Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association

Our History

by Lawrence Herzog, Edmonton Real Estate Magazine, January 17, 2007

For more than 50 years, the piece of land in the belly of the North Saskatchewan River valley east of Whitemud Creek has been a horse farm and riding school. It's one of the only places on the continent where citizens can enjoy riding horses in a major urban park. Today it is called the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre. It was the site of Canada's first indoor rodeos, and hosted such television luminaries as the Bonanza stars, Lorne Greene and Michael Landon and their horses, and Chuck Connors, The Rifleman.

The story of how it became a place of horsemanship began in the days after the Second World War. When oil was discovered south of modern day Devon in February 1947, it set in motion a boom that quickly intensified the need for land that could be turned into housing and business services. One of the places developers came calling was the river valley flat next to modern day Fox Drive, 61-acres of farmland owned by Frederick Anson Keillor, an Edmonton physician.

Then straddling the city limits, it was one of the largest remaining private farms in Edmonton. Keillor, who had purchased the land a quarter century earlier, was adamant that his property would remain a park, and turned down all offers. He was hopeful that the city would purchase his farm and ensure its continued use by citizens. Keillor wanted the property to become a residence for elderly men who would have benefited from country activities and exercises. In 1954, the farm was re-zoned by the city for park use, and Keillor mounted a legal challenge against the bylaw. He again offered to sell the land to the city, and letters to the mayor, city clerk and council showed his frustration. "Your present council does not want it unless I give it to them," he wrote.

If my farm were to flood, the duffers at Mayfair Golf & Country Club would be using boats

Keillor was compelled to subdivide and sell the land to developers, but the city blocked him, saying that the land would flood, and it wouldn't allow homes to be built on it. Keillor responded by writing that the farm is "52 feet above the river's low level" and he has erected "five homes and buildings with eight foot basements and no water leaks in 25 years." He observed that, if his farm were to flood, the Cloverdale flats would be under 30 feet (nearly 10 metres) of water and "duffers at the Mayfair Golf & Countrv Club would be using boats". Even so, the city refused his application to subdivide.

Keillor then made his farm available for lease, and a venture called Leecoll Stables signed a ten-year lease with an option for five more years. The company is founded by Cliff Ross, Chairman of the Rodeo Committee and Director of Edmonton Exhibition Board, Leo Lemieux of Gateway Building Supplies and Bill Collins, a foremost Canadian horse trainer. With strong demand for horse training, boarding and lessons, the stables and programs grew quickly. Keillor visited regularly, and was pleased to see his farm being well cared for and improved once again. He tells Collins that "as long as I live, it will be only one dollar a year for taxes."

Construction began on the Leecoll Riding Arena in 1959. Three years later, the city expropriated 12 more acres to build Fox Drive lengthwise through the land. Keillor wanted the city to take the entire farm, but a price couldn't be agreed upon. Three years later, the city snatched the east end of the farm up the forested hill to Saskatchewan Drive and then, in 1967, began proceedings to acquire the remaining Keillor land and buildings. Active until the end, Dr. Keillor died in 1971 at age 87 while shovelling snow. The three Keillor daughters receive a total of $242,500 to finalize city ownership of the farm, homes, arena and barns.

Three years later, Whitemud Road was renamed Keillor Road. When the Leecoll Stables lease expired, the city took over, and renamed the facility the Whitemud Riding Academy. In 1978, Grant MacEwan Community College signed a five-year lease and began using the facility for its Diploma in Equine Studies course, which attracted students from across North America. By 1981, the facility was no longer big enough for the college's needs, and so the operation was taken over by two college employees, Jan Sernyk and Jean Archer. The centre hosted the World Cup equestrian event in 1985, but continued deterioration threatened the viability of the centre. Plans for improvements and expansions came and went year after year, with hardly any improvements being made.

In 1991, city council approved a parks and recreation department policy paper for Equestrian Activities in Edmonton. The paper recognized equestrian activities are an important part of the city's cultural heritage, and the department recommended replacement of the facilities, which were not up to code. Yet no money was forthcoming. Friends of Whitemud Equine Centre signed a 20-year-lease in 1993, with the responsibility to raise $2 million to redevelop the facility at no cost to the city.

A Master Plan for the centre's renewal was approved by city council in 1995, and plans were completed for $5.5 million in new stables, a new indoor arena and supporting infrastructure. The road named for Keillor was closed to vehicular traffic in 1995, following a lengthy battle between commuters and Belgravia residents, upset about short-cutting traffic through their neighbourhood. The decision was reached through a referendum question put to Edmontonians, and 58 per cent voted in favour of closing the road. Eight years later, in March 2003, a spectacular landslide wiped out part of the old roadway.

In 2001, the Edmonton Equine Society for Whitemud Equine Centre Association signed a new 10 year lease with the city for one dollar a year. The centre, now called the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association (WELCA) offers a Horsemanship program for children and adults. If offers riding lessons for beginners to intermediate riders and the centre is also home for Little Bits Therapeutic Riding for the Disabled Children. There is still talk of new facilities for the site as the skeleton staff and 350 or so volunteers work in unheated barns with antiquated equipment, leaky roofs and dodgy power and water supplies.

WELCA is aiming to build a new facility to expand lessons, horse boarding and events and is hoping to raise the needed dollars to do it. The Master Plan for future development at the Whitemud Equine Centre pegs the cost at $6.6 million.

Special thanks to Sheila Edmonds for suggesting the topic and providing much of the research material for this article.

Upcoming Events

Little Bits Spring Session

11 week program starts April 1

Balanced Rider Put Into Practice

April 29 6pm - classroom

Corrective Exercises by Jenifer Parks, Equiletics

Presented by EAADA $30/session or $50/both
April 26 7-9pm Classroom
May 3 7-9pm Classroom

Breath Work Clinic with Karl Faes (16+ only)

May 4 5-9pm Classroom

Pony Poop Compost Sale 10am-2pm

May 5 & 6
May 20 & 21

Edmonton Kubota Demo Days

May 12 & 13 - show grounds

J Percy Page Career Day

May 16

Edmonton Classic Horse Show

Cancelled for 2018

AB Green Certificate Testing

May 30 and 31

Moonlight in the Meadows

Technology networking conference - show grounds
June 8

WELCA Horsemanship Year End Show

Kids, Hounds & Homecooking
June 23 & 24

Pony Up Half Day Summer Camps (ages 4-9)

July 9-13 FULL
July 23-27 FULL
August 6-10 FULL

Horse Rider Summer Camps (ages 9-14)

July 2-6 FULL
July 16-20 FULL
August 13-17 FULL

Feathered Horse Classic Show

July 20-22

Equine Massage Therapy Long Course

August 6 - September 14

Edmonton Kennel Club Regional Dog Show

August 8-12

AB North Pony Club Show

August 22 - 26

Chasing the Wind - Story of Horses

Documentary Viewing Party
September 16, 8pm - Classroom

Horse Racing Alberta

p. 780.435.3597
e. info@welca.ca

Map to WELCA