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Joseph Firman: Born to ride

By Sharon Aschaiek

The best part of Joseph Firman's job are the mornings, when the owner of JDF Stables gets to spend some one-on-one time with his horses.

"It's seeing the line of heads of horses all stick out, and they know that dad's there to feed them. It's just the smell of the fresh air and the fresh hay and how happy they are," says Firman, 32. "You get on and you ride them, they give you so much effort, and you've got so much power underneath you."
JDF Stables owner Joseph Firman, inset, and in 2000 as part of the Royal Lippizan Horse Show.

And it's this feeling of power, and the time and practice it takes to master riding, that Firman tries to convey to his students as he trains them to become expert riders.

"Riders are genuine athletes. People don't realize it by watching, but you definitely have to be athletic to ride a horse," he says.

Based in Uxbridge and operating out of the Uxbridge Equestrian Centre, which is owned by Jarrett Green, Firman runs JDF with his partner, Terry McManus. The stable is home to 14 show quality horses, and for a fee of $35 an hour, Firman and his staff of three, train students -- some as young as seven years old -- to progress from being beginners all the way to competing in shows.

Because of the competitive nature of the sport, and the immense time and financial commitment involved, Firman takes a no-nonsense approach with his students.

But while the time commitment can be huge, the rewards are even bigger. This past summer, Firman was able to have his students compete at the CNE for their first time.

Equally as rewarding is the unique bond he develops with his students throughout the years of working so closely together.

"There's a certain bond you develop with your coach," says Firman. Brandon Hall and Michelle English are two beginner students who, with much hard work on their end,

Firman was able to turn into top performers on the riding circuit. "It's an incredible feeling for me to see them develop and successfully perform and succeed at what they're doing. To take a kid from nothing and have them pull in with a red ribbon -- that's me at the sidelines with tears in my eyes."

The passion and commitment Firman brings to his work stems from an early love of horses. As a kid, he'd head down to the CNE every chance he got to watch the shows.

"I would sneak behind security lines and pretend I was one of the owners of the horses," Firman says.

And while most kids ask for the latest toy or a new bike, Firman was trying to convince his father to buy him his own horse.

"My father would always tell me, 'Where exactly do you want me to put this horse of ours?'" says Firman, who grew up in a modest home near Queen Street and Spadina Avenue. "We couldn't afford it at that point."

He began taking lessons at 12, and then shortly thereafter bought his first horse. His parents, Edward and Jane, backed him up fully, with his dad driving him to 5 a.m. coaching sessions.

His siblings were also quite supportive, even though they didn't share his interest in horses. "I am one of six kids -- Patti, Sandi, David, Kelly, Danny and then me, the baby -- and none of them are into the horse scene at all."

He spent eight years training with coach Ulrich Frei at the European Stallion Warmblood Zentrum Inc. in Arva, Ont., just outside London. As it turned out, Frei became a lifelong mentor to Firman. Later, he spent many years operating and managing barns around Ontario, and then teaching around the world for a decade.

He reached the pinnacle of his career at the age of 30, when he was selected as the only Canadian to ride in the renowned Royal Lipizzan Horse Show. For several months, Firman rode in venues around the U.S and Europe, in front of 15,000-strong crowds.

After years of riding, Firman was ready to hang up his chaps and launch his own business.

In addition to training, JDF Stables offers a wide range of other services. Horses are available for those who simply want to ride for fun. He also offers boarding services for $375 per month, where the horses have access to 150 acres of rolling grassy hills.

For those looking to train, Firman will find a horse for the client to buy according to their budget. If they can't afford one, he will work out a lease agreement.

As well, JDF Stables sells all necessary gear, including tack, chaps and helmets, much of which he gets from Picovs Horsemans Centre and Tack Shop in Ajax.

The gear, the clientele and the horses are all the culmination of more than 25 years of hard work and commitment, fueled by a keen sales ability, and inspired by a lifelong passion for horses -- he never imagined he'd achieve this level of success.

"This is my dream job. I took it from nothing and built this equestrian centre. This is a dream come true."

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