Weekend Warrior: Canuck Place Children’s Hospice CEO Denise Praill’s work rides on her love for horses

Praill bides her time between work and passion

Denise Praill doesn’t know when she first met a horse—she just remembers breaking her wrist while riding one in Grade 2. “It’s just something that has been an integral part of our lifestyle,” she says.

Praill’s family has been challenging the stigma around gambling and horse racing for generations: her great uncle was a racehorse trainer, she and her mom own a share of two horses (yes, you can do that) and her youngest daughter rides professionally.

“Contrary to popular belief, the racetrack can be a very family-friendly place,” Praill says, noting that, while you do run into the occasional oddball, “it’s a wonderful community to be part of.”

Even as the CEO of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, a nonprofit that provides pediatric palliative care for children and their families in B.C., the equestrian always makes time for horses. There is a clear bind between interacting with sick kids and animals of that size for her. “When you’re with horses, you have to be there—you can’t be worried about what’s happening next Tuesday,” she explains. “And I think you’re present in the space with children and families who are going through such difficult times to almost honour the suffering and pain that you can witness.”

It’s a unique position to be in—you need to be disciplined in handling the business, but also compassionate in your interactions. Praill believes that her time with horses gives her the capacity to keep showing up for the kids and her team at Canuck Place: “It fills my soul to be in a barn, to smell the horses and to shovel the hay.”

The work comes naturally to Praill. Her first job was selling fish and chips at the race track, dating back to before Interac and tap was a thing. She loved it—especially when lucky patrons left a good tip. By 15, Praill was working on the backstretch, grooming and walking horses.

She claims to have always felt the call to serve. After studying criminology at SFU, Praill spent 10 years at United Way B.C. focused on community development in the areas of urgent response, children, youth, seniors, poverty, food security and mental health. When she joined Canuck Place as chief development officer in 2013, she took over two of the organization’s most important files: government relations and fundraising.

Her drive set the stage for her to take over as CEO in 2021, the same way that her inherent pull toward horses paved the way for her to serve on the board of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of BC—a Vancouver organization that represents licensed thoroughbred owners and trainers in the province, advocating for horse welfare, track conditions and more. Until recently, Praill was also on the board of New Stride Thoroughbred Adoption Society, a Langley charity that retrains racehorses and connects them with new owners to ensure that they have a career beyond the races.

“Horses can live to be up to 30 years old,” she says. “They give their all, in terms of training and running, and I think it’s incumbent on the owners and the trainers to graduate these horses onto their next lives.”

Retired racehorses often become jumpers, trail riders or even track ponies, which is what one of Praill’s own beloved horses is now being transitioned into. In his heyday, Square Dancer won many big-stake races and was named horse of the year by Hastings Racecourse in 2015. “The trophy was crazy; it was like the size of the Stanley Cup!” Praill says with a laugh.

Her way of investing in communities is by working with (and for) children and horses. Staying true to her commitment to being present, she commutes from Coquitlam to Canuck Place’s Abbotsford and Vancouver locations as much as possible: “When I think about our nursing team and our counsellors that are face-to-face with children and families who are experiencing loss, I think it’s important to be on-site to support our team.”

Warrior Spotlight

In partnership with BC Children’s Hospital and BC Women’s Hospital, Canuck Place Children’s Hospice cares for children and youth aged 0 to 19 with life-threatening illnesses. The 200-person nonprofit offers at-home services like pain and symptom management and end-of-life support. Children and families can stay at Canuck Place’s two hospice locations in B.C. as well as access its 24-hour phone line. “We also provide the opportunity for families to make memories through our recreation therapy, music and art programs,” says CEO Denise Praill.