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He’s hardly what you'd call Ariana Chia’s latest flame, some recent connection on a matchmaking site such as e-(quine) harmony.
In fact, Manitoba’s top equestrian rider and her horse, Fiderflame, have been an item for a decade, from the first time she saw the chestnut foal with the four white socks and chalky mark on his muzzle resembling a fire emoji.
The now 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding has come a long way from that breeding farm south of Hamburg, Germany, and with Chia atop is out to gain national and international prominence in the intricate sport of dressage.
While the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics burst the bubble of athletes around the world, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Chia and her horse.
The 28-year-old Winnipegger wasn’t pegged to compete on behalf of Canada this past summer at the Games — pushed back a year owing to the global COVID-19 — but is determined to earn one of four spots on the national team in 2021.
During a recent conversation with the Free Press, Chia maintains another year of training and seasoning should elevate the partnership to contender status.
"I've wanted to go the Olympics since I was six or seven years old," she said. "Each time one comes up, I've wanted to try and go but didn't have the right horse or the timing wasn't right. This is the first time I feel like the stars are aligning, based on how (the horse) is going and the fact we were short-listed for the (2019) Pan-Am Games (in Lima). He's always exceeded my expectations.
"It was terrible for all the athletes that were en route in 2020. But for 'Flame and me as a team, to have some extra time together to really solidify things has been amazing. In dressage, it's not just a question of, 'Is the rider ready to go?' It's 'Do you have a top horse the right age and at the right point in its training?' Of course I wanted to go in 2012. Of course I wanted to go in 2016. I went pro quite a while ago and have a realistic idea of how good our shot is, and I can confidently say if everything goes as planned we'll be on the team."
Dressage is sometimes referred to as ballet on horseback, requiring the pairing to perform a sequence of controlled movements within a rectangular arena. A panel of judges watch from different angles and score based on grace, poise and precision.
Chia gained some of her greatest successes aboard Teo, a Dutch Warmblood, competing at the Grand Prix level, the most challenging classification of dressage, for several seasons in the winter equestrian mecca of Wellington, north of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The grey gelding, now 21, retired more than a year ago, leaving Fiderflame with big horseshoes to fill.
"I've been working with 'Flame for a decade and feel we're in a better position going forward just because we have this longstanding bond. We've been in so many stadiums together, we've travelled everywhere to so many competitions. So, it's not as unnerving as one might think," said Chia.
Her former and current mounts have totally opposite demeanours, she said.
"Teo was old and wise and snarky, like an old professor, really opinionated, maybe only likes one out of 100 people," Chia said, laughing. "'Flame is the opposite. It doesn't matter who you are. If you show up with an apple, he's your best friend. He's the sweetest horse ever. In the show ring, he just lights up and is eager to perform."
Several Olympic qualifying events were scrapped last spring, meaning Canada didn't have its dressage team identified before the Games were postponed. That's left the door wide open for duos such as Chia and Fiderflame to shine during the 2020-21 Grand Prix season, beginning in January.
Christine Peters, Equestrian Canada's senior manager of the Olympic/Paralympic dressage program, said about two dozen rider-horse tandems will vie for the four available spots (three plus an alternate) in Tokyo, assuming the Games are staged as scheduled, July 23 to Aug. 8.
“Ariana is one of our exciting up–and–coming athletes... If not 2021, she's definitely an athlete I would be pegging for 2024." – Equestrian Canada Christine Peters
Canadian entries will accrue Grand Prix points during the qualification period (January to June) at seven competitions in Florida, another in North Carolina and three in Ontario.
Peters said Chia's rapid rise to Olympic hopeful is more than commendable.
"Ariana is one of our exciting up-and-coming athletes. Manitoba has not traditionally been a hot spot for equestrian high-performance athletes, so it’s fantastic Ariana has achieved the success she has. This will be her first year (at the Olympic level) with Fiderflame, so she'll compete against some seasoned athletes, and it will be interesting to see how her performances rank in her first year," said Peters. "If not 2021, she's definitely an athlete I would be pegging for 2024.
"She’s very professional and dedicated. Her ability to bring her horses along, largely on her own, is something to really be admired because many of the athletes you see at the high-performance level have a team of coaches and trainers behind them that are developing horses for them. Ariana has done that largely on her own."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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