“He has a vocabulary - he understands a lot more words than I think we ever realized,” said Christine Bilyea as we stood in the barn watching her daughter Aubrianna (Aubri) fawn over a chestnut thoroughbred by the name of Finn.
Standing quietly in the aisle, Finn eyeballs Aubri’s water bottle before sauntering over to my audio recorder. He catches my gaze as if to say ‘I’m ready,’ and continues to stand up close and personal while his family answers questions about (and for) him.
Known as Zalema on the racetrack, the chestnut thoroughbred is by Peaks and Valleys, a multiple graded stakes winner in the mid 90s. Some of his big wins include the Illinois Derby (’95) at Sportman’s and the Molson Export Million Stakes (’95) at Woodbine racetrack. Unfortunately, this son of his wasn’t yearning to be a racehorse. He began his career in November 2002 at Woodbine and ran his last race at Fort Erie in August 2004. He raced a total of sixteen times with one win, one second and a couple of third place finishes.
The chestnut gelding was lucky enough to find a home with Julie Morris after he retired from racing. A project horse for Morris, Zalema was schooled and trained into a second career as a hunter jumper. She worked with him for a year and then leased him out for a couple of years while she worked on another project horse. According to the Bilyeas, the chestnut gelding had done a few schooling shows and was being jumped by several different riders before Aubri and Zalema crossed paths.
It was in 2009 that the Bilyeas first met the former racehorse. “My mom actually found him. He was a free lease that we found online and we had been trying a couple of different horses.” Aubri who was sixteen at the time had part boarded an OTTB two years prior to meeting Zalema or Flip as he was known to Morris. “She actually called him Flip because he flipped over a fence when she first got him. We thought the name could be bad luck and Aubri liked Huckleberry Finn…” said Christine as we chatted about the chestnut’s change of name when they began working with him.
Although Aubri had been trying other horses her mom had a good feeling about the chestnut from the very start. “The minute she got on him he relaxed, he put his head down and it was just a nice easy lopping gate and everything, and as a physiotherapist I went ‘okay, that’s the horse.’
Showing Finn in the 2’6 and in the Children’s division (3’ ft) on the trillium circuit, Aubri soon found herself falling in love with the chestnut. “After having him for a year he was already kind of part of the family. I think more than anything it was his personality, because a lot of horses you could lease and they could take you over a course of 2’6 jumps and ribbons but with us it was the personality - he’s like a big pet.”
Finn officially became a Bilyea in 2010. They boarded him at a barn in Stouffville for a couple of years before moving him to Tartan Mews Equestrian.
Working with him at Tartan over the last several years the two ladies continue to watch him grow and love all his little quirks. “He is funny, he will be going around totally normal and everything and if one thing happens in the woods that he can see (like) there’s a horse in the woods, it’s like everything stops and he has to make sure everything is okay. He is very smart and he notices everything. So if I don’t notice something and we are walking out in the woods he will see it and he will let us know.”
Building a trusting relationship with her thoroughbred Aubri has worked with several coaches over the years to fine tune Finn’s training.
“We had a number of coaches. It was kind of at the right time at the right place the coach was great and then I found as we were growing and as my interest changed maybe I had to grow and take a new coach, or I had to take a step back and take a couple days off from riding or figure out a new approach to things.”
Aubri looks over at her mom and smiles. “Even between the two of us we’ve had differences of opinions over the years about riding and about what equipment we use on him and stuff like that. So I think that’s been sort of the big thing as we progress and transition – who are the best people to have around him, and where’s he going to get the best care and then how to ride to get what I want.”
Being a seasoned rider she understands the challenges that come with training a horse for a different discipline and knows the growing pains both her and Finn have had is all part of the process. When Aubri started university they transitioned Finn from the hunter to jumper ring for a year or two.
Now fifteen, the spry chestnut gelding has been enjoying life outside the show ring while Aubri finishes up her *university degree. “I’m not showing him as much because I’m away at school but he’s enjoyed slowing down a bit and then he works for the summer.”
Spoiled for attention by his two leading ladies, the chestnut gelding gives me another look as if to say “Where’s my treat?!” before resuming his quiet stance. “Probably his favourite thing is once a year we bring him a candy apple from the Royal Winter Fair,” admitted Aubri when I asked about his sweet tooth.
Looking back over the last six years together I ask Aubri what her biggest achievement with Finn has been. “I think its that he’s progressing into a horse that not only I can get on and jump and walk around…but other people can start to get on as well. He’s learning to take on that role of teacher instead of us just learning together all the time.”
Realizing how patient Finn has been the whole time I quickly ask Aubri my last question so the two can head to the wash stall for his bath time.
What do you love about him?
She doesn’t respond immediately but instead looks over at her mom.
“Don’t make me cry,” laughed Christine as she looked back at her daughter with tears in her eyes.
Aubri gazes over at Finn before turning to me.
*Aubri has since graduated from university and is now enjoying some fun in the sun with Mr.Finn