Jill Henselwood and her groom are having a testy moment with George. One is trying to hold him steady while the other is putting on his pad and saddle. George is not big on standing still. He’d rather be on the go, jumping over things.
This, Henselwood explained later, is her horse at his perplexing best – full of energy and athleticism yet young and inexperienced. It’s a theme that runs through the ranks of Canada’s top show jumpers as they wait to see which horse-rider combinations are chosen for the London Summer Olympics.
Henselwood, Mac Cone, Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze won a silver medal in the team event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lamaze won individual gold aboard his top steed, Hickstead. But Hickstead’s death from an aortic rupture last November has forced Lamaze to rush his replacements – Verdi, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, and Derly Chin de Muze, a nine-year-old Belgian Warmblood.
Lamaze is expected to work both horses at this week’s National at Spruce Meadows and be named to the Canadian 2012 Olympic team officially on July 5. (Four riders and an alternate will be picked.)
Joining Lamaze will be Millar, a nine-time Olympian currently training in Europe, and most likely Henselwood, a gifted rider from Oxford Mills, Ont., who has competed in a wealth of international events.
As she prepared for Saturday’s $200,000 CN Reliability Grand Prix, Henselwood spoke of how the Canadian team will have changed from Beijing to London.
“The year before Beijing, we had Hickstead,” Henselwood said. “We had Ian Millar with In Style. I had Special Ed and he’d won gold at the  Pan American Games. Those horses were 12, 13, 14 years old. It’ll be different this time. It’s like we’ve started over again and recruited new players.”
Henselwood’s horse is a prime recruit. A 10-year-old chestnut Hanoverian, George is clearly on the rise and viewed as one of the best young show jumpers in the game.
“He’s like Superman – able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” Henselwood said. “He just has to behave. He can’t throw me off before the clock starts ticking. He has a lot of Games in him. We wonder if this is the first big Games.”
The selection for the 2012 Olympics is being done by what the riders have called “an observational process.”
A five-member selection committee was chosen by the riders and is headed by Torchy Millar, the former Olympic equestrian who now serves as the chef d’équipe for Canada. The committee has been watching the various riders this season, particularly Cone, Tiffany Foster, Yann Candele and Jonathan Asselin, the alternate in Beijing. This month’s Continental Cup at Spruce Meadows will be the last chance to impress.
After that, the committee will decide who heads to London and will submit their names to the Canadian Olympic Committee for approval.
“There are probably 10 horses in this country that can make the [oversize] jumps at an Olympic Games,” said Bob Henselwood, Jill’s coach and trainer. “Some will have soreness or age problems. So there are probably six, seven horses. That’s why it’s being done by observation.”
Jill Henselwood has no problems with that. Her plan is to leap high and mighty with George this weekend and let the horse chips fall where they may.
“Ian has his horse, Star Power [a 10-year-old Dutch gelding], Eric is deciding on his,” she said. “George has the bloodlines. We’re talking about recruiting players with good pedigrees. This horse has that.
“We have to put the best results on the board to make them have to take us.”