A high row of champion ribbons lines the wall of the chill-and-chat room at the equestrian centre Ashleigh Tuhkala leases from Shady Hazel Farm in Gibsons. Horse figurines fill the window ledges. Next to a welcoming couch, a stuffed cougar, caught in a forever snarl by a taxidermist, commands the floor. Nearby, on a low table, lies a miniature plastic stable with a removable roof, corral and horses, inviting kids to play. On the fridge hangs a child’s crayon drawing of a horse.
Leaning forward on a low sofa, Ashleigh looks at ease in her jeans and plaid shirt. As founder and owner of Goldmine Quarter Horses since May 2018, this self-described “obsessed horse girl” has made it her passion to make horse-riding accessible, affordable and less intimidating to those who might view these four-legged creatures as scary lightning bolts on hooves. “Some people think it’s a super expensive hobby, but kids don’t have to wear all the expensive gear,” she says. “[Teaching riding] is about keeping them safe and building their confidence.”
While four other barns on the Sunshine Coast teach riding on English saddle, Ashleigh focuses on Western. She says she recognized a need to bring up riders who want to do something besides jump hurdles. As a rider herself, Ashleigh has tried events from barrel racing to cross-country, dressage and sorting cattle. Her favourite? “Chasing cows.”
To a Canada-wide audience, Ashleigh—recently featured on CTV’s new reality show Farming for Love—is a “bubbly, fun-loving horse trainer with a passion for animals and the outdoors.” Locally, she’s far more than this network’s e-talk description. Ashleigh not only currently boards 18 horses, she owns seven and has brought up her “babies” to become good riding animals for children aged five to 13. Through each school year, she offers starter and regular riding lessons for up to 32 kids a week and a Saddle Club for supervised independent riders. Besides spring break day camps, she provides one-week, half-week and one-day camps for kids in the summer.
The eldest child of six, Ashleigh augments her riding instruction with arts and crafts for the kids. “I ask them what they want to do,” she says. Such activities have ranged from painting picture frames, horse figures and horseshoes to making dream catchers and doing tie-dye.
From career choices to her reality TV role, Ashleigh has taken risks and pivoted into new opportunities with aplomb. When COVID hit, insurance regulations required the closure of commercial horse barns, which meant she had to cancel riding camps and lessons. For alternate revenue, Ashleigh considered carpentry and other trades until her RE/MAX realtor friend Rachel Dempster suggested she try selling real estate instead. Last year, Ashleigh did get her realtor’s licence and now works as a RE/MAX agent, juggling this work with her hands-on teaching and management of Goldmine Quarter Horses.
This horse lover, whose favourite childhood book and movie was Black Stallion, also farm-sits for Ian and Sara Rodgers of Shady Hazel Farm and helps look after their pigs and sheep. That’s part of what qualified her as a “country single” when CTV’s Farming for Love sent out a casting call for their new 10-episode show, which aired this past summer. She became one of their five featured farmers from across British Columbia. Each got matched with a team of daters who were assigned chores. Ashleigh’s dates, for instance, had to single-handedly catch a sheep and administer a dewormer orally with a dosing syringe. Every farmer was meant to eliminate daters over time except the one they hoped to pursue lasting love with.
(The show is based on the popular program Farmer Wants a Wife, which has screened in Australia, the UK, the U.S. and in French in Quebec. So far, the franchise has resulted in 197 weddings and 480 children.)
Happy as a single woman, Ashleigh says it took nudging from her friend Rachel to convince her to apply for the show. Once she was accepted, she says she never felt nervous on camera and took a practical approach: “Embrace it. Roll with it. Give it 110 per cent.” She adds: “You never know who you’re going to meet.”
Ashleigh had no idea, early in the show, how true that statement would become. Halfway through, when the farmers and daters attended a barn dance with a live band, Ashleigh realized that she didn’t feel like dancing with any of her daters. She then decided to send them all home, a decision that was hers alone, not scripted by the show.
This led to a life-altering, on-air encounter. Walking into Buono Restaurant in Lower Gibsons, Ashleigh came face-to-face with a new, surprise date: Drew Quarry, her best friend she’s known since elementary school in both Sechelt and Roberts Creek. On camera, Drew read her a letter in which he professed deep feelings for her. Taken aback, Ashleigh said she felt the same way, then reached over the table to kiss him.
She says now of this unexpected plot twist: “That was a whirlwind. I was shocked. [I said to myself:] ‘Try to be present in the moment. Don’t freak out too much.’”
Drew, who’s a third-generation Sunshine Coaster, calls his TV revelation the biggest risk he’s ever taken. He says he knew he didn’t want to miss out on the chance at love with Ashleigh. The marine consultant, who manages boat-building for Coastal Craft Yachts in Gibsons, stood alone on camera in the restaurant in extreme heat, with no idea what had happened on the show. He recalls: “It was like a greenhouse in there. They had all the blinds up with the sun right on me.”
Since then, the couple has shared road trips and attended the Calgary Stampede. New to the horse world, Drew now boards a horse with Goldmine, where Ashleigh has given riding lessons to his daughter.
As Ashleigh said on TV right after the couple’s heartfelt disclosures: “This is kind of the start of a new adventure.”