Pia Fortmuller grew up with horses, leading to a successful career as a dressage rider in Europe. Her career came to a sudden halt with the death of her longtime horse, Orion.
But she has come back to Canada, where she has established the Orion Cup in memory of Orion, and is continuing to compete.
That interest in equestrian competition, especially dressage —- a discipline based on a series of predetermined movements that are judged on the precision with which they are performed —- began with her family.
“My mom, she definitely assumes that riding is just as important a life skill as swimming, so we all had to learn. There’s five of us kids and all of us kids know how to ride.”
As a result, Fortmuller says her mother, Dagmar, “supported me clearly through her knowledge and just the availability and we always had horses... I have a lot of really great childhood memories with my mum driving across Canada to the various championships and everything. So in all aspects she supported me.”
But that support wasn’t the only reason why Fortmuller wanted to ride professionally. Fortmuller says it was also influenced by the fact that she’s a competitive person, who has “that motivation to be the best you can be.” She also came to appreciate both the beauty and “technical challenge” of dressage.
To continue supporting her love of dressage, Fortmuller moved to Germany in 2009. “Had I been a hockey player I would have stayed in Canada,” Fortmuller said, explaining her decision to move. “You’ve got to surround yourself with you know, the best competition, best trainers.” And that competition and those trainers were in Germany.
The move proved to be invaluable for her career as a dressage rider.
“It really gave me a huge knowledge- based foundation and a huge foundation in my own confidence to get out there and try to do it on my own now that I’ve moved back.”
In 2012, Fortmuller’s hard work paid off, and she was named a reserve rider for Canada’s Olympic team. For her, the experience of finding out was “crazy.” Fortmuller was incredibly close to making the team, saying that “between reserve and the team spots it was like zero point something, it wasn’t even by a full percent.”
Fortmuller didn’t have any misgivings about missing the team spot, saying she was “very excited” just to be in that position.
However, Fortmuller’s successes came to an abrupt halt when her longtime mount, Orion, passed away, a difficult time for Fortmuller and her family.
Fortmuller and Orion had just returned from another major CDI (Concours de Dressage) win, and he had been in the peak of his career and fitness.
“I looked him in the eye and I knew it was his time to go because Orion was the rock of my Grand Prix career. It hit me really hard, you know? He was my hold and I was doing what I love and I was where I wanted to be, and all of a sudden within a span of 48-hours, it was gone.”
After Orion’s passing and realizing that her next horse was “probably just too green” to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, Fortmuller decided to relocate back to Canada. “It was interesting for me because I have clearly German roots, German family, but I grew up in Canada and that’s definitely my decision to move back to Canada now because this is where my heart is.”
Shortly after her return to Canada, Fortmuller established the Orion Cup, a stepping stone for young Canadian riders looking to move from lower level competitions into national and internationally based high level competitions, or Grand Prix’s. The Orion Cup is awarded to a young rider based on previous scores in other competitions over the past year. The decision to set up this competition comes in part because of Fortmuller’s own experiences.
“I personally rode my first Grand Prix at the age of 25 and it was so intimidating to go at 25 riding with all of the big guns,” says Fortmuller.
It was Orion that helped launch Fortmuller’s international career, as the step up from lower levels into the international level can be very difficult, especially for young riders. This personal experience is what encouraged her to establish the Orion Cup. It’s a chance for young riders to gain experience before reaching the international level.
One of those young riders was Mathilde Blais Tetreault, the winner of the 2017 Orion Cup. She says the competition is “a great idea” and that it gives young riders “a little mileage.”
Tetreault adds that it’s a great way to honour Orion and keep the name of him alive. She feels that Fortmuller is “inspiring other people to do what she does with the horse, and I think that’s how she keeps him alive.”
Today, Fortmuller continues with her goals of competing by developing her young horses, who she says all have the talent. Fortmuller hopes to attend the 2018 World Equestrian Games with one of her prospects, another green horse. However, if this doesn’t work out, the biggest thing she’s looking forward to “building up her horses for 2020.”
Throughout the many successes and challenges that Fortmuller has overcome, she says she often still returns to her favourite quote of all time from Winston Churchill:, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to go on that counts.’
- By Chloe MacEachern