In any serious discussion of equestrian excellence and world-class competitions, the names George and Dianne Tidball will inevitably come up.
The Langley couple, who passed away just weeks apart in 2014, made an indelible imprint on the global horse community – and likewise on Langley.
And for all they did to advance the equestrian world, they will be honoured next week with an induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
During the Banquet of Champions at the Vancouver Convention Centre on April 12, the couple will be among a number of individuals and teams being recognized for their contributions to the sports world.
All four of their children, as well as 16 other family members, will be in attendance.
“The entire Tidball family is so pleased that George and Dianne Tidball are being inducted into the 2017 BC Sports Hall of Fame for their spectacular contributions to Canadian equestrian sports,” their daughter, Jane Tidball, told the Langley Advance.
“The Thunderbird Show Park company they started 44 years ago, in 1973, encompasses everything from young children and ponies to Nations Cup and World Cup competition,” she explained.
“They have personally contributed to excellence in Canadian sport with the passion for horses and a vision for high performance.”
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CAPTION: George Tidball
How T-Bird began
The story of their Thunderbird Show Park began in 1966, when George and Dianne 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 her parents 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.”
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 that would host their first show in 1972 – a quarter horse show and team roping at the new 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 Olympic Games in 1984 in Los Angeles, Calif., and 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Thunderbird built its reputation as a quality horse show facility. Having the Keg & Cleaver (later the 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.
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CAPTION: T-bird, otherwise known as the Thunderbird Show Park, started in the mid 1966 when a young girl wanted a horse. Today, that equestrian facility started by George and Dianne Tidball, is recognized as one of the best around the globe. (Langley Advance files)
Show park came to fruition
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, with numerous 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, and opened the door for many local competitive riders’ dreaming of competing at the national and international level.
Jane, who is now president of T-bird (www.tbird.ca), is excited to see her parent’s legacy live on, and invites people who haven’t ever explored the centre to swing by.
“We would love to invite the public out to see this year’s Odlum Brown BC Open event presenting Canada’s only the Nations Cup Jumping on Friday, June 2 and our Longines World Cup event, presented by Facet Advisors. on Sunday, Aug. 27.”
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CAPTION: All four of George and Dianne Tidball’s kids will be attending their late parent’s induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, including their son Stephen and daughters Laura Balisky, Katheryne Robbins, and Jane Tidball – each who play a role in ensuring their parents legacy lives on. (Special to the Langley Advance)
How Tidballs ended up in Langley
The couple had adventurous forebearers and lives that took them all over the world before settling down in Langley.
Dianne was born in Shanghai in 1932, where her father, John, Braidwood was a Lever Brother’s Far East Division manager. Her mother, Wenda, was originally from Poland, and the pair were on a short leave there in 1939 when the family had to scramble to avoid the invading Germans.
They settled in Vancouver and later Naramata in the Interior, but Dianne’s father would later return to Shanghai, where he was captured by the Japanese during the Second World War and interned in a POW camp for several years. After more time in Shanghai, her father re-joined the family in Naramata.
Dianne would graduate from Penticton High in 1951, where she had already met George Tidball, originally from Carstairs, Alta.
George was a descendent of pioneers and war veterans hailing from the Canadian West.
A graduate of a one-room schoolhouse and then Pentiction High, George went on to study at the University of British Columbia.
He ran into academic problems a few times in his early life, but developed a pattern of bouncing back and studying harder.
He failed his first year at UBC, but then graduated at the top of his year as a chartered accountant.
George and Dianne were married in 1952, and George started working for Alcan.
With three young children in tow, the family headed off to the United States in 1959, when George got the opportunity to study first at Harvard, and then in Chicago.
“My experience at Harvard forced me to reconsider my perspective on everything,” George recalled years later. “When I failed the very first exam, I came home and said, ‘Dianne, I think we made a mistake, I can’t keep up with these guys’. But later I found out that the professor failed me because he thought I was too arrogant. That changed my attitude towards school – I decided to study more seriously.”
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CAPTION: Dianne Tidball
Dianne supported the family, while George studied – he had a scholarship that it covered only books and tuition.
She took up typing envelopes at home while caring for their children.
It was also Dianne who spurred the family’s move into the restaurant industry.
After leaving Chicago, she missed the simple fast food place that their kids had loved. It was a new chain called McDonald’s.
With the family back in Vancouver, George approached McDonald’s, looking for the chance to open a single franchise. He came back with the rights for all of western Canada.
They opened their first franchise in Richmond in 1967, and would eventually open 32 stores over the next four years.
It was also in the late 1960s that the couple and their now-four children would come to Langley, all because oldest daughter Kathy wanted that horse.
By 1969 the family had an acreage near Fort Langley, and space enough for their children to ride.
George, having sold his McDonald’s franchises, was busy creating The Keg chain, while at the same time the family oversaw the creation of the Thunderbird Equestrian Centre.
The original Thunderbird park was closed in the late 1990s, and the area redeveloped into commercial and residential units (where Colossus Cineplex movie theatres and Thunderbird Villlage currently stand).
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Joining the hall of fame ranks
Induction to the BC Sports Hall of Fame recognizes extraordinary achievement in BritishColumbia’s athletic community in the categories of athlete, builder, team, pioneer, and media.
Since 1966, the BC Sports Hall of Fame has inducted 374 individuals and 59 teams.
Tickets for the event are available at bcsportshalloffame.com.