Dutch dairy farmers at home in horse country

Horse vaulting | The van der Sluijs family came from Holland but are now representing Canada

OLDS, Alta. — An animated little blond girl with hair springing out of her braid bounces up to her grandparents.

“Did you see me do the handstand?” she asks Herman and Marijka van der Sluijs.

Eight-year-old Trinity has just come off of a patient Percheron horse that allowed her to perform gymnastics on its wide back while it walked in a circle. She is learning vaulting from her aunts, Jeanine and Angelique van der Sluijs, during an on-farm clinic in the riding arena on the family farm.

Jeanine and Angelique will travel from the family dairy farm east of Olds to Bordeaux, France, where they’ll be part of a six-person vaulting squad representing Canada at the World Equestrian Games Aug. 23 to Sept. 7. The team consists of six Albertans.

When it’s all over, the sisters will return to the family dairy to take on farm chores and continue running the Mountain Creek Vaulting Club.

It has been an interesting journey for the family, which emigrated from the Netherlands in 2001. Herman’s parents and siblings had moved to New Brunswick in the 1980s, but he and Marijka decided to stay in Holland.

They decided to move because of increasing pressure on agriculture. Farmland is in short supply and environmental controls became too strict for their liking.

“All the rules were made by people behind a desk who don’t understand about farming,” Herman said.

They had met a sales representative from Alta Genetics who encouraged them to try Western Canada. After a tour of Alberta, they decided they wanted a farm between Didsbury and Edmonton.

Their daughters, Marsha, Jeanine and Angelique, were 15, 13 and 11 at the time. Half the family could speak English, but Herman had to learn a new language.

They bought a former grain farm, and Herman designed a new dairy barn that met his specifications for housing 130 purebred Holsteins as well as providing roomy calf pens.

The unobstructed landscape may be what they like best after coming from a country of 17 million people confined within tight borders.

“We can see the snow on the mountains. It’s nice,” Marijka said.

They arrived just as Alberta was changing its intensive livestock management legislation and introducing ear tags for cattle. Coming from the heavily regulated European Union system, they felt the Alberta regulations were more practical because farmers were involved in writing the new rules.

Nor were they fazed by working under the dairy industry’s supply managed quota system.

“It took time to understand how the rules were working here. What we have right now, I like it,” Herman said.

The family grows most of its own feed and makes corn silage.

Everybody works together at the farm, with the daughters helping with feeding, barn cleaning and twice a day milking. The third sister, Marsha, lives off the farm and works as a health-care provider.

They have adjusted so well to their new community that they joined with Alberta Milk this spring to host a pancake breakfast on a rainy June day. More than 300 people showed up to learn more about milk production.

They were also able to demonstrate vaulting to their guests.

Jeanine and Angelique have been riding since they were about six and started the sport around the same time. They had practised vaulting in the Netherlands but had to go to the United States for clinics and training when they came to Canada.

“We heard Alberta was horse country, and we thought of course there is going to be vaulting. Little did we know when we arrived, there was nothing,” said Jeanine.

They built a riding arena in 2007 so they could offer day camps and clinics as well as train for four to eight annual competitions. Children can start at age six, but their oldest student was 33.

Angelique trains the 11 horses used for clinics as well as for their own events.

“Any kind of horse will work. They just need to have the right temperament and personality,” she said.

The sport looks daring as one to three youngsters perform on a trotting horse, but the first lesson at a clinic is safety.

“It is safe. It is one of the safest equestrian sports just because the horses are trained for their job and they are being controlled by someone else,” said Angelique.

It has taken about 10 years to build the business because it was so new to Canada. As the sisters demonstrated and competed at an international level, their reputation grew.

They compete as a pair called pas de deux. Jeanine also enters as an individual.

It is not trick riding but a form of gymnastics on horseback set to music. Participants do their twists and turns as the horse walks, trots or canters. At the international level, the horse canters.

They have performed at the Calgary Stampede, Edmonton Northlands, local rodeos and other horse events.

The sport requires considerable core stability and upper body strength. They practise cross fit training with Olympic weights, endurance training and gymnastic skills.

Their mother makes their costumes, and they have to find their own sponsors to travel to competitions. For the world games, they will first travel to Scotland to train with a particular horse that will be with them in France.

The vaulting competition has 18 squads with 10 to 15 pairs and 30 to 40 people in the individual event.

Herman and Marijka planned to find a relief milker so they could follow their daughters to the competition and cheer them on.