Guelph resident Alana Van Paassen started riding horses competitively at the age of 6.
“My mom grew up on a farm and rode Western, she loved horses and wanted to learn English riding,” said 27-year-old Van Paassen.
Mother and daughter took lessons together each week in Georgetown, a short drive from their home in Caledon.
Van Paassen’s love for horses grew, and her thrill and skill in competing became obvious. By the age of 8, she was the proud owner of her very own horse, TJ, and by 12 she had three horses.
Alana’s mom, Louise Van Paassen, continued to support her daughter even when their weekly riding lessons discontinued. Alana’s competing schedule grew more intense, with three day events all over Canada and the United States. She continued training and growing in her skills, with her mother by her side.
By 2001 the 12-year-old rider had won a Provincial Title — her first major win.
In April 2006 the Van Paassen family experienced a devastating loss.
Alana was in a tragic motor vehicle accident that claimed her mother’s life and left Alana with serious injuries. The mother and daughter duo were on the 401, just outside of Cambridge, and were heading to Kentucky to watch a riding competition. Shortly after leaving their house in Caledon Louise had a heart attack at the wheel of the car.
The Van Paassen vehicle rear-ended a transport truck at 80 km/hour, and Louise died of a heart attack. Alana’s injuries were substantial. The dashboard of the car fell onto Alana’s left leg, breaking her femur in 12 different places.
The jaws of life removed the debris and rescued Alana from the wreckage, where she was transported to Cambridge Memorial; she stayed there for five days and had emergency surgery on her shattered leg.
Following the accident Alana had a long road to recovery, along with processing her grief over her mother’s death.
Van Paassen was on crutches for nine months, and went to many physiotherapy appointments to recover the use of her left leg. For 18 long months Van Paassen did not ride a horse. She was also in her final year of high school at the time, and was able to graduate with her class in 2007.
“As I recovered I started thinking about riding without my mom around,” she shared. “A woman named Shannon Gerryts was my riding coach at the time.”
Shannon became a sister and confidant to 17-year-old Alana, helping her to process her grief over her mother’s loss. Gerryts even rode the teenage Van Paassen’s horses while she couldn’t, continuing to motivate the young equestrian and encouraging her to consider competing again.
“She helped me to figure out who I am,” said Van Paassen, speaking softly. “She stepped in some ways, and helped me to be independent in other ways.”
By 2009 Van Paassen was accepting her first championship title since her 2006 accident, despite the intense pain she continued to experience from her injury.
In 2010 Van Paassen was back in surgery, after she broke her leg a second time while riding, and began the process of relearning how to use her left leg again. She said that despite the many setbacks, the 2010 injury turned into a blessing, with the surgery being more successful and her pain moving forward more manageable.
Around this time Van Paassen began teaching riding lessons, and word of mouth spread about her talent as a teacher and a rider. After studying at the University of Guelph Van Paassen decided to stay in the city, and eventually purchased her first home.
“I never thought I’d be teaching full time,” said Van Paassen, who now boards horses and owns and operates For the Win Equestrian, where she trains equestrians of all skill levels, from novice riders to competitive riders.
Recently Van Paassen has decided to branch out and learn new skills beyond riding.
“I’m trying to get out of the struggling artist lifestyle,” she said with a laugh, adding that she’s working in the real estate industry in investing and property management.
Alana still remains close to her friend and confidant, Shannon. She said Shannon is her “training partner,” and has been a great encouragement as she begins to train to compete once again.
There’s no doubt that Guelphite Alana Van Paassen has overcome many obstacles as a young rider, but her story is proof that perseverance and determination can make anyone a winner.
Today, when she rides she remembers her mother’s love for their horses, and is thankful for that her mother gave her the greatest gift of all — her own passion for horse riding.