excerpted from an article in the Canadian Arabian Horse News By Nicole Toren & Tex Kam >read full article
In 1993 Don James and his wife Ruth were ready for a change. They had decided to relocate from their home in North Vancouver to a farm just outside of North Saanich, on Vancouver Island. It was very much a diamond in the rough, forty acres of raw land and a house that required some TLC (see history page for the story of the old farm and home renovation). There they built the facility that would become the backdrop of Island Arabians. In order for Don to achieve his dream of breeding Arabian horses, he needed not only good foundation stock, but the knowledge of how to create a winning breeding program. This is where he approached his good friend, Pat Simmonds.
Having both grown up in Edmonton, Don and Pat have been friends since they were teenagers. Pat’s father Vernor Simmonds was a successful breeder of Arabians and in his day was very involved in the local Arabian community. This included being a founding member of the Aurora Arabian Horse Association. Although Don didn’t grow up owning horses as Pat did, he was always drawn to them. His childhood consisted of hitchhiking to the family farm outside of Sedgewick, Alberta at every opportunity just to go for a ride. It was through this friendship with Pat and Vern that Don came to appreciate the qualities of the Arabian.
“What stands out for me,” Don says, “is that although I was always a horse enthusiast, it’s the experiences that touch us, that are truly amazing.” His affection for the Arabian took root thanks to the Simmonds family. It was further developed by another Edmontonian, critically acclaimed filmmaker Anne Wheeler. Anne had an Arabian mare that she loaned to Don for a summer. He kept the mare at the Simmonds’ farm and entered her in a local show that year. His first venture into the show ring was less than he had hoped for. “Everything was going good until they asked for the hand gallop,” Don laughed.
In the mid 1960’s the two young men forged similar paths. Both were accepted to the University of Alberta to study Pre-Veterinary Medicine. Around the time they were about to start their postsecondary education, the cowboy lifestyle (or more specifically the thrill of the rodeo) also drew their attention. They joined the local rodeo association and entered the first Intercollegiate Rodeo, held that year at the University of Alberta. Much like his first foray into the show ring, Don’s attempt at Bareback Bronc was nothing to write home about. Pat came to the same conclusion as he was being launched into the air. As dreams of a rodeo career faded, so too did their interest in veterinary medicine. Don and Pat eventually chose different career paths. Pat became a pilot, flying for major Canadian airlines for thirty-five years until his retirement, while Don followed his love for the other horsepower with Harley Davidson Canada. Not to be completely outdone in the air by Pat, Don also became a recreational pilot and pilots his own helicopter.
The years flew by; Pat’s father Vern Simmonds passed away in 1993 and Pat inherited a few of his father’s horses. That same year, Don moved to the Island and he approached Pat with an idea for a partnership. Don reiterates, “Pat had this group of great foundation horses and mountains of knowledge, and what I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm and drive.” Once the handshake was done, as with any new venture, Pat and Don began to lay out a plan. According to Pat, the basic principle was simple: “Between 1993 and before I reached 70, I was going to work at breeding a National Champion.” The road map to get there was pretty simple as well... begin with a good foundation of mares, breed them to the best stallions you could afford, and produce something better than what you started with. But to be even more specific, they wanted to prove that they could breed National calibre horses using only Canadian breeding stock.
Fifteen years later they finally saw their dreams come true as Island Elegance became the Canadian National Champion Arabian Mare. (read the full story of the breeding program and Island Elegance's journey to the top.)
"After fifteen years in this business, I still consider myself a novice. I have been impressed by the Arabian community, because to me when you reach out for help, you always get it. People have been very supportive – the preconceived notion that this business is very elite and standoffish certainly has not been my experience." Don James
Ruth James hasn't been sitting around the pasture either. A retired schoolteacher Ruth put her talents to good use when she joined the board of directors of The African Children's Book Box Society. The African Children's Book Box Society was founded in Nairobi, Kenya in 1991. Their main purpose is to support and increase literacy in Africa by providing children with their own stories and literature written by African authors. They do this by putting together and distributing portable libraries of African books in the form of "Book Boxes" to African schools.
Aside from her fundraising activities in Canada, Ruth and her friend Anne Pearson (also a retired teacher and director of the charity) visit Tanzania each spring to work on projects there. They spearheaded the construction and equipping of a school library for a remote village school and have several other educational and aid projects in the works as well. One of their latest efforts is the launch of a school lunch program for the impoverished and hungry children who attend that school. Read about their exploits here.
Don and Ruth James
Don and Island Star
Don and Ruth on their Harleys
Island Elegance wins again!
Ruth and Anne at a charity corn roast and auction at the farm