Jaimey and Tina Irwin, a young Canadian couple, have carved themselves a wonderful niche in the dressage world. What has been the secret of their continued success? Passion, determination and dedication are just a few of the basics, but learning to juggle family life with business at the barn, having an honest heart and treating your clients like they are a part of something bigger just might be the ticket.
The Irwins have managed not only to attract clients from all over North America but earn their hearts as well. Team Irwin encompasses a wonderful group of enthusiastic riders and nonriders alike, forming a large supportive family that is ready to take on the dressage world and have fun doing it.
Stoney Lake Equestrian began as a nine-stall barn on the Irwin Inn property in Lakefield, Ontario, with Tina and Jaimey running the resort’s trail-riding program, teaching lessons and taking in clients’ horses for training. As their client base grew and the couple began turning heads at the upper levels in the show ring, Mary Ellen Horgan, a client of the Irwins, introduced them to a friend, Sheryl Kerr, who was looking for someone to take over her fully equipped equestrian facility in Stouffville, Ontario. In 2009, the Irwins moved to Strathfield Farm, a 25-stall equestrian facility in the heart of Ontario’s horse country.
Currently, Team Irwin has a full barn and a client base that follows them to southern Florida every winter to train and compete. This year they have 18 horses competing and training in the Florida circuit. Dressage Today had the opportunity to talk with a few members of Team Irwin to discover what drew them to and keeps them with this dynamic duo.
The Early Years
Horse sense came naturally to Tina and Jaimey Irwin, who began riding at the ages of 4 and 6, respectively. Jaimey grew up teaching riding lessons and guiding trail rides at his parents’ resort, Irwin Inn, on Stoney Lake, just outside of Peterborough, Ontario. He also drove a team of heavy horses for wagon and sleigh rides.
Some 30 years ago Kimberly Wynd, now a client of the Irwins, joined Jaimey in lessons with dressage trainer Sue Ramsey at Baraka Equestrian in Campbellcroft, Ontario. Jaimey was 9 years old at the time, Wynd a few years older. An image fixed in Wynd’s memory is that of young Jaimey leaving the arena carrying all of his tack after a lesson. “He was carrying an adult-sized eventing saddle about the same size as him, a large girth slung over his neck and a rather large bridle with the reins dragging on the ground,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, determined little guy, isn’t he!’”
Wynd and Jaimey rode together for a number of years at Baraka during which time Jaimey competed in the hunter/jumpers, dressage and eventing world until deciding to pursue dressage solely. “I always found that dressage was the most difficult, but also the most gratifying, discipline,” said Jaimey. “So I decided if I wanted to be a trainer, this was the best path to focus on.”
Jaimey rode with trainer and Grand Prix rider Martha McTavish for some years before joining top Canadian dressage rider Tom Dvorak as a working student. While at Dvorak’s Jaimey, 21 at the time, was fortunate enough to be able to lease the Hanoverian mare Pikarda, owned by Chris Von Gartzen, to compete on the Young Riders’ team.
Tina, whose maiden name was Busse, most likely felt her first dressage test from the womb, as her mother, Ute Busse, was a strong contender in the Canadian dressage world, making it to the Olympic trials in 1996. While Wynd didn’t know Tina as well back then, she does recall her as “a tenacious and very accomplished rider with braces, kicking some serious butt at the local horse shows on her pony.”
Tina went on to train with Canadian Olympian Evi Strasser as a Young Rider and working student before heading off to Germany to ride with Klaus Martin Rath at the Schafhof. Years later, Tina was a pivotal member of the Canadian Pan Am Team, bringing home the team silver from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011. Her mount was Winston, owned by Mary Ellen and Michael Horgan.
Jaimey and Tina met during the tryouts for the 1999 Canadian Young Riders when Jaimey made a promise that if chosen for the team he would dye his hair blonde. He secured a spot on the team and stuck to his promise, which would change his life forever. Tina’s sister, Sarah Busse, was on the same Young Riders’ team as Jaimey, whose golden locks caught Tina’s eye. The couple later married and now has two young children—Gavin, 5 and Marlies, 3.
The Irwin’s training stems from the German classical system. For years, they trained with Holger Müenstermann, a classically trained German master carrying forward the methodology of Reiner Klimke, Willi Schultheis and Harry Boldt. Jaimey feels that Müenstermann has been his biggest influence in his riding and training career. “Holger has been extremely influential in channeling us and our business in the right direction, which has helped us get to where we are today. The goal of our training is to achieve a happy and healthy horse who is doing the most difficult movements with ease.”
A Team Approach
Kimberly Wynd, an anesthesiologist based in Peterborough, Ontario, was a childhood friend of Jaimey and is now a current client. Impressed with Team Irwin’s caliber of riding and the happiness of their horses, Wynd reconnected with the Irwins while searching for a horse. She ended up purchasing Winston, Tina’s former Pan Am mount, and has now been a part of the team for close to five years.
“Jaimey and Tina bring such integrity to the sport,” said Wynd. “They make us work during our lessons and are quick to correct in a very constructive and positive manner. They have an unbelievable ability to assess the miscommunications between horse and rider and can break down the lesson to fix those issues, making the worst day of riding end on a positive note. Through all of the ups and downs, Jaimey and Tina keep a positive attitude and really only want what is best for the horse and rider. I am so fortunate to have such incredible guides.”
Wynd believes in their methodology so much that she has graciously sponsored Jaimey with a 6-year-old Oldenburg mare, Rosche Flor, as a development horse. Known in the barn as Tessa, the mare is currently competing at Third Level. “They are extremely loyal and honest to their clients,” said Wynd. “I am impressed with how supportive all of the clients are of each other. It is a rare thing to have such a tight-knit group of people in such a competitive sport. I would love to compete in the Adult Amateur division in the CDI circuit. I know that this is possible with the Irwins and I’ll have lots of fun along the way.” Wynd finished at Intermediaire I with Winston before retiring him and is heading to Germany with the Irwins this spring to find her next mount.
Susan Jones, CEO and founder of a growth-acceleration firm, Seed Strategy, based in northern Kentucky, was first attracted to Jaimey’s riding when she watched him ride Lindor’s Finest, a Dutch Warmblood gelding, at Dressage at Devon in the fall of 2012. Lindor, owned by Tina’s parents, Ute and Dieter Busse, and Sally Carlton, had won many championships with Tina’s mom, Ute, until she handed over the reins to Jaimey.
In 2013, after representing Canada at the World Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden, Jaimey was selling Lindor as a schoolmaster. Jones flew to Canada to take a look at the gelding and meet the Irwins for the first time. She was taken with their hospitality, warmth and honesty and within a few months a new friendship formed. “Purchasing Lindor’s Finest and training with Jaimey and Tina turned out to be a good decision,” said Jones. “Everyone on Team Irwin welcomed me, and it is a big family. It is the nicest group of diverse people and the perfect place to learn. Tina and Jaimey are never too busy to give you a warm greeting. What they are doing is never more serious than noticing you.”
Jones says that while Jaimey pushes her beyond what she thinks is possible, it’s always fun. “Jaimey expects the best at all times so you push yourself to really become a serious international athlete in all that you do,” said Jones. “My riding has continued to progress. Beyond the super training, a good eye for high-caliber horses, excellent care of their mounts and incredible knowledge about the show ring, I like them as friends and partners. I feel they support and care for me.”
Jones is also co-owner with the Irwins of Fancy That, an 11-year-old Oldenburg mare who Tina plans to compete in the Grand Prix division.
A Journey for Everyone
Tina and Jaimey believe the success of their business comes from their enthusiasm and honesty. They also believe that it’s important to be ethical and create an environment where people want to be everyday and enjoy fulfilling their goals.
David Sonshine, 77, credits the Irwins for helping him discover his new-found love for the sport of dressage. A contender for the 1968 Canadian Olympic Eventing team, Sonshine grew frustrated by the politics that go along with the Olympic trials and walked away from riding all together. But years later, he decided to try again, which unfortunately resulted in an accident that left him with a broken pelvis. Full of pins and bolts, he did not want to let horses get the best of him. So at the age of 61, Sonshine was introduced to dressage by a friend and he eventually purchased a lovely 5-year-old Brazilian Lusitano stallion named Quarteto. While he swore to never compete again, Sonshine found his way to Tina and Jaimey and was once again bit by the competitive bug. In 2013, at the age of 73, he qualified for Devon on Quarteto.
“I respect Tina and Jaimey as people as well as their work ethic, which I have never experienced in any other barn,” said Sonshine. “They have a great degree of empathy as we are going through the learning curve. They have a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. When giving a lesson, they give 100 percent and expect the same in return. Although they are committed to a style, technique and philosophy, they have the ability to tailor their teaching to the individual student and horse. At all times they are very honest, so if you ask a question, you better be prepared for the answer.”
Alexandra Meghji started riding with the Irwins when she was 14 and has been winning championship medals in the Young Riders division. Now a freshman studying classical philosophy at King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Meghji spends her school breaks competing in Florida with the Irwins. “The past four years I spent training with Tina and Jaimey have been a privilege,” Meghji said. “Their lessons are challenging and their expectations are high, but in every lesson, I feel both Tina and Jaimey give 100-percent effort to help me improve. They approach the task of coaching with focus and integrity.”
The Irwins have matched Meghji with two horses, Iliado and Rigo, with whom she has achieved her goal of winning medals at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC). “They have fostered a supportive, fun and lively barn atmosphere. I’m grateful to be a member of Team Irwin.”
Emily Ferguson, a young rider who has been with the Irwins since 2015, believes the couple provides a good balance of relaxation and intensity. “Tina and Jaimey know when and how to push the horse in a constructive way and always end a lesson on a good note,” says Ferguson. “They have an incredible depth of knowledge and experience and are always cool, collected and have good energy. This creates such a uniquely positive and productive atmosphere in the barn, which fits my style very well and helps me do my best.”
Ferguson also noted the Irwins’ ability to precisely prepare a horse-and-rider combination for FEI-level competition. “They have the highest standards and pay attention to every last detail. After an injury to my own horse, Jaimey helped me look for a horse to lease for the season that would help me accomplish my goal of competing at the NAJYRC. With his expertise, we were able to find a perfect match, Wrazzmatazz, a 2003 KWPN gelding owned by Sara Hellner. During our partnership, we won the Canadian National FEI Youth Championships and earned the Young Rider team silver medal and Young Rider Freestyle bronze medal at the 2016 NAJYRC.”
Thankful for the Support
Tina and Jaimey juggle family life by finishing up at the barn by 5 or 6 o’clock in order to spend evenings as a family. Tina does most of the chauffeuring while Jaimey handles the business in the barn and travels for clinics. The couple is very grateful for the support they have received over the years.
Horgan and her husband, Michael, were their first big supporters and have been a huge influence on their careers. They also feel that the support of their parents has been the foundation of their success—the Irwins for allowing them to begin their dream at the resort and the Busses for many things, including giving Jaimey the ride on Lindor’s Finest.
One of the Irwins’ longest-standing friends and sponsors is the saddle maker, Schleese, owned by Jochen and Sabine Schleese. The Schleeses have known Tina’s parents since 1986, when Jochen was first asked to be the official saddler for the World Dressage Championships in Cedar Valley, Ontario. They have a close personal and professional relationship with the Busse family and have watched Tina, her sister Sarah and Jaimey grow up in the dressage world.
“Jaimey and Tina are true advocates for the health of their horses,” says Sabine. “The horses they train compete well into their late teens and early 20s because they have been ridden properly. Team Irwin has always made horse health and well-being a number-one priority. We pride ourselves on doing business ethically and honestly and appreciate working with people who show the same level of integrity in this industry.”
The Irwins continue to pursue their goals collectively. This season Jaimey is competing Donegal V, owned by the Team Irwin Supporters Group, while Tina rides Laurencio and Fancy That, working toward the 2018 World Equestrian Games and eventually the Olympics. In addition to their own competitive goals, the Irwins continue to develop strong relationships with their students, owners, sponsors and friends who are the heart of Team Irwin.