by Victoria Howard
Some horsepeople come from a harness racing family, and others do not.
For Ashleigh Hensley, her parents Ron and Jodie Cullen, and her grandparents on both sides (Carol and Morley Cullen), (George Manning) her great-grandpa, Alfred Siliphant, trainer/blacksmith Uncle Greg Manning and Aunt Debbie McLeod trainer/driver (now a presiding judge in Alberta), were all heavily involved.
So, it is no surprise that Hensley and her brother, driver Travis Cullen would follow their path. Hensley’s sister, Brittany Cullen, is also involved in the sport as she owns and runs a small business called “Britt’s Custom Creations” where she makes customized horse attire and clothing for everyone in the industry.
“I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My parents were both actively involved their whole life in harness racing, and I have worked in the barn for as long as I can remember,” Hensley said. “I got really involved in the sport when I was 13 years old. That is when I owned my first horse – Ednas Pomme — who was given to my brother and I from my parents’ long-time owner and friend Earl Stewart.
“Ednas meant so much to us in many ways, so when her racing career ended we gave her to our great-uncle where she lived her life out until she passed away of old age.
“In 2008 (at age 17), I got my first trainers license and trained a couple horses that my brother and I bought together with our own money. My brother and I worked together until we graduated from high school, and then I ventured out on my own.
“I began my racing career on the Manitoba fair circuit, then raced at Northlands Park, Alberta Downs and Century Downs. From there I went on to race at Pompano Park in Florida and Hoosier Park in Anderson, Indiana.”
In 2014, Hensley would meet her future husband, Ed Hensley, and the two would teamed up in 2015 and have worked side-by-side together ever since.
“We have different ideas on certain things, but at the end of the day we are very competitive and just want to do the best we can with the horses and win races.
“I guess in a way it’s good to have different opinions because every horse is different, but I don’t question my husband for he’s a great horseman. He does all our own blacksmith work, which is a big asset, and drives our horses.
“Our teamwork is pretty simple: in the barn I get the horses ready and Ed does the majority of training on the track these days. It’s a good system and works very well for us.”
Racing in the frigid, winter months in Canada is very challenging and at times dangerous.
“Yes, racing during the winter in Canada is definitely challenging and this is where my husbands’ talents as a blacksmith really come in handy.
“The horses’ shoes need to be sharp and corked up, which takes a lot of extra time. And in the winter months, the upkeep of our farm track can be quite difficult. We are lucky to have my father onboard, for he takes care of the track and does a great job! Bless his heart, for dad spends a lot of late nights and very early mornings on the track during the winter making sure it is safe for all.”
The track Ashleigh is talking about is the one on the farm that they purchased from horseman/trainer/driver Kelly Sheppard.
“In 2017, Ed and I purchased the 50-acre farm with my brother, Travis Cullen. We bale our own hay and get roughly 2,500 to 3,000 square bales every year.
“There are 11 turnout paddocks, 50 stalls, and the track is
½ mile. One of our horses holds the track record there, taken a mark in 1:54.
“Since moving to Ontario, we have bought only one yearling, but we have decided to get into breeding our own mares, since we can’t compete with the big owners and huge prices the horses are bringing at the sales.
“Today, we have four pacers and four trotters. We have a 2-year-old homebred in training named Floyd The Freak, who is out of our mare Escuela; and we have a 3-year-old in training named Radio Lab.”
Ashleigh said her all-time favorite is a horse called Terrorizer.
“Terrorizer is super special for he was the very first horse I owned 100 per cent of. I bought him for $1,000, but, remember, horses don’t know how much they cost.
“Although he wasn’t too much, he did take a mark of 1:52.4 and banked $123,148 in lifetime earnings. He is now retired and living the good life on our farm.
“As far as the highlight of my career, it was when the mare Scarlett Hanover won the Super Final in 2021-2022 and the O’Brien Award in both 2021 and 2022. At that time we trained Scarlett for our good friends Ron Burke and Mark Weaver. They are great memories and I’ll forever be grateful.
“Ed and I usually only train horses we personally own. I guess, as far as the ‘best ones’ I’ve had, it would have to be Request For Parole, Audrey’s Dream and April Rose.”
As for what direction racing in Canada looks to be going, Ashleigh said, “I think racing in Canada looks promising, so far. Although it’s definitely not like it used to be, it’s still going pretty strong. The Canadian people love harness racing and as long as they get to go to the track and watch and bet, I think Canada racing will be around awhile.”