Photo: Cealy Tetley 2023

Mike Winter, a member of the Canadian Eventing Team and a world-class equestrian athlete, doesn’t want to talk about his success.

Despite running a successful equestrian business in England and extensive competition experience, Mike would rather focus on the bigger picture — his passion for making the Canadian Eventing High Performance Program the best it can be.

As a proud member of the Team Canada’s Eventing High Performance Advisory Group (HPAG), Mike has helped revitalize the program, emphasizing transparency, communication, and professionalism. With a clear vision in mind, Mike is passionate about propelling Canada to the top of the world in equestrian sport.

Mike is also a fierce competitor, with his current focus firmly set on July 2024 as he prepares for the Paris Olympics alongside his equine partner, El Mundo (a.k.a. Roberto), a 15-year-old Dutch-bred (KWPN) gelding co-owned by Mike, Emma Winter (his wife) and Jonathan Nelson.

An Olympic Veteran With a Global Perspective

mike-winter-2023 | Mad Barn USAPhoto: Cealy Tetley 2023

Mike has been a stalwart of Canada’s national equestrian team for over 20 years, representing the nation at multiple Pan American Games and an FEI World Championship.

If Mike is selected to represent Canada in Paris, this will be his third Olympic games. What’s more, the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris holds special meaning for Mike. It will also be the first Olympics under Canada’s newly designed Eventing High Performance (HP) program, and a chance for Mike to shape the future of equestrian sport in Canada.

While Winter remains focused on his competitive goals in 2024, he is quick to bring things back to the big picture.

In speaking to Mike, it becomes instantly apparent that his passion for horses runs much deeper than just sport. Mike is a vocal advocate for horse welfare, and for the importance of social license in all equestrian sport.

“I see Eventing as a small part of a global picture. I want the sport to survive, and thrive. I recognize that across all disciplines there is a need for evolved and improved practices related to equine well-being including appropriate medical intervention, retirement planning for competition horses, and taking steps to minimize the environmental impact of equestrian sport.”

With a tenure of over four decades in the Eventing world, Mike has a deep appreciation for the sport, but also for horses in general. This passion is a thread woven through every fiber of his reflections and provides a rare and unique perspective in the horse industry.

A Canadian Eventer Influenced by Experience Overseas

Mike’s decision to move to England with his family many years ago gives him a unique and robust perspective of how Eventing programs are managed throughout the world.

For example, North American programs tend to develop top-level teams by competing primarily within their own country, which means these athletes get less exposure to competitors from around the world.

In contrast, during Eventing Season in England, competitions happen almost every day of the week, the divisions are large, and athletes compete with riders from all over Europe and Asia.

Across the ocean there is a different, perhaps humbler, mindset to Eventing. Mike, being immersed in these strategies and contexts, recognizes how this has worked for HP programs in Britain and Europe.

As a result, he joined the Canadian HP Advisory Group in 2019 with a clear mission: to help build a Canadian team with quality riders and horses that are supported by experts; one that values a culture of effective communication and leadership, synergy, and staying power.

“After the High Performance team disbanded in 2019, there was a need to rebuild and repopulate high performance and develop a program that we’ve never had before in Canada,” Winter says.

“Living in England, I was seeing pathway programs work over here, some of which my daughter [Amelia] was involved in. Even the lower tiered squad programs were far more comprehensive and effective than what we have ever had in Canada. There was an opportunity to make that shift towards a more globally competitive, viable, and fully comprehensive program with a fundraising strategy, a scientific approach, effective coaching, and a strong analytical component.”

A World of Lessons Provides Actionable Insight

Mike is closely involved in helping build high-performance programs for Canada that consider all aspects of the sport — the business, the exercise and nutrition science, and the importance of building and supporting a team mindset.

As Mike puts it, “All aspects, from the selection of the athletes and other supporting roles, to what each role looks like, are vital to the success of the program. It’s a total culture shift with a philosophy that an all-star team is better than a team of all stars.”

Mike emphasizes the importance of sustainability to the program, something that’s been overlooked in the past. He advocates for a model that can weather unforeseen change while propelling the team to further greatness.

As such, the Eventing High Performance Advisory Group supports a program with clear job descriptions, enabling each member to execute their role effectively. Moreover, the new HP program provides a clear framework for procedures, providing the team with confidence in decision making.

This improved team structure also helps prevent operational delays. As Mike explains: “If any team member in any position has to change roles or leave the team, we want to be sure it’s not a total rebuilding from the ground up. Instead, the mechanisms stay the same to keep us moving forward.”

In addition, there is a strong emphasis on ensuring communication among team members and support staff is honed and effective — particularly throughout the year when everyone is situated in various parts of the world, competing in different events, and developing their individual pathways.

All aspects, from the selection of the athletes and other supporting roles, to what each role looks like, are vital to the success of the program. It’s a total culture shift with a philosophy that an all-star team is better than a team of all stars.
- Mike Winter, Team Canada Eventing Athlete

Mike is well aware of the challenges in coordinating a global team. As he rightly points out, “Communicating with each other all year long is critical to ensure we are all working toward the same thing: that we are all elevating our training pathways to align with a competitive team trajectory.”

A Team Mindset in an Individual Sport

One of the main pillars of the new HP program’s ethos is to foster a sense of altruism and humility with the team — a balance between confidence while staying open to improvement and harnessing marginal gains.

“As individuals, and as a team, we must keep our focus on being detail-oriented; continually looking for ways to mitigate any potential dangers to our competitive strategies and results. It’s the constant attention to detail that really matters,” Winter explains.

With the new mindset, focus, and assemblage of key players, the Eventing HP program is proving itself as a force to be reckoned with. The 2022 World Championships in Pratoni, Italy gave the team and the HP leaders an opportunity to build their new strategies and gain constructive insights.

When it came time to compete at the 2023 Pan American (Pan Am) games in Santiago, Chile, the team had an exciting and impressive team gold medal win, demonstrating a positive trajectory thanks to the new HP program.

“We learned a lot about leadership structure [last year] that was highly effective,” Mike says. “At the Pan Ams, we stayed together as athletes—sharing accommodations in the athletes’ village, eating breakfast together every day, and most lunches and dinners. We even travelled on the shuttle together. The old way would have been that all the athletes would stick to their own support groups and then come together to compete. It was an individualistic mindset. This time, everyone knew what they were supposed to do, it was communicated well, everyone understood what role they played, and it felt seamless.”

mike-and-antonio | Mad Barn USAPhoto: Cealy Tetley 2023

Mike takes the time to express his appreciation and respect for the contribution of all support members, including (but not limited to) the team’s farrier (Andy Vergut), physiotherapist (Antonio Inghelleri), and veterinarian (Dr. Al Manning).

Winter also acknowledges perhaps the most pivotal new leaders of the HP program: Rebecca Howard, the Technical Advisor and Chef D’Équipe; and Emily Gilbert, PhD, the Chair of the High Performance Advisory Group, manager at major games, and the team’s science expert.

As Winter puts it, “Rebecca and Emily are doing their roles in such highly functional ways that I know I can concentrate on my job. That is how we’ve evolved from the World Championships to the Pan Ams. It finally feels like we have an effective system and proof we can be a competitive team. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but this is how we build on success.”

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The Science of Excellence

The addition of nutritional expertise and collaboration from Mad Barn, along with heart rate monitor (HRM) data analysis has greatly enhanced the team’s competitive strategy. As a champion of a science-backed approach to training and management, Mike speaks enthusiastically about how Mad Barn’s team of experts has helped with everything from balancing diets to educating athletes on equine physiology.

Mike has certainly seen the benefits of additional data in his training. “The infusion of science to optimize our horses’ strength, conditioning, and well-being is all having an impact. The partnership with Mad Barn has provided knowledge and insight into our horses’ nutrition and health management, ensuring we aren’t missing anything; it’s been very advantageous and effective,” he says.

Moreover, the HRM data, as it’s been with all the Eventing HP athletes, has been a game-changer in Mike’s training program. “My goal last year was to maximize where I was doing my fitness work, such as utilizing hill work more often. I was using the HRM data to effectively assess my horses’ fitness capabilities and how they were progressing.”

The partnership with Mad Barn has provided knowledge and insight into our horses’ nutrition and health management, ensuring we aren’t missing anything; it’s been very advantageous and effective.
- Mike Winter, Team Canada Eventing Athlete

When Mike started with the heart rate monitor last year, the data from the monitors allowed him (and his coaches) to really understand how galloping in particular was attaining the best hard exercise zone (anaerobic zone), ensuring he was investing time and effort in the right areas of training to avoid injury and overtraining.

“This season I’m using the HRM a little differently — this year it’s to help with assessing speed. The HRM tracks the speed the horse is traveling at relative to heart rate so that data is really effective at matching feel with fact,” Winter explains.

Mike can compare his training times with how he performs during competitions. In other words, is he going as fast as he thinks?

“I can collect data on my horses’ stride length, speed, stride irregularity, heart rate, elevation, and it’s also a GPS tracker. We are using a few different models within the team. I’ve been working closely with Dr. Cris Navis de Solis who has been giving me feedback on what he sees in real time and once I synchronize the HRM with the app, we get feedback immediately. The HRM data is bridging the gap between feel and science; the data substantiates our feelings.”

Looking Ahead: Paris 2024

Mike’s skill, determination and professionalism have brought him to the world stage competing among the best in Eventing at two Olympics already: Athens, Greece in 2004 and Beijing, China in 2008.

“The first time I was a bit naive, in fact, I was overwhelmed by the moment, being my first time representing Canada at the Olympics,” Mike recalls. “But as time goes on, I have some new perspectives. I am enthusiastic about helping the HP program thrive. My family, my riding, my horses—and, of course, my tractor (which I’m sitting in as we speak)—these are what are most important to me.”

Mike runs his equestrian business Wayfarer Eventing, in Gloucestershire, England, with his wife, Emma, and their daughters, Amelia and Lilly. His other daughter, Cassie, who lives in Toronto, ON, Canada, “Is too far from me unfortunately.”

mike-and-el-mundo-2023 | Mad Barn USAPhoto: Cealy Tetley 2023

Lilly competes in Dressage, while Amelia, a passionate Eventer, is a major source of inspiration for Mike. According to Mike, “[Amelia] is who motivates me to stay competitive and she pushes me to stay in the game.”

“I would love to compete in this year’s Olympics of course, and maybe one more. I have a good group of horses right now with a very promising horse, Happy Time [co-owned by the Winters alongside Hazel and Josh Thompson]. I competed him in eight events last year and won five of them — one of them was the British 5-year-old National Championships. He came in second in two of the competitions and forth in another. That’s really impressive for a young horse. I am really excited about his potential.”

Mike’s mount for the Olympics is El Mundo — his strong and steadfast partner. Says Mike, “He has a lot of action to his gallop and a big stride. That’s why the HRM data is so great; my perception is that I’m going faster than what the HR data is indicating. Rebecca, in particular, loves to point this out to me.”

With no plan to slow down anytime soon, Mike’s mission is to ensure that he can leave the Canadian team with a positive trajectory and forward momentum, feeling proud of the program and to, “know I was part of building a sustainable program that is fully comprehensive and delivers world-class athletes and horses; a program that continues to live by our ethos that an all-star team is better than a team of all stars.”