Horses for Everyone in Edmonton

A Public Treasure called Whitemud

By Tania Millen

It’s unusual for a horse facility to host public learn-to-ride programs, therapeutic riding programs, hunter-jumper shows and clinics, plus provide boarding services. Plunk that facility down on a historic site in the centre of a large Canadian city, surround it by three parks and multi-use trails for walkers, cyclists, cross-country skiers plus horses, and it’s hard to believe that such a magical place exists. But it does.

Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association (WELCA) is a not-for-profit organization which operates a horse facility in Edmonton that has been a landmark on Alberta’s equestrian scene since the 1950s.

Sheila Edmonds, a long-time volunteer and the unofficial historian at WELCA, explains. “In the living memory of Edmontonians, there have always been horses in the valley at Whitemud. The Keillor farm (where WELCA is located) is beautiful, visible, accessible proof that Edmonton preserves, protects, and enhances its precious river valley with unique programs so rare for a city. WELCA links urban and rural interests. It’s a place connecting us to our history and community today, just as it has for generations. The red barns, stone fences, log cabin, stone cottage, gracious old trees, treed hillsides, and horses are a big draw for Edmontonians and visitors alike.”

One hundred years ago, Dr. Frederick Anson Keillor purchased the land where WELCA now sits, and built the cabin that still stands today. Photo courtesy of WELCA.

The land was initially developed 100 years ago when returning war veteran Dr. Keillor built a cabin on his land along the North Saskatchewan River. That cabin and Keillor’s farmland still exist today, along with a brand new purpose-built $7.6 million horse facility. But the new facility is just part of the property’s fascinating 100-year history.

In 1918, World War I veteran Dr. Frederick Anton Keillor purchased 61 acres where WELCA now sits, and he built a cabin on the site from hand hewn lumber and river rock. By the late 1920s the farm and surrounding area had become a favourite recreation area for Edmontonians, and a ski club was operating nearby. Keillor subsequently donated land to the city for construction of a road and trail to allow better access to the ski club and river valley.

In the 1940s, the farm was in demand by developers, but philanthropically-minded Keiller insisted the property remain parkland, turning down all private offers in the hopes of making a deal with the recalcitrant city. Edmonds has researched the property’s history and says, “The City of Edmonton grew around Keillor’s farm. When oil was discovered, developers called him daily for nearly ten years to buy the farm.” She explains how Keillor said he was turning down a fortune to preserve the land for the people, and everything he built would last 90 years.  People began to write about him, and how his choices to share, preserve, and protect his riverside farm made a difference in their lives. 

In the 1950s, in an effort to pay hefty property taxes, Keillor unknowingly made a decision that now allows WELCA to operate one of the few horse facilities that is located in the centre of a Canadian city. He leased the property to a trio of horsemen - Bill Collins, Cliff Ross, and Leo Lemieux. They created Leecoll Stables and in 1958 moved a World War II era airplane hangar onto the site to act as an indoor arena – the same indoor arena that WELCA operated until it was demolished in 2017!

Leecoll Stables is a legend in Edmonton. The stables were involved in Canada’s first indoor rodeo in 1958 and the Rodeo of Champions in 1974. Bill Collins was the first cowboy to receive the Order of Canada - the next one would be Grant MacEwan, Dr. Keillor’s nephew, and a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta.

The original cabin built by Dr. Keillor of local wood and river rock. Over the fireplace mantle, he placed a heart-shaped stone. Photo courtesy of WELCA.

In the early 1970s, the City of Edmonton finally purchased the property and when the Leecoll lease expired, the city took over the equine operation, changing the name to Whitemud Riding Academy. In 1974, Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Association started offering therapeutic riding programming at the site.

Grant MacEwan Equine College operated at Whitemud from 1978 to 1981, and the kitchen of Dr. Keillor’s log cabin was the college office. When the equine college moved to Olds, two graduates of Grant MacEwan Equine College took over the operation and formed Whitemud Equine Centre. In 1985, Friends of Whitemud Equine Centre formed, then amalgamated with Whitemud Equine Centre Association in 2006 to become WELCA.

Diane David has been the Executive Director of WELCA for about 30 years, and is one of many whose passionate commitment ensures the facility’s success. She explains what WELCA is all about. “WELCA is really unique. We’re running grassroots community horse programming in the middle of an urban setting where 95 percent of our students don’t own a horse and 35 percent have special needs.”

WELCA runs 40-week horsemanship programs where students ride once per week and progress through the Equestrian Canada rider levels, plus there are shorter eight-week Learn-to-Ride programs for ages four to adult. David says, “We get a lot of adults who are coming back to riding – who stopped riding in their teens but are coming back to it. In summer, we hold kids camps, plus we do field trips and tours for schools and community organizations. We even have schools who are interested in providing riding as a unit in their physical education program.”

WELCA also offers limited boarding for 25 horses onsite. Plus there is 15 acres worth of show grounds that operate from May to October. The grounds include a grand prix grass ring plus three sand rings, outdoor stabling and a show office. David says, “Edmonton Classic Horse Show runs in May, then we run Pony Club shows, some Wild Rose competitions, plus a couple of big dog shows.”

Mark Laskin, who rode at Whitemud years ago, returned in December 2017 to conduct a jumping clinic in the new indoor arena. Laskin is currently the chef d’équipe for the Canadian Show Jumping Team. Photo courtesy of WELCA

But WELCA is also home to Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Association. Linda Rault is the Riding Program Administrator for Little Bits, and says that all riders in the program are subsidized through in-house fundraising efforts, partnerships with other fundraisers, and public donations. She says, “We always have certified staff on hand, plus one to three certified volunteers per rider, as well. There’s clearly a need for a full-time program – where we could program Monday to Friday during the day and maybe into the evening. But we have to be really fiscally aware of our growth, so our fundraising keeps up with our riders.”

Rault continues, “The people of Edmonton and the surrounding area have been phenomenally supportive of this program. We couldn’t do it without them. If you don’t have volunteers, you don’t have a program.”

Joanne Billington is a certified therapeutic riding instructor and has worked at Little Bits for 30 years. She says, “We’ve got 115 riders that ride with us year-round, right now. But… it’s about a two-year wait to get into the program and we don’t advertise. People hear about us through word of mouth.”

Billington says it’s satisfying to see riders grow and develop over the years. “I’ve seen a lot of riders that started when they were five years old, and now they’re in their early 20s and still riding. We have riders that have been with us for 25 years or more.” But Billington also stays because of the people. “Everybody that’s involved with Little Bits is amazing. We have volunteers who have been here for over 20 years. It’s a family.”

Little Bits and WELCA have a very close relationship. Rault explains, “We lease the horses and the facility from WELCA. We don’t own any horses. It’s a wonderful location, accessible to everybody. We work closely with WELCA to ensure we have the horses we need. They have to have such broad minds, these horses. They have to figure out who they’re listening to, and be calm. There’s as close to bombproof as you can get.”

Whitemud sits in the heart of Edmonton, in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, as shown in this photo from 2007. Photo courtesy of WELCA

You’d think that operating such a complex array of programs would require a massive facility with extensive staff, but WELCA does all this on a compact 48 acre property with only ten full-time staff and a robust group of 400 volunteers.

Jean Smith has been an integral part of WELCA since the 1980s. She says, “I started riding at the Whitemud Equine Centre in 1986 after helping out with my son’s grade four school field trip there. Being a life-long lover of animals, particularly horses, I felt the time was right to begin my own formal lessons. My weekly lesson led to a long-term lease on a Quarter Horse that I eventually purchased. I was also volunteering any way I could.”

But volunteering wasn’t always easy. Smith continues. “Unfortunately, the facility was very old and run down, and it was impossible to keep up with repairs. Soon the rumour was flying that it would all be torn down and turned into park land. All of us who loved the facility were heartbroken and started a campaign to keep the horses in the river valley. In 1999, an auction was held to sell off all the horses and equipment.” Fortunately, Smith explained, Friends of Whitemud Equine Centre managed to secure the lease on the land and bought enough horses and saddles, bridles, and other equipment at the auction to run the programs. She says, “Hundreds of hours were spent by volunteers repairing the barns and arena so we could keep operational.”

Diane David continues. “Almost as soon as WELCA took over the facility in 1999, we recognized that the arena, attached barn, and ATCO trailers that housed the administration were past their lifecycle. From 1999 until 2011, we bandaged and made-do as much as we could. We have a lease with the City of Edmonton for the land so we kept talking to the city about needing to replace the buildings. But as a not-for-profit made up mostly of volunteers and horse people, it was almost overwhelming.”

The horses, riders, and volunteers alike love the new arena and new barn. Photos: Marielle Lam

Raising funds to build a new facility or at least upgrade the old one were front of mind for WELCA’s Board of Directors when Canadian Horse Journal visited the site in 2007. The article Building a Dream: Edmonton’s Whitemud Equine Centre describes an exceptionally rundown facility with a dark uninsulated indoor arena, roads and paddocks that were a muddy morass, and no plumbed washrooms.

David remembers that the buildings were beyond the end of their useful life and the future of the facility seemed bleak. However, with an enormous cadre of caring and committed volunteers, the facility kept operating – through freezing winters and sweltering summers – as plans slowly ground along to revitalize the place.

WELCA’s staff, volunteers, and partners certainly travelled a long and winding road before attaining the necessary funding for the new facility. It’s taken ten long years for their dreams and schemes to finally come to fruition.

In 2011, WELCA approached the city for funding for a replacement building, with the idea that the federal and provincial governments might also provide funding. The city agreed, but when the economy tanked, there was no government money available and WELCA was out of luck. Two years later the city conducted structural assessments and became concerned that the facility was unsafe. So WELCA and the city agreed to replace the building using $5.1 million in city funds plus money that WELCA had fundraised, and a social enterprise-funded loan. The City of Edmonton subsequently took over project management, while Dub Architects and Atkinson Construction were hired to design and demolish the old building, plus build a new facility.

Since 1975, Whitemud has been home to Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Association, which serves Edmonton and surrounding area. Photo: Marielle Lam

“We’re so grateful to the City for stepping in like they did, and recognizing that WELCA brings something unique to the city,” David enthuses. WELCA was also fortunate to connect with Edmonton’s Social Enterprise Fund, which provided debt financing. David continues, “We pay a mortgage now, at a rate that we can afford. It’s a wonderful organization and a really good fit for us.”

Smith explains how necessary the new facility was. “In May 2016, after many years of planning and fundraising, we were ready to break ground on our new facility - and none too soon, either!  For the last few years it had been a challenge to keep a roof over our heads, literally. We were operating out of a building that was so rotten and moldy it was an embarrassment and yet the riders and volunteers kept coming. We had no indoor washrooms and handicap access was minimal at best. There was no insulation in the arena and any heat we managed to generate quickly dissipated. The frost on the inside of the tin roof would build up inches thick in winter and then rain down on us when the sun shone and the temperature warmed up. The footing was very low tech and terribly dusty, and needed constant watering. Barn staff and management worked under incredibly hard conditions to keep us all safe and we are very grateful to them all.”

In July 2017, WELCA received access to the new building and started hand-walking the lesson herd over to get them used to all the new sights and smells. Smith reports, “It was a very exciting and yet a surprisingly calm time, and our wonderful, steady horses took it in their stride. We were so proud of them!  All of us were in awe of the light, bright, airy new arena. What a sharp contrast to the old barn and arena. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.”

WELCA’s grassroots programs provide access and safe learning experiences to children and adults, 95 percent of whom don’t own a horse. Photo courtesy of WELCA

Smith continues, “Within two weeks Little Bits was able to hold their one-week summer riding camp in a clean, handicap-accessible arena. It was so nice to be able to use the washroom without having to cross the yard, and we couldn’t believe there were water fountains! We no longer have to wash our faces after riding as the footing is a waxed sand-and-fibre material that needs very little grooming and no watering.”

Billington agrees. “The horses have been amazing coming in here. It’s a huge arena compared with the old arena. There’s nothing lurking in the corners. It’s nice – clean, no mold, no dust. The footing is great and acoustics are amazing.”

But Smith explains that moving into the new arena was a difficult time, too. “The old facility was torn down quickly after we moved, and it was very sad to see it come down. Watching the wrecking crew move in, didn’t seem like a very dignified end to a building that had served us for so long. It was a very emotional day for a lot of us.”

However, the new facility is definitely a marvel. It includes a bright climate-controlled indoor arena that is 40 percent larger than the old one and has TravelRight™ footing – a dust-free surface that simulates turf and is used by high end stables. The new barn area has 12 tie-stalls for teaching students how to groom, tack up, and care for horses, plus indoor plumbing, washrooms, tack rooms, and meeting areas. The facility is fully accessible to people of all abilities and provides a safe, inclusive place for anyone to learn about horses – even those who have never seen one before.

Smith says, “The horses love it! We've had lots of positive feedback from the community and get loads of visitors, many who have their own stories to tell about the old facility.”

Clean-up crew in action. Photo courtesy of WELCA

One of the site’s special attractions is Dr. Keillor’s cabin, and the hoof-shaped and heart-shaped rocks that are built into the 100-year-old fireplace. Although the cabin has been upgraded over the years – most notably in 2009 - the original structure is still intact and used for administration offices, providing a lovely historical connection to the site’s patron.

There’s no doubt that Whitemud is an important part of Canada’s horse industry history. Many well-known Canadians have ridden horses here – not just Wayne Gretzky and Kurt Browning – but show jumping royalty like Ian Millar, Mark Laskin, and Gail Greenough. It was at Whitemud where Greenough qualified for the 1986 World Show Jumping Championships, which she subsequently won on Mr. T. Greenough became the first rider to win the Championships with zero faults, plus the first North American, first woman, and youngest person to ever win the prestigious title. Quite a feat for someone who learned some of her skills in a freezing cold World War II era airplane hangar.

This history doesn’t go unnoticed. Edmonds says, “We feel the spirit of these great horsemen and horsewomen. The wonder of WELCA is that such a unique place exists: visible, accessible, beautiful, and historic.” 

Smith agrees. “For me WELCA is a dream come true! It gives me a sense of purpose and fulfilment, and gives me a way to use my passion and skills to give back to the community. Over the years I have made many like-minded friends and have watched multitudes of students learn lifelong lessons of responsibility, compassion, and at times, humility.” Now in her mid-sixties and retired, Smith says, “I never had any doubt that WELCA would continue to exist in Edmonton’s river valley but I didn’t think I would be so old when it happened!”

“We have the best volunteers ever - they keep our lesson programs flowing smoothly, the horses are happy, and the barn is tidy!” Photo courtesy of WELCA.

With a new facility, strong partnerships between the City of Edmonton, WELCA and Little Bits, plus some innovative financing, this unique place will continue to serve the Alberta horse community for many years to come. Tens of thousands of cars pass WELCA every day, and many stop in. Edmonds says, “Visitors from around the world come in and say WELCA is the most amazing thing they’ve seen in a city, anywhere. Kids visit Dr. Keillor’s cabin, stand on the hoof-shaped stone on the hearth, and reach up to make a wish on the heart-shaped stone over the mantle, and ask, ‘Who owns this place?’ The answer is, ‘You do!’ This is a place we all own, this rural oasis. WELCA is our public treasure.” 

This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2018, a publication of Canadian Horse Journal. 

Main article photo: WELCA received access to their new facility in July 2017. “We thought we’d died and gone to heaven,” says volunteer Jean Smith. Photo: Ken Piper

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