From humble beginnings to a premier facility

The story of Thunderbird Show Park began in 1966 when George and Dianne Tidball purchased a horse out of a field in Penticton.

As the story goes, after driving past and feeding the same horse two days in a row on the way to a ski hill, their oldest daughter Kathy suggested to her parents that they buy it.

They did… for $150.

From there, things took off at a gallop.

Dianne started looking for acreage, and in 1969 the family sold their house in West Vancouver to move to a place more suitable for horses – Fort Langley.

From that point on, the horses always came first. While the indoor arena and stables were built, the family lived in a trailer. Their house would come later.

While son Stephen was team roping and cutting in high school rodeos, the girls were refining their own riding skills.

Having hired western trainer Doug Henry, George asked him to teach Kathy and Jane and get them ready for their first show.

When Doug asked which show and how much time he had to work with them, George simply replied, “The PNE – next week.”

And sure enough, the girls were both showing at the PNE the following week.

In 1970, George and Dianne purchased property at 200th Street and Highway One. Soon after, construction began on an indoor riding arena, two stable buildings and two outdoor riding rings which would host their first show in 1972 – a quarter horse show and team roping at Thunderbird Equestrian Centre.

Jumping horses soon followed, with the first hunter/jumper show just a year later.

Laura, the youngest of the Tidball children, had been riding stock horses, but quickly realized that, when there were no cattle around, the kids on the jumping horses were having more fun.

She made the switch – clearly the right choice as Laura would go on to win both the ASPCA Maclay and AHSA Medal finals in 1980, and join the Canadian equestrian team for two Olympic Games: 1984 in Los Angeles, Calif., and 1988 in Seoul, Korea.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Thunderbird built its reputation as a quality horse show facility. Of course, having a Keg Steakhouse attached to the indoor riding arena added a little something to the experience.

In 1998, as development was quickly closing in, the decision was made to redevelop the property and close down the equestrian centre permanently.

“We never intended on relocating,” George recalled. “We all understood that this was going to be the end of Thunderbird Equestrian Centre.”

However, Dianne had something else in mind.

She held the Thunderbird horse shows in 1999, at Milner Downs.

Dianne convinced George that, with their 30 years of experience, “I know if we do it again we can really do it right.”

They purchased 83 acres at 248th Street and 72nd Avenue, and brought in Robert Jolicoeur of International Equestrian Design – the firm that planned the equestrian venue for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta – to create Thunderbird Show Park.

The original plan was to build the park in phases, but Dianne wasn’t one to wait. 

“With Dianne’s indomitable spirit, we opened with three hunter rings, three jumper rings, four warm-up rings and indoor stabling for 450,” laughed George.

The Tidballs started serious site planning before Christmas of 1998 and ground was broken the following April.

The grass areas were seeded in the fall and a construction-phase open house was held in October 1999.

Dianne oversaw development of Thunderbird Show Park in 1999, and managed it until 2005 when she handed the reins to daughter Jane.

Today, Thunderbird is one of North America’s premier equestrian facilities.

Thunderbird holds six major hunter and jumper show tournaments each year. 

What began with a $150 horse in 1966 has become a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art equestrian facility.

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