At 20, Canadian show jumper Sam Walker is in the unusual position of representing his country at Nations Cups and Young Riders Cups.
Although the rider from Nobleton, Ont., has a resume filled with riding victories from his junior days, Walker credits not just years of time in the saddle, but something else for helping him develop focus. and stoicism needed to succeed in horseback riding: golf.
“I love the mental aspect of it; it’s very similar to driving, in the way you control how you [perform],” he said. “Also, it’s not really a sport where you can show a ton of emotion. Emotional riding doesn’t get you far, and emotional golf doesn’t get you far either. more. So it’s a challenging mental game, which I love.
This month alone, Walker has scored two big FEI victories: July 10 aboard MarBill Hill Farm’s Evita in the $106,800 Sun Life Derby at Spruce Meadows, Alta. derby, and last weekend, July 23, when he and Tal Eothymm De Kergane of Milstein Stables achieved the only double clear to win the Kubota Triple Crown Phase II $29,000 CSI2* Grand Prix at Caledon Equestrian Park, Ontario.
We caught up with 2018 ASPCA Maclay Final winner and 2019 Adequan/FEI North American Youth Championships gold and silver medalist; Winner of the Washington International Riding Final; and George Morris Equitation Championship winner – to talk about life in the professional ranks, continuing to represent his country at youth championships, the importance of putting quality horses under those young riders and his favorite pastime which doesn’t does not involve horses.
Earlier this month you won the Sun Life Derby at Spruce Meadows with the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Evita (Canturano—Miolieta, Farmer). How does it feel to ride it?
We’ve had it for about two and a half years. She was generously purchased by MarBill Hill Farm for the sole purpose of being a sport horse for me. They have supported me for a long time since I did the pony jumps, since I was 8 or 9 years old.
(Marion Cunningham and Bill Tilford, owners of MarBill Hill) are great, really great people, and Canadians like us. And Evita has been a really, really amazing horse for my career so far. She helped me win the biggest wins to date, like the Spruce Meadows Derby, and we also won several ranking classes together, last year and this year. So she’s just been a very good horse for me.
She was previously ridden by former FEI world number 1 Steve Guerdat (Switzerland). So when I bought it, it was straight from world No. 1. I was a little nervous at first, and it took a few months to get along. But once we clicked, it felt like a match made in heaven. Every time I go to a class with her, I really feel like I can win. It’s such an incredible feeling to be on a horse that gives me so much confidence.
How did you prepare for the derby?
In almost every other sport, there is a post-game review during practices and training sessions. You get reviews via videotape. I think there’s no better way to learn – for me at least – than by watching. I am a very visual learner.
When I look at something, I can usually pick it up pretty easily. So I was constantly watching videos of the derby. After watching the derby, not just since I was a little kid, but really studying it, you know, days and weeks in advance in preparation for this course, I think I’ve come to the point that when I walked into the ring, it felt like I had been in a class like this before. It didn’t feel new to me, which was very exciting.
Another preparation we made: We have a house in Caledon, Ontario, with tables, a small bank and a large grass field with natural jumps that we practiced on. And Evita is so natural in derbies – I mean, she’s already jumped clear courses (with Guerdat) in other derbies around the world, like Dinard and La Baule (France), and she’s had great results in events like this.
So not only did I feel confident that I could get on the course, but I was also confident that my horse, no matter what – even though I didn’t know what I was doing at one of those jumps – she would be able to do it for me. So it all kind of came together. She was in really good shape that day and I was riding as best I could for the class I was riding in. Everything went well, so I was super happy.
The horse with which you won the Grand Prix Kubota Triple Crown Phase II CSI2*, Eothymm De Kergane, is only 8 years old. How did you come to associate yourself with the young Selle Français stallion?
It is owned by Tal Milstein Stables; they send me horses to produce and sell. Eothymm (Quinoto Bois Margot—Acadie De Kergane, Campo Flamingo Z)—we call him “Eeyore”—came to see me in January of this year. We started small, jumping in events from 1.30m to 1.35m. He had already jumped more important events, such as the 1.40m and 1.45m levels, which he had done at the 7-year-old championships last year in Lanaken (Belgium). He was sent to me to produce and sell to a young rider
Throughout our journey, he has become a very beautiful horse for me. And I was very, very grateful to have the opportunity to take him to a little higher level, to the FEI two stars. In fact, since I’ve had him, all the FEI 1.45 meter classes he’s been clear or double clear so far which is very cool. It’s a great feat, especially for a horse that is only 8 years old.
And he has plenty of good results at 1.40 meters also in Spruce Meadows (Alberta). This summer, he participated in several clear rounds and finished in the top 10 on several occasions. All in all, he’s just a really, really fun horse to ride and I love working with him. As for the future, I hope he finds a home with someone who loves and adores him as much as I do. I will continue to ride him as long as possible until he finds a new person.
What are your short and long term riding goals?
In the short term, I hope to put in the best possible performance with Evita at the North American Young Riders Championship (Gotham North/FEI) this year (August 9-14 in Traverse City, Michigan) for Team Canada.
I love riding for Team Canada, whether it’s the Young Riders or the big five-star Nations Cups. I think it’s so important that the team events don’t lose their importance, and I think it’s important to always strive to ride across your country and ride for your team.
In the long term, I want to keep riding for Canada and make more Nations Cup teams, some bigger ones. I was very lucky to make my debut at 17 in the Nations Cup five-star teams. So I want to ride on more five-star teams and hope to compete in championships in the future for Team Canada.
Do you like hobbies?
I have been playing golf since I was very young. I used to hit golf balls in my basement when I was 3 years old, on a big net my dad had set up. If I didn’t ride horses, I would play golf.
I play golf as much as possible. The horses take quite a bit of time as we have to make sure they are ridden at least six days a week, and we always travel. So wherever I travel, my golf clubs go with me. If I have time on an afternoon or a Monday, I’m probably in class.
I love the mental aspect of it. It’s very similar to horseback riding, in the way you control what you’re doing. Obviously a horse has opinions, but most of the time the horse tries its best and does its job.
Also, it’s not really a sport where you can show a ton of emotions. Emotional riding doesn’t get you far, and emotional golf doesn’t get you far either. So it’s a challenging mental game, which I love.
When I’m on the golf course and I may have hit a really bad shot, I know it’s like missing the jump distance. But I’m a professional show jumper and I’m an amateur golfer, so it reminds me that we all make mistakes. But another thing I like is that I’m naturally super competitive. And I love sports. Even though it’s golf, I always try to win.
And I love being outdoors. If the weather is good, I prefer not to sit inside. I like to play golf, ride motorcycles – those things really appeal to me. And usually, if I’m not in the grass fields with the horses, I’m in the grass fields on the golf course.
I love nature and the desert. It’s so much fun to play on golf courses all over North America. I’m so lucky to bring my clubs and play wherever we show, at least for a round. Next week I’ll even be playing in a charity tournament, for JustWorld International (a non-profit organization that partners with the FEI to help poor children around the world).
Do you have any specific personal goals outside of competition?
My goal is to grow my business and have even more horses available for people to try and buy. I think it’s so important that good horses go under young riders. And for me, I mean, I was recently a junior growing up, riding at the highest level and junior jumpers, and the under-25 classes, and now the senior classes. So I know exactly what it takes to have a winning riding horse or a winning junior jumper, wherever you are in North America. We have already proven this with the horses we have sold to other people.
So for me, I think it’s a really big advantage that I have to have so much experience in this field at such a young age. I just really hope to grow my horse and owner business. We really work as a team; it’s like a big family for me. It’s a great environment.
What is the best advice you have received so far?
Definitely two things. Number 1 came from Missy Clark: she always tells me that good riding brings good results. This means that instead of trying to win every class, just try to ride as best you can. And that’s where the good results will come from. I found that to be so true.
And the next is that a bad turn does not make a career. I always thought, “Hey, I had a bad game. It’s not my whole career. Michael Jordan missed the winning point, like, 25 times. So it’s not so bad if you have a trick that in your mind is a bad trick.