By Jennifer Morrison
When you walk into Bryn and Carol Robertson's farm home in Hillsburgh, Ontario it is quickly evident how special horses have been in their lives. That is once you get past the menagerie of peacocks, goats, dogs, chickens and a talking parakeet all ready to greet visitors.
Photos, paintings, mementos, horseshoes, shiny belt buckles and trophies from their early days of riding and barrel racing adorn walls and shelves while a beautiful racing room back through the kitchen honours their current successes with racing Quarter Horses.
In particular there is a hefty trophy in the centre of the room from the American Quarter Horse Association for their homebred Had to Be Ivory, named Canadian Champion for the second year in succession at a ceremony in Oklahoma in January. Another special award is a plaque they received from the Town of Erin and Erin Agricultural society, a lifetime achievement award and induction into the Horse Heritage Hall of Fame.
Bryn and Carol Robertson
For 54 years the couple have lived at Hillerin Farm, a 150-acre farm originally bought by Carol's parents many years before for just $18,000. At one time a hobby farm for riding and barrel horses, the Robertson's small stable of Quarter Horses, also owned by their son Michael and daughter-in-law Jaime, is now one of the most successful in the country. Their now 5-year-old gelding Had to be Ivory was recently named 2019 Ontario Horse of the Year at Ajax Downs, while Eazy Street, an undefeated 2-year-old was the High Point juvenile colt, and Five Bar Fandango, the year's High Point 3-year-old filly.
Three Champions in 2019 from a grand total of five runners during the year.
“We've been blessed,” said Bryn. “Our whole family is the team behind or horses and it works out really well.”
Originally from Wales, Bryn was just 3-years-old when he arrived in Canada with his parents soon after his father fought in World War II.
“There were 1,800 people on a boat coming to Canada,” said Bryn. “The crazy thing is, we went over a mine in the ocean and it blew a hole in the boat and we had to go back to France for it to be patched up. It took two weeks to get to Canada.”
Bryn's parents had already been in Canada before the war and had a homestead in Alberta but the farm was taken away by the government because it had not been a working farm for five years while his father was in the war.
They made a base in Woodbridge where Bryn grew up and began a career in sales.
He was just a teenager when he met Carol, a horse-crazy girl from Islington who was riding horses before she was.
Bryn learned to ride through Carol and the pair immersed themselves in various events including barrels and pole bending, showing, and winning prizes across the province.
They joined many other horse owners and raced in quarter mile dashes for fun on farms north of Toronto including Circle M Ranch, owned by Al Greco.
Carol remembers riding in an all girls race, the Powder Puff Derby, on the makeshift quarter-mile track at Circle M.
“I was riding a Thoroughbred we had and we broke out of the gates well but then one of the other girls grabbed his bridle and ripped it off. So here I am just hanging on. We won the race but they were giving out prizes before I even got the horse back there.”
The Robertsons made a permanent move to racing Quarter Horses before the new millennium and raced their first horse under trainer Wayne Proctor at Picov Downs' J-track in 2000. Bryn watched and studied other trainers and achieved his own license in 2004.
Their purchase of an Oklahoma-bred filly, Had to Be Fandango, in 2009 changed their life. The large, brilliantly fast daughter of Hadtobenuts became a multiple stakes winner of $150,000 and played a role into luring Michael and Jaime into the business.
Michael, a farrier, not only shoes the horses but rides them in the farm's arena or on the track while Jaime is in charge of feeding and horse care. The Robertsons also have two daughters, Kim and Jodi plus grandchildren, all of whom spend time with horses.
In 2010, along came One Famous Glass, a $10,000 purchase from Oklahoma who was named 2013 Horse of the Year by the Quarter Racing Owners of Ontario. 'Eagle' raced successfully until he was eight-years-old in 2018 and earned over $250,000. He is retired at Hillerin Farm.
Had to Be Ivory - John Watkins photo
Meanwhile Had to Be Fandango produced her first foal for the Robertsons in 2015, a tall, blaze faced son of Ivory James, who became their star runner Had to Be Ivory. A stakes winner at 2, 3 and 4, 'Ivory' has won 11 of 14 races and over $162,000. He is set to return to racing in 2020.
Had to be Fandango, also the dam of Five Bar Fandango, has a huge 2-year-old in training at the farm, Had to Be Relentless and she is in foal again to Ivory James.
The 2020 racing team for the Roberson family looks just as potent as previous years (they have won 52 races in the last four years combined), success they credit to keeping the horse numbers down, feeding them a lot and giving them plenty of outdoor time.
Bryn says they don't take anything for granted when it comes to their farm. “We love the horses, it's our life, our family's life and we've been lucky.”
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