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Making a career out of horsing around

As far back as Cat Armitage can remember, horses have been her passion
Cat Armitage at her home in Lone Butte. (Fiona Grisswell photo - 100 Mile Free Press)

As far back as Cat Armitage can remember, horses have been her passion.

At 13, she got her first horse: Taffy, a chestnut and white Pinto that stood 14.2 hands high.

“It was all I was interested in,” she said.

Her passion led to more than a dozen certifications in horsemanship that she started amassing since finishing high school in 1973. She recently attended the B.C. Summer Games volunteering as the Stadium/Show Jumping Course Designer for youth aged 18 years or younger.

There were six entrants this year, “It’s a lot of work for six riders,” Armitage laughed.

But it was worth it.

After high school, Armitage headed to the U.S. to attend English Riding School in Waco-Lynnville, Tenn. for four months.

The course was brutal. Two lessons a day, lunging once a day (When a horse moves around the handler in a circle. Useful in burning off energy and can help in teaching a horse obedience), then five evenings a week of educational lectures and learning care. She was one of three who obtained their American Horse Show Association Assistant Instructors Certificate.

When she returned to Canada, she went to work at Livingstone Park Equestrian Centre in Langley, teaching flat, jumping and cross-country before moving on to the Exhibition Park racecourse in Vancouver for nearly two years.

“When a race is on the TV I feel like I’m right on the back of a horse,” she laughed.

She loved it but she realized she couldn’t make a living at it unless it was at the Olympic level.

She took a job at Corrections Canada, working in management for 35 years. Her off-time was spent with her horses, competing and training.

There was the odd gymkhana, but Armitage mostly competed in three-day events: dressage, hunter/jumpers and flat (English and Western) shows. Although she started riding Western, the first time she sat in an English saddle, ‘I thought I died and gone to heaven!”

“I’m kind of a picky person and English is kinda picky - grooming, turnout, everything has to be perfect.”

She retired from competing in 1982 to focus on her first love, coaching. Her credentials include everything from Equestrian Canada coaching, judging and driving to course design.

“I find it a very gratifying experience,” she said, adding the highlight is being a coach for the Canadian Pony Club International Rally Team.

She travelled to China as the coach with a team of three Canadian Pony Club riders and one American Pony Club Rider to compete at the International Pony Club Rally.

“We took silver in every competition.”

Armitage said the competition was tough with riders from the U.S., Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan and Canada.

She moved to Lone Butte in 2015 because prices were too high in the Fraser Valley to buy a place there. There was a house but nothing else. She did the landscaping, fencing and came up with the concept for her barn.

“I love course design,” she said. “To design and have top riders, riders that are on their way (to being on) the Olympic team and have them jump your course is just like ‘wow.’”

Armitage said she has been lucky. She knew Pam Arthur who rode for Canada and is a Federal Equestrian International (FEI) course event designer. This is Olympic level.

After looking at one of her courses, Arthur asked if she wanted to get into course design. She had to apply to Equestrian Canada, write an exam and attend clinics. She keeps a log book that must be signed off by the officials of all shows she attends. She attends clinics every few years to update her skills.

“I love travelling for educational things and anything to do with horses,” she said.

But “some of it can be very nerve-wracking.”

She recalled a six-day judges’ clinic she attended in Germany with some of the world’s top judges.

It was a tough learning curve. “Having to stand up and say why you scored that horse and rider a certain amount and defend your score when you’re dealing with Olympic judges. A wonderful experience.”

Since moving to Lone Butte Armitage said she seems to have no ‘me’ time because she spends so much time on the road - up to Smithers and down to the Island. In mid-August, she is on the road for nine weeks judging.

She can’t imagine doing anything else. Even with leg and hip issues, she still rides, although she has become something of a “para rider.”

“I’d like to find something I can trail ride,” she said. “If not then maybe I can find something to drive. It’s been a journey.”

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Fiona Grisswell

About the Author: Fiona Grisswell

I graduated from the Writing and New Media Program at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in 2004.
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