close
Car park management

Mike Belisle’s unique route to show management

You might expect someone who has played major roles in big name competitions such as the Winter Equestrian Festival, the Split Rock series, the new TerraNova venue and many more to have a long history in the world of spectacle.

But no; Mike Belisle has taken another path to his impressive career in managing and troubleshooting on the circuit, developing expertise in everything from footing to finance.

When he got involved, he noted, “I had no knowledge of horses. I started small in a small town outside of Ottawa, Carleton Place.

But living there opened a door for him. “For some reason our city practically raised a ringside crew and provided Canada and a lot of American shows,” he pointed out.

His brother, Rob, who is 12 years older than Mike, started out in horse shows in Palgrave, Ontario, then across Canada and competed in the United States. He even made the ringside team for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

The equestrian angle was not Rob’s motivation, however. “He used the horse industry to pay for his education,” Mike explained. When Rob finished school, he moved on.

But Mike paid attention to the benefits of what Rob had done. “I saw what kind of opportunities there were, seeing him travel.”

Mike didn’t get the chance to travel “and be around horses, because our family couldn’t afford to do all that”. So when he was 14, his brother introduced him to emissions from the ground up, starting as a worker.

Until he went to Palgrave for that summer job, Mike recalls, “I had never left my town except for sporting events. I had no knowledge of horses. I followed in my brother’s footsteps and used the summer job as money to help me work on my studies.

He continued his education at St. Lawrence College, where he majored in marketing and earned a business degree. Then he got a job with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a retail buyer, but unlike his brother, he still felt the lure of the horse industry.

Always a fast learner, he discovered after just six months that being a buyer was not going to be his life’s work. “I quickly realized how monotonous it was. I don’t think the corporate world was for me, having tasted the equestrian side. Obviously, not the riding, but the lifestyle; being surrounded by horses, being outdoors, all the benefits that come with that.

Although he’s never been to the United States, that didn’t stop him. “My brother had contacts in California. I thought that would be a good starting point. I took the plunge, packed up the car that was breaking down all the time, and drove across the country.

He ended up in Woodside, California, where he didn’t know anyone, and stayed there for three years. The hard worker fits in quickly.

“I became a bit of a nomad and liked the lifestyle,” said Mike, who eventually moved to the east coast and became involved with the HITS series; then the shows of John and Pam Rush. In his late twenties, Mike “has worked on virtually every facet of horse show business,” from driving tractors, to announcing, to designing hunt courses.

“I climbed the ladder. I started to get noticed.

In the process, he was always looking for people he could learn from. “I’ve had the opportunity to work for just about everyone and every management company in the industry. Throughout my career, I’ve taken little pieces of these people.

Another big step for Mike was a call from Mark Bellissimo, who had just purchased the Wellington, Florida Winter Equestrian Festival and its show grounds. There has been a “changing of the guard” from the influential circuit’s previous Gene Mische administration. Mike became Director of Operations in 2008.

“It was a unique situation. I learned a lot from Mark and Michael Stone (then president of Equestrian Sport Productions). I worked with them on many projects,” he recalls, citing the complicated development of staging a show in New York’s Central Park among them.

“Mark taught me to work outside of my comfort zone, whether it was a gig or doing parking or ticketing. It helped me not be a one-trick pony “I learned a lot of things that weren’t just equestrian sport. It made me a complete person.”

As he says, “The story of my life is being able to adapt to any situation, make the most of it, and get rid of the rest.”

“It’s just about adapting…I’ve gotten to the point where nothing really bothers me.”

An example is what happened on a weekend in 2015 that included both a Professional Bull Riders competition and a $50,000 invitational show jumping grand prix in a hockey arena. He got involved just two months before the event at the Corel Center in Ottawa, when the organizer contacted him saying, “Someone told me I probably needed a show director. .

Mike didn’t know anything about the PBR. Then he learned that the bulls would be kept all night in the arena where Pierre Jolicoeur had just put all his feet on the ice. The result was “bull pee and poo” on the surface.

“A nightmare. Ian Millar and Jill Henselwood and all those people were coming,” he recalled sadly.

After the bulls left, “we had to tear off three quarters of the sole and put it back on.” Then jumps with 12-foot poles came along, all too big for an indoor arena. “We had to chop everything up. It was crazy.”

Mike handled it in his typical calm style. “We survived. It went off without a hitch. It’s just about adapting.”

Naturally, he said, “I’ve gotten to the point where nothing really bothers me.”

This situation of Corel was rare in many respects, including its participation in a Canadian show. “It’s kind of funny that I’m Canadian and 98% of my stuff is in the United States right now,” he mused.

After Mike had been with WEF for seven years, Derek Braun reached out to him with a vision to change the sport with the Split Rock series, telling him, “I want people to get what they pay for. I want to develop the sport. I’m going to put my racing career aside and use my own savings to do it.

He asked Mike to join the company.

“It took about a year for him to try to coax me. All the points he brought up in terms of changing the sport, making a difference, being a visionary have always been what I have summer,” Mike said.

“Not changing has really stifled the growth of the sport for everyone. They kept it too in-house, too protected. My generation wanted something different, they didn’t want everything classic, they wanted value, they wanted customer service.

The idea made sense, but it meant a major step for Mike to leave the WEF. “It was a dive for me. I had never taken such a risk before.

But he did and now the series has 12 shows in North America. Mike “really jumps on all the aspects of the event that are necessary,” Derek said.

“Mike provides excellent support. He is always there for any part of our team that needs him. It handles high pressure situations very well. He is good at finding solutions on the fly.

“He has always known the runners; who loved being stabled next to Leslie Howard and who loved being in another ending [of the stable] because they brought a lot of stallions.

Split Rock venues include TerraNova, the spectacular new equestrian complex east of Sarasota, Florida, where Mike helped develop a facility that offers eventing, dressage and show jumping.

Hannah Herrig Ketelboeter, who runs TerraNova with her husband, Zach, and her parents, calls Mike “an enthusiasm builder and kind of a dreamer for the installation as well. He has this intangible thing that gets everyone excited about what we do and motivates and inspires everyone to keep going and delivering the best product. He is always trying to come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. This suits us perfectly, because our goal was to do things a little differently and think outside the box.

One example she cited was Mike’s idea of ​​thinking European style and “putting some grass around the dressage ring to add another element to make it more special. It really enhanced the look of our ring.

Eventer Sara Kozumplik, who is the Rider Ambassador for TerraNova, notes that Mike “never gets rattled. He’s pretty good on the hospitality side and setting things up. He has a good eye for setting up horse shows and aesthetically what everything should do, which is a bit of an art form.

When Jeff Papows was organizing the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament in Massachusetts, he contacted Mike, knowing that the new jumper-only business would involve “an atypical amount of stress that would make financial sense”.

After seeing Mike at various shows, he thought highly of him “and hired him right off the bat”. He knew Mike was able to balance the mix of making athletes and spectators happy while making sure the costs didn’t get out of control.

“He has always known the runners; who loved being stabled next to Leslie Howard and who loved being in another ending [of the stable] because they brought a lot of stallions. You can’t make this stuff up, either you know and understand it or you don’t. Mike has always been both a student and a manager, and has gone to great lengths to understand things in depth.

Although Mike wasn’t originally a rider, he tried his hand at riding for a while, even jumping a little, but never competing. His wife, Ariane St. John, was an amateur exhibitor who now cares for the couple’s four-year-old twins and 11-year-old stepson.

“I love animals and seeing the sport grow and make it more accessible. That excites me,” said Mike, who also owns his own consultancy and management business, Helm Ltd.

“I worked hard to get where I am. I never imagined myself in this sport or in this business as long as I have, but here I am, 45 years old and here I am. I worked hard for all this knowledge and experience.

John Smith

The author John Smith