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Ponies-Are-Us Describes The Larry Ella Family

by Ann Bullard


If you have any doubt about trainer Larry Ella’s origins, simply listen to him speak. A Canadian – or more particularly a citizen of the very British city of Toronto - his heritage shows in his accent, his words. Other than for horse shows, he rarely strays very far from those roots.


“I’ve worked with ponies with my mum and dad from the time I was a kid,” Ella said in his distinctive way. “I grew up with Shetlands and Hackneys and started showing when I was nine or 10 years old.”


Ella’s parents were involved with ‘heavy horses’ when they were younger, evolving into ponies as time went on. King Township, about a half-hour north of Toronto, was huge horse country, with Thoroughbred and Standardbred racetracks and a large hunter-jumper community. The young man began training ponies while still in school.


“I started training for a few different people in the summertime - even before I got my driver’s license,” he said.


Like most young Canadian men, Ella spent a lot of time on the ice. “When I was young, in the winter I played a lot of hockey. I worked with ponies from spring through the Royal Winter Fair. I didn’t have time for summer sports.”


Ella’s horse passion extended into the Saddlebred world. “When I was a kid, I had a saddle pony, Silver Creek Rocket. George Henderson trained for Mrs. Conroy at Grapetree Farms in St. Catherine, Ontario. Mum and Dad sent my saddle pony there to be broke.


“I spent lot of time with George and his son, Brian,” Ella continued, explaining he got to ride American Saddlebreds there. “I enjoyed taking colts that didn’t know anything and working them in hand or as harness ponies.


“When I was younger, I had Kilbro’s KC, a stallion I bought from the Kildows,” he added. “I bred a number of mares to him and showed them in futurities. Several of them were born with ‘that trot.’”


Ella was “eight or nine when we first became friends,” said Denny Lang, a long-time pony trainer now affiliated with the Buffalo Raceway in New York. “A long, long time ago I worked some ponies for his family. I was at a sale in Indianapolis when Larry’s parents bought a Shetland for him. I worked and showed the pony several times.


“Larry kind of hung around and spent some time with me,” Lang continued, pointing out that his barn in New York was about 90 miles from the Ellas’ home. “Hopefully, I was influential in his choosing both the horse and the insurance businesses, the same things I had done.”


Although Larry and Diane Ella attended the same high school, they didn’t begin to date until Larry was in his mid-20s. Their early connection was through his playing for her father’s hockey team.


What was Ella like as a kid? Diane laughed as she described him as “one of the cool guys … a very fun guy. He was a really good hockey player but was very small. His size and asthma were his enemies when playing hockey.


“Larry began working for a local insurance company after high school. My parents owned grocery story across from where Larry worked. The brokerage owner asked if I would want to work with him. That’s how I got involved with insurance and with Larry,” Diane said. “He was living at his mum and dad’s. His parents did a lot for us; his Mum still does. We started our own business in 1984, the year before we married.”


Diane continues to run Larry Ella Insurance from their home. Doing so allows her time to spend at the barn and – most important – to be there for their daughters, Amanda and Shannon.


Ella’s asthma also presents problems when working with horses. According to Diane, “health-wise he shouldn’t do it. He’s pretty much allergic to everything in there.”


Still, ponies were an important part of Ella’s life. Diane says, “Initially, the ponies were more of a hobby. Larry would work them in the evenings after work with different friends helping over the years.”


When friends encouraged Ella to work ponies professionally, he joined George and Mildred Lewis’ operation in Kleinburg, suburban Toronto, Ontario. Already well established in the Morgan world, the Lewis family had stepped deeply into the Hackney world with the purchase of Mark Of Success. Ella took over the pony’s career after he won the World Champion Junior Harness Pony title with Skip Shenker on the lines.


Mark Of Success helped put Ella in the spotlight.

Not only was he a multi-titled champion for trainers

Skip Shenker and Ella and in the amateur ranks

with the late Sallie Wheeler, he also sired

the legendary Mark Of Excellence.


Mark Of Success and Ella made their mark in Hackney history, winning highly-competitive classes at the Ontario Hackney Show, Eastern States Exposition and the Royal Winter Fair. The late Sallie Wheeler purchased the champion, putting him under Randy Harper’s direction at her farm in Keswick, Va. Again, championship after championship came his way.


With the sale of Mark Of Success, the Lewis family left the pony business. The Ellas built a barn and work ring at that home and began taking outside ponies to work. Katherine Boyd was one of those early customers and has been with him for about 16 years.


“I met Larry through Bob Bartlett when he was just going in the pony business on his own,” Boyd said from her Canadian home. “Most people don’t know that Larry originally was trained by George Henderson, who was the premier American Saddlebred person up here. He thought Larry was a real horseman. Larry told me one time that being a pony trainer is what he always wanted to be.”


Boyd calls Ella, “An honest man who works really, really hard. He believes in letting the animal tell him what he is going to be. He wants it to be all it can be and helps it do that.”


However great Mark Of Success’s show career, perhaps his and Ella’s greatest contribution to the industry came through the decision to breed the stallion to Texan Steve Cochran’s Apollo’s Fashionette. The foal: a seal brown, stocking-legged colt named Mark Of Excellence.


“Cochran said he wanted to sell the colt as a short yearling. We bought him sight unseen over the phone. It was a pretty good decision,” Ella said in his understated way.


Hard work and good fortune have taken Ella far. Mark Of Success helped establish him as one of the premier pony trainers of his time. Their first season set the standard.


“In 1994 Mark won the World’s Grand Championship and stallion and gelding stake as a four-year-old,” Ella said, pointing out he had a customer’s pony to show in junior competition. It was the pony’s first year in the show ring.


Mark Of Excellence’s show ring record is rivaled only

by his success as a sire. He and Ella are pictured

on their 1994 victory pass after winning the

Hackney Pony World Grand Championship.


“That would have to be the biggest highlight of my career,” Ella said. “We didn’t raise that colt, but I was the person who bred that mare. Paula Goncalves, Diane and I purchased him as a yearling; I worked him and brought him along until he was four.


“I had been to Louisville a few times to show. To go with a four-year-old pony that we owned ourselves and win on Saturday night …” Ella paused and then added, “I had a lot of respect for Mark Of Success. This being his son made the win that much more special.”


The Canadian Hackney Horse Society honored Mark Of Excellence and his trainer with the stallion’s induction into their Hall of Fame. The opening lines of that presentation perhaps describe the horse better than many others written about him over the years. “Have you ever witnessed an athlete perform where their presence gave you goose bumps, made you nervous to even move, not knowing whether to breathe, cheer or even cry?  Well the animal that I am honoured to introduce to you tonight is well deserving of such a description.”


The Ellas chose to keep Mark Of Excellence as a breeding stallion. After a comparatively brief but very successful show career, he retired to the breeding shed. He sired most of the ponies Ella now works. As Diane put it, “Considering the numbers he has bred compared to other studs, his track record is pretty good.”


Good indeed. Offspring include World’s Champion Par Excellence, Spirit Of Success and Sweetheart Of Success. Ella drove Karen Waldron’s On The Mark to win the Hackney Pony Stallion and Gelding World’s Championship and World’s Grand Championship 10 years after his sire earned the same honors.


The Ella-Goncalves relationship goes back many years. Paula has been a friend of Diana’s for almost 30 years; her late husband, John, and Larry were best friends before the couple married.


“Larry is a great trainer,” said Goncalves, who is a partner with the Ellas in Mark Of Excellence. “We have a great business relationship and are very good friends. We’ve had so many laughs. The four of us had lots of fun at horse shows.


“Larry gets the most out of a pony’s natural ability,” she continued. “He brings them to top form. If I have something he doesn’t feel will work out, he’s very honest about it. I’m proud to be part of his barn along with Karen [Waldron] and her ponies.”

The two families retain more than a business relationship. The two Goncalves boys are very close to Shannon and Amanda. “They call us Aunt Diane and Uncle Larry,” Diane explained.


Ella’s emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. That’s true in the number of clients he has, the number of ponies he trains and shows and the number of foals he raises. Karen Waldron, Boyd, Goncalves and David Dawson make up his client list. Adam Bovaird, a third-generation Hackney pony man, assists Ella in the evenings.


The Bent Tree Farm show string again is split between those trained by Ella and those trained by Lee Hudson at the Shawsville, Va., facility. Ella has five: World’s Grand Champion Par Excellence, World’s Champion Sweetheart Of Success, On The Mark and Overnight Success; all by Mark Of Success. Night Predator is by Waldron’s multi-titled champion Night Editor. Ella sold Par Excellence and Mark Of Excellence to his client and friend; others came from her breeding program or from Rodney Root.


Karen Waldron of Bent Tree Farm splits her pony string

 between Ella and the home farm in Shawsville, Va.

She drove Spirit Of Success to win

the Gig Pony class at Lexington in 2005.


On The Mark has complied an enviable show record.

Ella won the 2004 Hackney Pony Stallion and Gelding

title and grand championship at Lexington, a feat owner

Karen Waldron repeated the following year.


Ella and Bent Tree Farm’s Par Excellence made

a striking picture in front of the Louisville judges’ stand.

In 2005, the team won their seventh world’s championship

or world’s grand championship title.


Goncalves has raised several nice colts over the years. Ella calls Moment Of Excellence “an exceptional pony.” The five-year-old debuted at Syracuse in July, winning both his qualifying class and the roadster pony championship. His full sister, Keep The Faith, should debut in the roadster pony division later this year.


Dawson, Ella’s blacksmith, owns a three-year-old Ella describes as “a big beautiful pony with four white stockings.” Shannon’s champion pleasure driving pony, Super Spy, a pair of two-year-olds and five mares make up the rest of the Ella string.


Although he had little ‘formal’ training for his chosen profession, Ella has learned from “a number of different people over the years – starting with my Dad,” he said. “I learned a great deal from my close friend Denny Lang. Being in Canada, I had a lot of connection with Lawrence Carss and John Henderson. The Lewis family bought a number of ponies from Skip [Shenker]. Being around Skip, I learned quite a bit from him. It might seem like a mish-mash of stuff but over the years you formulate your own way of doing things from the bits and pieces learned from everyone. I had a lot of connections with good people and good horsemen. I picked up a lot from those I didn’t necessarily work for but was around.


“I’ve been very fortunate here. I had Mark Of Success when I worked for the Lewis family. His athletic ability probably was second to none. His ability with his legs was like I’d never seen before. He was a very nice pony that taught me a lot,” Larry said.


“I got to know Larry early in his career through Denny Lang,” Shenker said. “He worked some ponies at his dad’s place. Larry was very interested, very thorough and did the best he could with what he had. Larry and the Lewis’ son were best friends and they brought Mark Of Success to him for a time.


“Larry purchased that stallion [Mark Of Excellence] when he was a yearling and started from there. Larry was very selective in the mares he picked and has done an outstanding job of breeding that pony. He has only four or five mares and has raised some really nice ponies,” Shenker continued.


‘Really nice ponies’ would be an understatement. In the past five years, Mark Of Excellence progeny raised by Ella have won six world’s or world’s grand championships. Par Excellence topped the Harness Pony Stallion and Gelding class in 2002 and won both the stallion and gelding qualifier and world’s grand championship in 2005. In 2004 On The Mark earned the Hackney Stallion and Gelding qualifier and world’s grand championship. The next year, Ella drove Sweetheart Of Success to win the Harness Pony World Grand Championship after owner Karen Waldron’s blue-ribbon drive in the mare qualifier.


Ella likes having a balanced operation. “I don’t want any area too big. Instead we try to stay involved in a number of them, breeding our mares to Mark and raising our own colts.”


Actually, the entire family is involved in the ‘operation.’ Amanda is now studying criminology is at York University, which cuts into her pony time. Shannon helps her father after school and during the summers.


According to 15-year-old Shannon, her mother today is “more into the mares and foals. She goes out every day to feed the mares carrots, and to pet the foals. She used to help my dad around the barn until we came along. Now she runs the insurance business and drives my sister and me around.”


If you ask Ella about his greatest thrills, his professional highlights, he’d respond, “It was a definite thrill to show Mark of Success. Another highlight was turning around and taking Mark’s colts and going back to win with them.


“What I’m most proud of is seeing my daughters with ponies that are not push-button. I see they are good drivers/showmen and have developed into very good drivers. A number of years ago, Amanda drove Showcase, a three-year-old full sister to On The Mark, at the Royal Winter Fair. Here Amanda was – in her first year of showing this mare – and she wins the class! She was like … 13! Shannon still is very involved showing her pleasure pony Super Spy. Last year at Lexington, Shannon catch-drove for Rich [Campbell] and Maureen [Lydon.] She won the Junior Exhibitor Roadster Pony Championship at Lexington and the 13 and under qualifier at Louisville. I got as big a charge out of those as I have winning a big class at Louisville.”


Amanda Ella and Showcase represented the Ellas’

breeding program at Louisville in 2004.


Shannon Ella has enjoyed many good drives

with her pleasure driving pony, Super Spy.


Ella is very much a family man. “He’s pretty laid back when he’s not training,” Diane said. “He loves hockey and enjoys watching lots of sports on TV. We really don’t do much off the farm; there’s always something to do here.”


Shannon calls Larry “a good dad who is involved with his family. He just adores the ponies and loves being around them. Out of the barn, my dad is easy-going and a good person to talk to. We go out to dinner a lot and have a lot of big family times. And he’s very proud of his Canadian heritage.”


Ella has taken one ‘non-Hackney’ into his barn. Shannon and Amanda had wanted an American Saddlebred “for years,” according to Shannon. Last year, the Ellas bought Dreamshake, now a four-year-old, by Phi Slama Jama. Ella is working him with the goal of the girls showing him the end of this season or the next.


Behind that serious, quiet exterior lives a man who is quite content with his life. “Larry is obsessed with horses; he lives for them,” Diane said. “That’s not to say he isn’t a good dad or husband. He is. But he really cares about horses. They are a priority.


“He is very strict and yet affectionate with them,” Diane explained. “The tough ones he treats with kid gloves. Each is treated differently; they have different personalities and he won’t rush them. He’s very up front with clients. If a pony isn’t ready as a three-year-old, he’ll say ‘no, we don’t want to fry his brain. We need to wait.’ I’ve seen him tell people to take a pony home and turn it out for a year to let it grow up. He thinks of the ponies as if they are people. It’s not all about a sale but about the pony’s personality and what he can handle.”


Diane concedes that the person you see – or meet – at a show really isn’t Larry. “That’s not the time to get to know him. He’s very serious. People think he’s not the friendliest guy. He gets very tense when he has classes. It’s not personal. He’s just Larry.”

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