By Rebecca Burton and Marta Iwanek
From the very beginning Michelle Monkhouse was all about horses. She sat in her first saddle at the age of seven. Riding once a week turned into three times a week, and when her dad said she would have to start paying for more lessons, she got a job. Every moment she had on her horse was her escape.
On the morning of Feb. 17, 2011, Monkhouse, a first-year health and nutrition student, was driving to her barn in Stouffville to ride her horse, Wilson, when black ice caused her to swerve into oncoming traffic, killing her instantly. She was 19 years old.
Family and friends of Monkhouse have come together to form a scholarship in her honour, including the team members of the Ryerson equestrian team, of which she was an active part. The scholarship will go to help a student with the same kind of passion, whether it be horseback riding or something else, in hopes that their passion is never compromised by a lack of funds.
The idea originated when colleagues at the Chang School, where her father Peter Monkhouse works, collected funds in her honour. The family donated money that had been put away for her by her grandparents. Along with contributions from friends in the community an endowment is to be given out annually, starting this fall.
Monkhouse was a horseback rider and pentathlete, which made her a runner, a swimmer, a fencer and long-range shooter. She was also a Ford model, practicing her runway walk around the house in four-inch heels.
Adam Li remembers first meeting Monkhouse at Pause Awhile Equistrian Centre where they both trained. She helped him become familiar with horses and he soon saw her as his role model.
“I wanted everything to be the same as Michelle,” Li says. He had the same saddle, same bridle and his horse was even the half-sister of hers at the time. After Monkhouse took a year off school to work as a horse groomer for professionals, Li asked her to help him in Florida where he would be competing in a circuit. She dropped everything and helped for two months.
Monkhouse shared Wilson with one of her best friends, Leslie Lewis, since November of last year. They nicknamed themselves “Team Wilson” and would spend hours on the phone talking about Wilson’s quirks, Harry Potter or the jealousy they felt for the heroine of Vampire Diaries. They also joined Ryerson’s equestrian team together.
After the accident Lewis says she was explaining to Wilson what had happened and he kept nudging her, feeling something was different.
Li and Leslie were among friends who attended her memorial service. Many arrived in their full rider apparel. The jacket-laden, beige pants and high leather brown boot crowd signed her coffin with sharpie markers. Memory rocks were also given out, one to leave in a fountain and one to keep.
At the Ontario University Equestrian Association (OUEA) finals on Saturday, March 26, Li had the rock in his pocket. “Every ride I’m doing, I’m dedicating my ride to Michelle,” Li said. “The reason I still ride today is because she told me not to stop.”
The points that Monkhouse had earned in OUEA competions this year would have made her eligible to compete at finals on Saturday. She was Ryerson’s top rider in the intermediate category.
Co-captain Laura Gilligan remembers how the seemingly shy girl would immediately become the life of the party whenever they went out after competitions.
“There was another side of my daughter that I didn’t know. She was quite the party animal. Apparently she was pulling people away from the barn to go dancing or clubbing. I was thrilled to see that,” said Monkhouse’s father.
Lewis laughs when she remembers the time that Monkhouse was competing in a jumper competition at the Royal Canadian Riding Academy with a horse called Austin, who would sometimes abruptly halt before a fence he had to jump.
While watching Monkhouse compete, she began to see Austin ready to brake again, but Monkhouse was adamant on the horse making the jump.
Despite riding etiquette of staying quiet in the ring, Lewis remembers Monkhouse yelling “Oh you’re going. You better be going.”
And the horse went.
Photo courtesy of Peter Monkhouse