Clearing the hurdles of life – dressage trainer takes to the stage

It’s another rain-soaked October Saturday night on Vancouver Island. Inside, the crowd warms up to the blues number QB’s Gina Allan is belting out on stage at the Rocking Horse Pub in Nanoose Bay.

Gina Allan performing at the Rocking Horse Pub with Topaz Jazz. October 2021

Watching her perform, you’d never know that this lithe, agile woman with the sunny disposition has picked herself up after not one, but three devastating horseback riding falls. Or that she fled a verbally abusive coach, not once but twice. Or that she was involved in helping to develop an early application of Virtual Reality technology. Or that she began singing just a few years ago, inspired by a local gospel choir concert.

Gina first encountered horses at the age of three or four when her family would travel from their home in North Vancouver to 100 Mile House to visit a family ranch. But her life’s passion really began when she was six years old when her parents took her to see a Walt Disney movie, The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit. Gina was transfixed by the image of a rider “jumping a six-foot brick wall bare-back on his grey steed.”

Later the same year, her parents took her to the Northwest International Horse Show held at the PNE grounds in Vancouver. She “loved how the crowd would fall silent until each jump was cleared.” From then on, for the next four years, Gina pestered her parents relentlessly for riding lessons. At age 10 she got her wish. “I feel sorry for my parents now,” Gina laughs, “but by the time I was 11, they had bought me a horse.”

A certified equestrian coach, Gina has been riding for forty-plus years. She was injured in a fall in her first year of riding but recovered well as children do, moving from trail riding through basic “English” riding, onto quarter horses and then began show jumping. By the time she was 14, Gina was invited to participate in English riding events at the World Congress.

This photo and story cover image courtesy Nancy Adams.

Her life took another turn at the age of 16 when it was suggested she should go to the next level, a stepping stone towards her aspirations of becoming a member of the Canadian Olympic equestrian team. Gina’s dream was shattered by a verbally abusive coach. He was a former member of the Canadian Olympic team, but “I was terrified of him and his irrational behaviour, swearing at me all the time.” She lasted a year. At age 17, Gina quit riding completely and sold her horse. “I was heartbroken,” she says.

Another door opened quite unexpectedly, thanks to Gina’s mother, who she credits with being “the most inspirational woman I know.” Gina’s mom invited Gina to join her fitness class. Reluctant at first to join all these “old” women, Gina was shocked when she discovered that her 17-year-old athlete’s body could not keep up with the fitness levels of the 50-something women in her mom’s class. She enrolled in a program to become a fitness professional. It was one of her best moves.

Fast forward a dozen years. “Eventually I realized that there was something missing in my life so I ended up going back to riding. I started back jumping because I felt I wanted to slay the dragon,” she says. At the time, Gina was working at the YMCA as a fitness trainer, and switched to coaching full-time. Within a year she had her equestrian coaching certification. Gina switched from show jumping to dressage when she met a world-renowned expert in dressage, Paul Belasik, who would later become her husband.

“I was fascinated by the science behind dressage,” Gina says. Dressage requires that a rider understand the anatomy of a horse as it relates to the intricate movements (called “airs above ground”) that a horse performs in this sport. “It was so much like what I’d learned in my fitness training,” she says. Gina eventually moved to Pennsylvania where she and Paul taught dressage, and bred and trained horses.

One day Michigan State University contacted the couple. Their biomechanics lab for horses, the McPhail Center, wanted to analyze the movements of horses during dressage routines. Paul was outfitted with a suit to which many ping-pong balls were fastened at different points, and large mats embedded with pressure sensors were laid on the floor. As horse and rider went through the dressage routines, multiple video cameras recorded their movements. Gina says, “the biomechanics team then pooled all the data from the cameras and the sensor mats to create an animated graphic image” of the horse and rider. It was an early form of Virtual Reality technology.

Gina Allan and Topaz Jazz starting their set at the Rocking Horse Pub in Nanoose Bay. October 2021

At the age of 40, Gina’s life again shifted in another direction. While training young horses, she tore a hamstring. Recuperation took three or four months. Two weeks after she returned to riding, she was thrown off a horse and fractured her sacrum and pelvis. Gina says, “the only thing I could sit on was an exercise ball.” When she eventually healed, she realized her riding was much improved after sitting on the exercise ball. That’s what led Gina to create her fitness program for riders, Equifitness. Her injuries also opened another door in her life. Gina’s marriage ended, and she moved back to Canada to heal.

A firm believer in seeking the silver linings in life’s experiences, Gina headed for Qualicum Beach. Her mother had recently moved to QB, and when Gina first set eyes on our lovely Town she was smitten. So, 18 years ago, Gina decided to make her home in Qualicum Beach. She brought Cielo with her too, a horse Paul had bred back in Pennsylvania. Gina calls Cielo her “divorce settlement.” Now 20 years old, Cielo is comfortably ensconced in a small private stable. At their last competition just before the pandemic, Gina and Cielo “were the “high point champions of the show.” Gina is grateful for Cielo’s presence in her life. “Horses are magnificent creatures. I know and have witnessed horses heal wounded souls, ease burdened hearts and help the weak become strong.”

Today, Gina divides her time between coaching at adult riding clinics and pony clubs for children, and fitness training. In June 2021, she published Equifitness, an exercise guide to becoming a better rider, co-written with Barbara R. Kopacek (available online or through QB’s Mulberry Bush Bookstore). Gina says the book is a good resource to help people understand the physiology and anatomy of the human body as it moves, not just the mechanics of how to perform each exercise routine. Gina also teaches fitness for women in their fifties through their eighties, where she focuses on posture, core stability, weights, back care and floor work in small group sessions.

But wait, how did Gina end up becoming a vocalist? Music and performance runs through her family like a river. “My mom had been a singer when she was younger. She sang in a high school band and cut a record when she was 17. So we’ve got the 78 [rpm] record of her singing. My dad played in a lot of big bands. So I was around a lot of music when I was a youngster. My sister, she’s an actress, was also in a singing trio based on the Andrews Sisters, and I’ve always loved that music. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

Gina hit a snag there too. Flashback to Gina’s life as a young student at SFU’s theatre school after she had quit the riding life, and while working as a fitness trainer. “One day I was working with my teachers, and they said there’s something wrong with your voice. They told me, ‘You need to go to UBC [Hospital] today and see this ENT [ear, nose & throat specialist] and get it checked.” Gina was told that “because I was teaching fitness without a microphone, I had developed nodes on my vocal cords.” The specialist told Gina, “the best thing you can do is start taking singing lessons, and probably operatic singing lessons would be the best.”

Gina Allan and Cielo. Photo courtesy Equifit Production Services

Gina laughs, “So, here I was, singing opera. [That’s] about as far away as you can get from the Andrews Sisters.” But Gina still felt it might lead to something (that silver lining?). It was déjà vu all over again (to quote Yogi Berra). Gina recalls her singing coach was a “stern” man who “screamed at me if I moved while I sang.” One day he invited her to perform at a recital, her first public performance. She froze and struggled to finish the piece. When she took her seat, one of the other students remarked, “ ‘Oh well, sometimes we sound like squealing pigs.’ After that I quit — literally quit — singing.”

If you’re not familiar with dressage, you might enjoy this video.

The silver lining appeared decades later, after Gina moved to Qualicum Beach. “I went to a concert by the Island Soul Choir. The choir director, Brian Tate, encouraged the audience to sing out [the word] hallelujah during one number, so I did, even though my mom was shushing me!” Gina says laughing. “After the song, he told the audience, ‘if you sang along, then you have just mastered your first audition and you can sign up for the Island Soul choir.’ So I thought, darn it, I’m going to do that, and I’m going to audition for a solo.” Gina joined the 140 member choir and then proceeded to up her game. “I took lessons from [QB singing coach] Rosemary Lindsay and she was great, did a few singing camps, gradually got to do one song on stage, and then started doing some open mics with friends, and so on.”

And the band, Topaz Jazz, how did that arise? When Gina’s mom turned 90 (she’s 92 now), Gina wanted to perform some songs for her. She had recently met guitarist Jerry Schneider at one of the open mics she attended and they had played together a couple of times at Ground Zero in Parksville. “I asked Jerry if he would be interested in accompanying me, then got my neighbour who plays base. The night before [the big birthday party] Al Clark got in touch with me and said, ‘I’d really like to play with the band. I’m going play the drums if you’re up for it.’ He went out and bought a set of drums the next day! And there we were, a band.”

At the party, Gina says, “Mom got up and sang Blue Skies, which she had recorded in her earlier days. She loves the fact that I’m singing now.”

Gina will be on stage again on Thursday, November 11th accompanying Victoria jazz singer Edie Daponte for a Remembrance Day concert, 2-4 pm at Knox United Church in Parksville.

Gina Allan can be contacted by email at ginaallanequestrian@gmail.com or at www.GinaAllan.ca.