Haley Franc, 14, finished first in the junior riders individual final last Saturday at the Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) in Lexington, Ky. The annual gathering draws top equestrians from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands to compete in an array of team and individual competitions that include disciplines such as show jumping, dressage, eventing, reining and endurance.
Franc, a student at Rivier Academy, specializes in reining, a type of competition in which riders must guide their horses through an exact series of stops, turns and circles. The trick is to appear settled in one’s movements and make clear to the judges that the horse is willingly guided. The more precise the movements and the more co-operative the horse looks, the higher the rider’s score.
“I just try and stay relaxed,” Franc said of her approach to reining. “Sometimes I talk to my horse to keep him relaxed and stuff, and I just focus on my pattern and what’s coming up next. I try not to get nervous or anything — I try to control that so he doesn’t feel it.”
Her trusted sporting partner is an American Quarter Horse who goes by the name of Jacs Shy Boy, or Shy for short.
“He has lots of personality,” Franc said. “He likes to nibble and chew on stuff. He’s just a really good horse and we get along really well together.”
Franc first started riding when she was six years old. She began competing, or “showing,” at the age of eight in Western pleasure events, a form of competition that judges riders based on a horse having a slow and steady gait as well as a calm, even-tempered disposition.
By age 11, Franc had progressed to reining, but it was only last year that she started doing so competitively. The invitation to join Team Canada at the NAYJRC came as a pleasant surprise.
“Originally, me and my mom thought we had to go down with our province, because there were four people last year that went down (with) Team Saskatchewan,” she said. “I was the only one that qualified in Saskatchewan, so we weren’t even expecting that I’d be going down there.
“But then they put a team of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario together, and then they just emailed us about a month before to get sponsors and everything. We were all shocked … but it was good. We couldn’t say no to that.”
There were a couple of people that were crying. Everyone was really happy, but it was a lot to take in. - Haley Franc
In order to prepare, Franc went to Alberta a week before the competition to train with her coaches Locke and Deb Duce. Shy could do all the routines, so the emphasis was on fine-tuning his movements.
“We did lots of trotting him in the field and stuff to keep his mind fresh,” said Franc. “We had to keep him looking his best all the time for the show, so we had to keep him in the barn blanketed all the time and everything. We just mainly tried to keep him happy and not resenting his job.”
Alongside two fellow riders from Manitoba and one from Ontario, Franc and her family spent three days driving to Kentucky with Shy in tow, stopping only to sleep and let the horse rest. Upon reaching Lexington, Franc was able to get some additional practice with her coach Harvey Stevens, who was there helping another student.
Due to the extreme heat in Kentucky, the Franc family spent most of their time at the barn keeping Shy cool with regular showers and making sure he had enough water.
On the day of the junior individual final, Franc and Shy were the second-last to perform their run. When it became clear Franc had placed first and won the gold medal, her family members were visibly moved.
“My mom (Tracey) and my aunt and my uncle were there,” she said. “There were a couple of people that were crying. Everyone was really happy, but it was a lot to take in.”
Franc’s parents are both riders themselves.
“We were just overjoyed,” her father Rick recalled. “She has been doing really well, and we knew it was possible. But just to see it happen, it was great. It was a dream come true, absolutely.”
The family, happy but emotionally drained after a long 10 days, went back to the hotel for a swim in the pool before taking a well-deserved rest.
Franc hopes to become a trainer one day and plans to continue showing horses competitively. She thanks her family, her coaches, her sponsors, and of course her faithful steed Shy, without which her victory could not have occurred.
“He’s doing really good,” she said. “He’s happy we’re home — it’s nice and cool here.”