. Whilst in Ocala for the ’89-90 winter season she met a New Zealand thoroughbred named Monopoly.
“Monopoly had been bought for Skye Ierullo but he was too big for her (she was just a teenager at the time) and too much horse. I started with Monopoly and our first six months together were just awful! He has a cautious side, a very high sense of self-preservation, and a unique thought process. I had to learn that I couldn’t go head-on into things with Monopoly. I had to learn to look at things differently if we were going to succeed, and that isn’t easy.”
The partnership came together in 1990 and, that summer, they won the $25,000 DuMaurier at Bromont, Quebec. From then until his retirement in 2001, having won over $1 million, Monopoly was a mainstay in the Canadian show jumping world and enjoyed a huge fan base. Today, Monopoly is still happy, healthy and sound at the age of 25. He lives at Underhill’s stable, gets turned out with buddy, Altair, and is hacked lightly each week by a student. Monopoly may have some grey, but his eyes are still bright and his look attentive; still wanting to be a part of the competitive lifestyle.
With the success of her partnership with Monopoly came additional opportunities and challenges. Underhill became a sponsored rider as well as riding horses for other owners. However, she prefers buying young horses of her own and bringing them on slowly. This philosophy went temporarily by the wayside in 1994, when Underhill tried out a horse in Europe named Altair. The
16.3hh Dutch warmblood by Voltaire is still, according to Underhill, the most incredible horse she has ever sat on.
“I only popped him over a little X,” Underhill drops her hand to about 1’ off the ground, “And I knew. He was the most amazing natural athlete.”
Altair’s price tag wasn’t exactly bargain basement but Underhill knew she couldn’t leave him behind. She found investors and Altair came to Canada. Eventually, Underhill bought out her investors, making Altair her own and securing his future in her barn. Bursting with ability and courage, Altair was not an easy ride.
“Everything he does is done at 120%. He is so confident and his mind is so agile. I find European horses are produced as part of such a huge operation, it’s like they are coming off an assembly line. They have no individuality. When they arrive in Canada and it takes time but then their true nature comes out. Like Monopoly, he is a character, but in a completely opposite way. We went at things sideways and backwards, and took lots of detours.”
Underhill arrives at her stables at 8:00am most mornings. She flats her horses herself in the quiet of the morning. This is a ritual she rarely breaks as she feels that that one-on-one time with her horses is invaluable. It gives her the time to assess their mental and physical state, as well as being therapeutic for her own soul.
“I believe that horses will always give you the answer, if you just take the time to listen.”
With Altair, Underhill enjoyed great success, competing at the World Equestrian Games and, at the Pan Ams, where team bronze medallists. The pair won multiple Canadian Show Jumping Championship titles, plus the Shell Derby and a 2nd place in the $800,000 DuMaurier International in 1999. Later that year, in Monterrey, Altair strained a suspensory ligament after overextending his left hock whilst galloping across the finish. It would be a heartbreakingly long road to recovery. In 2001-2002 Altair returned to competition in winning style, but a re-injury left him laid-off once more. Currently, at age 15, he is back in work with Underhill cautious about predicting his future.
“He is sound and in work. If he can come back, terrific, if not, he is still the most amazing horse I’ve sat on and I wouldn’t trade the memories of all we have done for anything.”
The life as a professional rider has its very dramatic ups and downs. The number of clear rounds in a rider’s career with be far outnumbered by the number of 4, 8, 12 fault trips so it helps to be positive and centred.
“I am a positive person and was raised in a positive household. My mother always said if a person is talented, focused, positive, and willing to work very, very hard, then they can achieve anything. You just have to find that silver lining, in yourself and your horse.”
Off the cuff…
Favourite venue? Showing in California is wonderful; the mountains, the ocean, the climate. My best memories though are from Spruce Meadows. I also love the Royal. As a kid I skipped school with a friend and took a bus into the city to go to the Royal.
We took some straw from Branch County’s stall, as a souvenir. I still have it in an envelope somewhere.
Plans for the winter? We’re heading to Ocala. I have some talented young horses, plus Magdaline. Magdaline is my only grand prix horse at the moment. She’s had a great year.
Favourite breed? I’ll ride anything. Years and years ago I rode an Arab-Standardbred called Comet’s Thunder. I’d take him to fairs and ride in trotting races (and beat people in sulkies!) in the morning and jump him in the afternoon. He was the weirdest jumper but cleared the fences no problem.
What do you consider a real chore? Paperwork! Every year I make a New Year’s Resolution to handle it better. I never do.
Last book read? I love to read and usually have two books going at once! I read all sorts. The last one I read was Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It was a really different book but somehow reassuring.
Last movie? I go to the movies about once a month. I saw Forgotten because I like actress, Julianne Moore. It was a scary!
Favourite band? My taste in music is totally eclectic! I absolutely love Kate Bush. She is incredibly talented. I’ve been listening to Cold Play, too. I only sing for myself nowadays, in the truck, when I’m on my own.
Perfect vacation spot? Anywhere warm! I am always, always cold! My family is originally from Devon, England and I love it there. Those Devon cream teas are so good but so bad! Italy is also wonderful with great cafes but the drivers in Rome are insane!
Something about Altair that his fans might not know? His favourite snack is banana peels.
Anyone new in the barn? I just bought a five year old by Darco from Ludo Philippaerts (BEL) named Watch Me Do. It’s a funny name but it grows on you. Anyway, I got him in June, took him in one Jumper Development class this year and he placed 2nd. He’s scopey, not overly huge, and very close to my personal “type”.
Top three tips for amateur riders? One, never be afraid to ask. Two, spend the majority of your time in the saddle flatting your horse. Three, go to shows, sit near the warm-up area, watch the pros and learn.