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Willem Hellema and his horse, Morris (TRACY HANES)
Willem Hellema and his horse, Morris (TRACY HANES)

the splurge

Chocolatier spends $45,000 a year on a horse he doesn't ride Add to ...

This continues our series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences – purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

Willem Hellema’s favourite horsepower is sleek and black, with four on the floor. The apple of his eye, however, is not a fancy sports car but his Friesian stallion, Morris.

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When he’s not at Williams Chocolate Ltd., the European fine chocolate factory that he and his wife, Anneke, own in Whitby, Ont., he can often be found at various riding stables watching his horse train, or railside at a horse show watching Morris compete.

Mr. Hellema doesn’t ride and never has. His pleasure comes from seeing his black stallion in action, and he’s philosophical about the costs of maintaining a high-level show horse, which run about $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

“You don’t do it for the money. This is the only hobby I’ve got, and you’ve got to waste your money on something,” he says.

During a recent training session, Mr. Hellema sat in a viewing room overlooking the indoor arena as Morris’s rider and trainer, Karin Davis, put the horse through his paces. Perched forward in his chair, Mr. Hellema’s eyes followed the animal’s every move as he answered an interviewer’s questions.

Mr. Hellema worked as a pastry chef in his native Holland, where he learned the art of chocolate making. He and his wife came to Canada in 1983, believing there would be opportunity in the food industry.

Two years later, they opened their chocolate business, which now has five full-time employees and produces chocolates for consumers, wedding planners and corporate clients. Specialty items include sugar-free chocolate, chocolate-covered ginger and orange peel and novelty chocolates shaped like things such as cars, instruments, shoes and horses, of course.

Mr. Hellema, 56, admits that he had no great passion for horses, even though his daughter, Angela, became a rider. He had one stipulation if he bought her a horse: It had to be a Friesian, a breed that originated in Friesland in the Netherlands. The black horses with the flowing manes, silky leg hair and high knee action carried knights into battle, pulled royal coaches, performed in circuses and worked as light draft horses.

In 2005, Mr. Hellema bought a Friesian gelding for his daughter and a mare to keep it company, at $15,000 apiece. The herd expanded to three after the mare had a foal. While Mr. Hellema was learning more about the Friesian breed and became a member of the Ontario Friesian Horse Association, the animals remained largely his daughter’s interest.

“Although I didn’t dream of horses or ride horses, I had seen Friesian horses all around where I lived,” he says. It gave him nostalgic pleasure to watch the three horses living at his hobby farm gallop across a field.

In 2008, Mr. Hellema went to watch a ‘keuring,’ or annual judging, for Friesians in Paris, Ont., where judges from the Netherlands scored the horses on conformation and movement and deemed whether they rated as riding or driving horses. A young stallion caught his eye and he spontaneously decided to buy him.

“I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with a young stallion?’ But my gut said otherwise,” recalls Mr. Hellema, who paid $20,000 for Morris.

“My daughter wasn’t riding anymore, but I went with my gut feeling. This one was for me.”

It didn’t matter that Mr. Hellema, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, didn’t ride himself, could barely tell one gait from another, or that the young stallion “failed miserably” at the keuring, earning the lowest score in North America, with 66; it needed 77 to pass the suitability test. Mr. Hellema was convinced that, with proper training, the horse could become a star.

Mr. Hellema asked Karin Davis, a top dressage rider in her native Australia before moving to Canada eight years ago, to train and ride Morris. Ms. Davis, who owns Mighty Heights Equestrian Centre in Janetville, Ont., had been the riding coach for Mr. Hellema’s daughter.

“This horse is going to change my life,” Mr. Hellema told her. “There was something about him that caught my eye.”

Dressage, an Olympic equestrian discipline, is often called “horse ballet” as horse and rider perform predetermined movements requiring rhythm and balance. The movements become increasingly difficult and spectacular as horses advance through levels of competition. Grand prix is the highest level.

Initially, Morris offered only the slightest promise that he could become the champion that Mr. Hellema envisioned. But after a year with Ms. Davis, Mr. Hellema returned Morris to the keuring and took great satisfaction when the stallion earned the highest score in North America (84) in the suitability test and was rated “ster,” a designation for horses considered superlative examples of the breed.

After that victory, Mr. Hellema admits “you get pulled into it” and he wanted to see what else his horse could achieve.

Morris has demonstrated “a freakish ability,” according to Ms. Davis, and at age nine is performing movements well beyond what most dressage horses his age are capable of. Mr. Hellema has been on a steep learning curve too, learning about the intricacies of dressage.

Friesians are a rarity in the dressage world, especially at the high levels as they were bred more as harness horses.

The $40,000 to $45,000 a year to care for and show Morris includes board, regular lessons with a coach and clinics with top international riders, show fees and veterinary costs as well as expenses such as having the horse’s hooves reshod with metal shoes every six weeks at $200 a pop, and acupuncture and chiropractic treatments every four to six weeks at $125 each. To ride the horse, Ms. Davis uses a $2,500 saddle, the animal’s bits (the metal pieces that go in his mouth) cost $200 and the jewelled browband on the horse’s bridle was $250.

This year, Morris will compete at eight shows, which cost about $1,000 each, not including trailering costs, hotel accommodations or food. The three horses kept at Mr. Hellema’s home are a bargain by comparison, costing about $2,000 total a year. Hay is grown on the family farm, which cuts costs considerably and, since they aren’t competition horses, their other costs are minimal.

“There is some small prize money, enough to get yourself a coffee or two,” says Mr. Hellema, who is a relentless “scoreboard stalker” at shows, according to Ms. Davis, constantly checking to see Morris’s scores.

While the monetary rewards are small, Mr. Hellema says the pride that he derives from having a horse native to his homeland excelling in a discipline where Friesians typically haven’t is priceless. Morris, with his glossy black coat, luxuriant tail and elegant presence, tends to draws attention wherever he goes, as does Mr. Hellema as the horse’s owner.

“The biggest thrill is to see the pleasure other people get out of watching him,” he says. “Morris is the best ambassador for the Dutch province of Friesland.”

After moving through the five national levels, Morris has been earning good scores at Prix St. Georges Level Dressage, the introductory level to international competition, holding his own against European warmblood horses that are the typical international level breeds and cost upwards of $100,000 apiece. Morris will progress through “Intermediare I and II” before aiming to reach the ultimate, Grand Prix. Though the horse is a stallion, there are no plans to breed him but to concentrate on his performance career.

At this point, Mr. Hellema refuses to speculate about Morris’s chances as a future Olympic candidate, but there is a slight smile on his lips when the subject is broached.

“I want to see him keep progressing,” he says. “He was a diamond in the rough when I first saw him. He just needed polishing.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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