By Jan Westmark
Show jumper Michel Vaillancourt has worn many hats in the equestrian world. While currently a sought-after course designer, his talent in the saddle took him to Olympic and Pan Am Games as a member of the Canadian Equestrian Team and also as the team coach.
Michel won an individual silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, team bronze at the 1975 Pan American Games and a silver team medal at the 1979 Pan American Games. When Canada boycotted the 1980 Olympics, Michel competed in the Alternate Olympics, winning a gold medal. “Riding for your country is the optimum dream of any athlete,” he said.
Michel was inducted into the Jump Canada Hall of Fame in 2009. “I felt very privileged to be included in a group of such talented horsemen and horsewomen,” he said. “It was a recognition of years of hard work. We all have bumps along the road, but you have to persevere. Nothing comes easy; you have to work for it.”
As a course designer, Michel has designed courses at top shows including the Winter Equestrian Festival and Spruce Meadows but also enjoys designing courses at smaller, well-run shows. “It’s a way of staying involved at the top level and helping educate the newcomers,” he said. “It’s a very difficult and important job. The responsibility that comes with it can be very stressful, but also the reward can be, and should be, satisfying.”
How did your horse career start?
My dad got me a pony when I was about 6 years old after a trip to the local fair. But I really got hooked when I was 11 and got to jump for the first time. I went on to have a very successful junior career and showed at the Royal Winter Fair in the national open division when I was 15. I had the opportunity to represent Canada as a Junior on many occasions including trips to Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Those events gave me a great foundation for team competitions.
Do you come from a horse family?
My dad had a keen eye for talented horses and produced several that went on to the Olympics. He became my mentor and biggest fan, and is the reason I am where I am today. Unfortunately, he died in a tragic accident when I was only 16.
What was your favorite Olympic experience?
The 1976 Olympics. I turned 22 the day before the individual competition where I won a silver medal and am still the youngest to ever do so. Pierre Jolicoeur, who was my trainer, and I were watching the three-day eventing medal ceremony a few days before and were saying what a kick it must be to stand on an Olympic podium. If we only knew.
Where do you keep your Olympic and Pan Am medals?
My Pan Am medals, as well as the alternate Olympic medal, are framed. My Olympic medal is in a beautiful glass case sitting in our living room.
What was it like coaching the Canadian team at the Olympics?
I was glad I could bring my riding experience into my coaching. Being part of the team, even if it was in a different role, kept me involved in our sport at the top level.
Any favorite horse experiences over the years?
Trying to clip a pony years ago and getting dragged all over the aisles in our barn. I don’t think I ever got it done!
Have you had a funny horse moment that still makes you laugh?
One year at the Royal before an international class, I started imitating every rider that night (I was good at it). I don’t think I ever saw Bert de Nemethy, chef d’equipe of the U.S. team, laugh so hard. He was always so serious, so that made my week even though I almost missed my class.
What’s your favorite thing about being part of the horse world?
The horses first: They truly are special animals. The people second. We are a big family. And like any family, we care for one another. We also argue, shout, hug and laugh just like any family.
If you weren’t involved with the horse world, what career do you think you would have picked?
Architecture is what I wanted to do as a kid before I started riding, so I guess I came pretty close.
If you had a week off, what would you do?
Who inspires you?
So many. My wife, because she’s such a hard worker; Eric Lamaze, for his tenacity; my dad for his wisdom.
What talents do you feel you have?
Creative, tolerant, a diplomat
Do you have a personal motto or catch phrase?
It is what it is.
What’s your favorite item of clothing to wear?
What three items can usually be found in your refrigerator?
Pellegrino, milk, fresh veggies
What’s your favorite meal?
Anything that is cooked for a long time
What would be the best gift in the world?
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
To have the ability to clean the ocean
What’s something everyone should try at least once?
How would you like people to remember you?
Just for being a nice guy will do.
Photo by Andrew Ryback