By Britney Grover
Photos by Shawna Simmons
Juri Ito discovered horses by accident while visiting a nuclear power plant in her home country of Japan. She didn’t know then that horses would not only become her life, but that they would lead her to Shangri-La: a little slice of heaven on earth where animals and people live in harmony.
“I was a month away from turning 6 years old,” Juri remembered. “My family and I were looking for an activity that we could do as a whole family; both of my parents worked long hours and we didn’t spend lots of time together.”
Her father had blocked off a weekend for family time, but was unexpectedly required to attend a meeting at a power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. Juri and her mother went with him, intending to visit the plant’s educational museum — but something else caught their attention. “My mom and I noticed the Palomino Pony Club directly across the street. While my dad was in the meeting, I took a lesson on a chestnut pony named Urchin and the rest was history.”
A New Lifestyle
Despite Palomino Pony Club being nearly two hours away, Juri’s mother signed the whole family up as members and they all began riding. Juri always loved animals but didn’t have the opportunity to be around them as she grew up in downtown Nagoya, Japan. “I was very fortunate to be able to join a riding club that offered ponies for kids to ride in Japan,” she said. “I’m still not tall, but I was very short back then!”
Palomino Pony Club imported ponies to breed, train and compete. While riding and learning there, Juri met her lifelong best friend, Chiharu Nakajima. “I competed in the gymkhana classes until they made a pony jumper division for Chiharu and I to compete in — we would switch ponies to fill the class because we loved riding so much.”
Juri began acquiring experience in different disciplines early on, and loved galloping through fields and jumping natural obstacles in hunter paces with her father. “I learned to jump in different terrain by following my father with my pony, Benjamin,” she said. “My father would be having so much fun that he would often forget that I was following him on a 13.2-hand pony! I’m so glad that my pony was so brave and such a great jumper that we could follow him!”
When she was 10 years old, Juri’s family made another jump: this one life-changing. “My grandfather always told my parents that I needed to be educated in the United States. My parents followed his wishes and our family moved. It was very difficult for me at first: I didn’t speak, read, or understand English! I didn’t have any friends, and I was too young to speak with my friends in Japan. My friends and I often wrote letters to each other to stay connected.”
Riding had been a hobby for Juri, often taking backseat to other sports. Growing up, she loved tennis and skiing, and played volleyball, soccer, hockey, golf and even football as the kicker. “When I moved to the States, school was very difficult for me,” she said. “I didn’t speak English well, so I was often made fun of and teased. I spent a lot of time at the barn because of that — it was the only place I could go to get away from all of the negativity at school. Riding grew into a lifestyle for me.”
Diversity and Focus
Juri showed her pony in hunter and equitation classes — divisions that didn’t exist in Japan. Her father urged her to explore other disciplines, and supported her when she was offered a working student position. She left home at 13 years old to learn from Pavel Blaho, a trainer near Ocala passionate about diversity as an equestrian and for his horses.
In addition to developing young show jumpers, Pavel also concentrated on giving off-the-track Thoroughbreds second careers — something that excited Juri after watching racing as a child in Japan with her grandfather. “He wanted his program to be more diverse than what others might expect,” Juri said. “We’d experience a little bit of everything, which made them very good horses at the end of the day.”
It also made Juri a great rider: She got to try barrel racing, cross-country, hunter paces, show hunters, equitation, dressage, driving and even horse racing as an exercise rider. “During my stay at Mr. Blaho’s farm, I met so many incredible people from all over the world, who all impacted my life in so many different ways. I’m so thankful to be given that opportunity and I will hold on to and cherish those experiences for the rest of my life.”
When it came time to choose a focus, show jumping won out — as did pursuing horses into the professional world, with the help of her mentors and role models. “I was at a point in my life where I needed to make a decision with my career,” Juri said. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made thus far. But my horses made the decision easier for me: They really stepped up and gave me the confidence to continue this journey.”
Juri, now 32, has already found success as a young professional. In 2017, she began riding for Japan with her own grand prix horse, Bill Clinton. “He’s been a wonderful horse for me, who opened many doors I never imagined!” Juri said. “I’m so thankful to be riding this amazing horse — he’s definitely my ‘once-in-a-lifetime.’”
When founding her farm in the Back Mountain area of Dallas, Pennsylvania, Juri wanted a name that reflected her Asian culture. “Shangri-La is a utopia where people and animals come together in unity, without any distractions, enjoying the bond between one another,” she said. “That’s why I chose the name Shangri-La Stables.”
Shangri-La Stables certainly lives up to its name. In addition to more than 20 horses, Shangri-La is home to Juri’s four cats, two dogs, three goats, four mini donkeys and 12 miniature horses. The minis are more than just cute — Juri’s two well-bred miniature horse stallions will be showing at American Miniature Horse Association shows.
“The minis are small enough that they can be used in therapy, so I’m learning about doing therapy programs with my minis,” she said. “That’s what I’d love to do with them, as well as drive them. They make great companions to the show horses, too. It all started with a miniature donkey named Briana. She’s great with everybody; all the horses know her, she roams free at the farm and says hello to every single horse that comes to the farm. I purchased her from my friend and it’s probably one of the best choices I’ve ever made. She’s quite the character.”
The other “full-size” horses of Shangri-La range from 4-year-old jumpers to grand prix horses, including young jumper T.H. Sage owned by Juri’s still-best-friend Chiharu all the way back from Palomino Pony Club in Japan. Juri is passionate about the care of each one. “I’m really thankful for my sponsorship with Biostar,” she said. “As everyone knows, this sport is never easy, and we always want to do the best for our horses. Any change can trigger issues, but with the knowledge and support of Biostar, I’m able to manage my horses and they’re able to perform their best.”
Juri’s other valued sponsors include Voltaire Design, Elemental Equine, Diamond K Equine Transport, LLC, Impact Gel Pad “Sterling Heller,” TheraPlate Revolution, Stance Equine USA, Kentucky Equine Research, Zandona, and Nupafeed USA — all with premium products that she painstakingly chooses. Juri feels honored and blessed to be surrounded by understanding clients and owners, generous sponsors and invaluable mentors as she expands her business. She recently became sponsored by and will be riding for Grace Hill Farm in Millbrook, New York, where she will be based. Juri continues to pursue her own equestrian education, and this year began training with Team Millar at Millar Brooke Farm in Perth, Ontario.
Though she was too young to understand her parents’ decision to move at the time, Juri’s grateful now to live in the U.S. even as she pursues international competition under the Japanese flag. “I can’t say enough about the tremendous support and education my horses and I are getting in the Millars’ program,” she said. “As many have said before me, it takes a village and great support from owners, trainers and sponsors to reach the international level in show jumping. I hope to be able to perform to their expectations and make my trainers proud in the upcoming events!”
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, unless noted otherwise