ISSUE 62
JANUARY 2021
SAMMI &
GIZMO

FIND THEIR GROOVE
HAPPY DAYS
FOR HAYLEY
BERESFORD

JAMES PATERSON
-ROBINSON’S
FULL CIRCLE

PLUS: BLACK BEAUTY RIDES AGAIN, KERRY MACK, KELLY LAYNE, THE BILLY STUD, CAROLYN LIEUTENANT, DREAM BEACH ESCAPE, OTT TRANSFORMATION, HOW TO BEAT HEAT STRESS, THE POWER OF LIGHT & MORE!

AUSTRALIA`S BEST EQUINE MAGAZINE
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ISSUE 62

CONTENTS

JANUARY 2021
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A few Words

FROM THE CHAIRMAN

ROBERT MCKAY

Opinion

BACK TO THE FUTURE

RYAN’S RAVE BY HEATH RYAN

Eventing

SAMMI BIRCH & GIZMO FIND THEIR GROOVE

BY AMANDA YOUNG

Dressage

HAPPY DAYS FOR HAYLEY BERESFORD

BY ADELE SEVERS

Showjumping

FULL CIRCLE FOR JAMES PATERSON-ROBINSON

BY ROGER FITZHARDINGE

Lifestyle

BLACK BEAUTY RIDES AGAIN

BY SUZY JARRATT

Dressage

KELLY LAYNE & SAMHITAS MAKE A SPLASH IN FLORIDA

BY ADELE SEVERS

Special feature

‘MAIZY’ LANDS ON HER FEET IN NEW ROLE

BY AMANDA YOUNG

Special feature

COURAGEOUS KIWI BLAZES HER OWN TRAIL (Part 6)

BY ROGER FITZHARDINGE

Training

BUILDING BETTER RELATIONSHIPS

DR KERRY MACK

Health

THE POWER OF LIGHT

BY EQUILUME

Showjumping

EVERYONE NEEDS A BILLY!

BY ELLI BIRCH

Health

HOW TO BEAT HEAT STRESS

BY DR MAXINE BRAIN

EQ Journeys

HIDDEN TREASURE OF DIAMOND BEACH

BY MELISSA RIMAC

My Favourite Dish

SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE

WITH JAMES PATERSON-ROBINSON
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For someone who has stayed positive through a string of setbacks, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics could turn out to be fortuitous for Sammi Birch.

“I thought the world
was against us there
for a while.”

When Sammi Birch and Hunter Valley II won the CCI4*-L at Barroca d’Alva in December, there was no lavish prize giving, no bustling crowd clapping and cheering, and no festive atmosphere in which to celebrate a momentous win; such is the reality of major European sporting events in Covid-19 times. Yet the lack of fanfare in Portugal was no reflection of the gravity of this victory for the Australian eventer and her team.

“It’s been such a long time coming,” Sammi explains, “and right now, relief is the biggest feeling for me. Relief that we got there, we did it and we’re qualified for Tokyo next year. It’s been such a long process the last couple of years, I thought the world was against us there for a while, but it’s really nice to finish 2020 like this.”

While all Olympic equestrian hopefuls experience the highs and lows that competing in elite level sport brings – and to speak of luck as an element in their results is at best trivial and at worst insulting – it could be suggested that Sammi Birch has experienced more than her fair share of bad luck over the past few years. However, Sammi is positive and determined with an eye for the future, never once displaying self-pity as she speaks with frank honesty about the challenges she has overcome and the rocky path she has navigated over the past few years with her beloved Hunter Valley, or ‘Naughty Gizmo’ as he is known.

In 2016 Sammi and Gizmo placed 4th at Bramham CCI4*-L, were part of the winning Australian team at CHIO Aachen, and were selected as travelling reserves for the Australian team at the Rio Olympics. Everything was heading in the right direction; in 2017 the pair placed 3rd at Bramham and 4th at Pau CCI5*-L – Sammi’s first 5* level competition in 10 years – and it seemed they were on the right trajectory for 2018 World Equestrian Games team selection.

Unfortunately, 2018 turned out to be a devastating year. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Sammi continued riding throughout her chemotherapy treatment, working toward the achievement of her goals with unwavering commitment and determination. Sammi and Gizmo placed 6th at Luhmühlen in June and were selected to represent Australia at CHIO Aachen for the second time. At Aachen the combination showed their class and experience, placing 6th individually, however, their joy was short-lived. Sammi’s WEG 2018 dream had come to an abrupt end; it was discovered that Gizmo had picked up an injury at Aachen, and while a full recovery was always expected, there would be no more events for the pair in 2018.

“You try so hard to get them ready for team selection. I think because I wasn’t well, I overtrained a bit. I took it all out on him because I was desperate for that to be the one part of my life I could control,” Sammi recounts. “And in the end, I couldn’t control that either.” Sammi is upbeat as she talks about a painful chapter in her life, admitting with a laugh that she was rather grumpy and difficult to live with at the time.

“2020 did turn around
and end rather well.”

With Gizmo spending much of 2019 rehabilitating, Sammi was nevertheless busy competing an impressive team of horses from youngsters through to 4* level. By the time 2020 arrived, the stage was set for Gizmo’s return to the competition scene; like everyone, Sammi’s best laid plans were disrupted by Covid-19 and it was back to the drawing board.

“We were going to do Kentucky CCI5*-L, and obviously all of that got cancelled, but I think it would have been a big ask coming out of a year or two off,” Sammi concedes. “And then Gizmo had a minor injury, a thorn in his fetlock! Not in the joint, fortunately, just in the skin, but it wouldn’t come out. So just when we were starting to event again, he had to have an operation. So our timing was all off!”

Gizmo finally made it to an event at the end of August this year, only for Sammi to break her shoulder on the 1st of September. “So as you can imagine I was pretty hard to live with when I did my shoulder,” says Sammi, laughing again, despite the sheer frustration that the injury would have caused. “I really do feel like Gizmo and my timing was completely out of sync and I was tempted to just call it quits for the year and come out again in 2021. But he was in such good form, and my vet who has really helped me get him back on track said to me, ‘He needs to get to a CCI4*-L even if I have to ride him!’ So I said okay, and I got back on Gizmo two weeks after I broke my shoulder. I was only riding him, not any of the other horses, and doing so one-handed!”

Sammi’s laughing again as she recounts the whirlwind events of 2020. “So I started planning. At one stage we were going to go to Kronenberg CCI4*-L in Holland, then that was cancelled, so once again I was pretty hard to live with because I’d got myself all hyped up. And then we talked about going to Pratoni in Italy instead, but I was worried about Covid-19 and the event possibly being cancelled and travelling all the way down there and it not running.”

Eventually, Sammi made the decision to enter the Portugal Winter Tour. The series consisted of three separate events held over a three-week period from November to early December 2020, and provided an opportunity to compete high level horses in two separate competitions; a short format CCI4* at the start of the tour and a long format CCI4* at the end of the series, with a rest week in between.

“All year, everyone’s been saying to me, ‘Are you going to come to Portugal in November?’ and I kept saying ‘No, I don’t want to go to Portugal, you have to be away for a month, I have a five-year-old child, no way!’ Then it became apparent that I was going to have to go. And to be honest, it was not what I wanted to do. I did not want to leave everyone for a month. It’s a very long way to travel, it’s expensive, and even the night before I left my little boy was saying ‘Mummy, I don’t want you to go!’ I think if I didn’t have another horse entered, an owner’s horse, I think I would have pulled the plug. But as I had another owner’s horse, I had to go. There were a lot of tears!”

Reluctantly, Sammi embarked on the long trip south to Portugal with Hunter Valley, Finduss PFB and Helen Tagg, her much-loved head groom and Favourite Person. No trip to a major event would be complete without “Hels”, who commenced working for Sammi in 1999 when she was still based in Australia, and remained the backbone of her team throughout the rollercoaster ride of the past 21 years.

“Okay Giz, we have not
been out here in Portugal
for this long only to
stuff it up.”

Barroca d’Alva, located 20 minutes from Portugal’s historic capital, Lisbon, is the nation’s premier eventing venue and well regarded for its quality surfaces and friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The 2020 Winter Tour attracted riders from all over Europe; nine nations were represented in the CCI4*-S class, which ran from 21-22 November. Sammi and Gizmo finished in 3rd place on a score of 35.6 penalties, adding only time penalties to her second-placed dressage score of 30.4 penalties, while Finduss PFB finished 5th overall on 39.1 penalties. It was an auspicious start to the tour – Gizmo’s first FEI event since 2018 had been a success – were Sammi’s fortunes starting to change for the better?

During the rest week between the short and long form CCI4* events, husband Ed and son Charlie joined Sammi in Portugal. “They came over because I just thought, well, life’s too short, and I had a bit of a quiet week. So that was lovely having them there between events. Charlie’s not horsey and all he wants to do is get away from the horses, so it’s much easier to concentrate at events when Charlie’s not around, and this way we were actually able to have a bit of a holiday. So, 2020 did turn around and end rather well!” Sammi enthuses.

Long format week dawned. Barroca d’Alva may have a reputation for fine weather and fair conditions, yet perhaps in keeping with 2020’s theme, the skies opened and unleashed increasing amounts of wind and rain as the CCI4*-L progressed. By the time Sammi headed out on the cross country course with Gizmo, the ground was boggy in parts and it was proving difficult for riders to finish inside the optimum time. Having enjoyed a spectacular ride on Finduss PFB, known as ‘Louis’, which saw the pair rise from 14th after dressage to 4th after cross country with just 4.0 time penalties, Sammi headed out on Gizmo with confidence, grit and steely determination.

“I said to him, ‘Okay Giz, we have not been out here in Portugal for this long only to stuff it up, we have to make this work’,” Sammi laughs. They blitzed it; with just 2.4 time penalties the pair rose from third after the dressage to the top of the leaderboard after cross country in a strong field of 25 starters. The show jumping phase told a similar story; Gizmo had pulled up well after cross country day and jumped beautifully. The pair sealed victory on an impressive score of 32.5 penalties, clear winners by a margin of over 5 penalties.

“To be honest, my husband and the girls here were just really relieved that they’d be able to be happy and enjoy Christmas. I think they’d all been thinking, ‘Gosh if this doesn’t go right we are in big trouble!’” Sammi laughs, before adding, “It really has been a mammoth effort since Aachen 2018 to get Gizmo back on the road, and me back on the road. It’s taken everyone’s support and I’m very grateful for that.”

Hunter Valley is not known as “Naughty Gizmo” without reason; the cheeky 15-year-old is the apple of Sammi’s eye, however, he does have a unique character and his own specific set of management requirements. “Gizmo is very naughty and cheeky – he bucks, bites and kicks! I call him my firstborn, which is probably slightly unhealthy. But we’ve got a good rapport with each other and I love him to pieces. It was so perfect that Hels was there for our win in Portugal as she is just amazing with him, and with all of my other horses. It felt like a win for the three of us really.

“It does take a village, and there are so many in that village!” Sammi explains. “From Alex Franklin, who not only helps me a lot on the flat but is also just a great support person that I talk to regularly about what we can do, to our vet and farrier who have both been incredible. Of course, Gizmo has both a chiropractor and a physio! All the girls at the yard at home in Gloucestershire are amazing; there are four of them, and one has to make a special trip with Gizmo each week to the water treadmill as he won’t go with another horse.”

“Gizmo is very naughty
and cheeky – he bucks,
bites and kicks!”

One of the challenges Covid-19 restrictions has presented is the limited capacity for riders’ support teams to be present at major events. “Most of the time we have a team there – vets, trainers and the like,” Sammi explains. “So I was on my own for a month in many ways. I had no one to warm me up; much as I tried to convince her, my dressage trainer couldn’t come over to help me. We’re very lucky to have (showjumping legend) Nelson Pessoa working with the Australian team so of course he was on the phone a couple of times, but he couldn’t be there to help me in the warm-up on the final day.”

Sammi’s success – despite such unfamiliar and isolating circumstances – is no surprise; the events of recent years may have taken her away from the limelight, however, her experience and success at the top of the sport is well known and regarded. Growing up in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, her talent was evident from a young age when she travelled to England in 1999 to compete at Badminton on Hunter Red, a thoroughbred her father Lyndon McLeod bred to race.

“I’d never been to Badminton before, not even to walk the course. Of course, when I did walk the course I thought ‘what am I even doing here? This is ridiculous, this is massive!’ Then afterwards when I finished 7th people were telling me to stay over in England. I was 21 years old and I thought, ‘why would I stay here?’ I thought coming to Badminton and finishing in the top 10 was quite a normal thing to do, and that I’d simply come back in a few years when I had another good horse. I had no idea what I had just done, and to be honest I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to do it again!”

Back in Australia, another super horse by the name of Frederick Hunter would help Sammi seal her reputation as one of the nation’s top eventers. Referred to by Heath Ryan as a “Death Machine”, Sammi recalls that Fred’s antics make Gizmo’s cheekiness seem demure in comparison, but his talent was undeniable. After winning almost everything that could be won on home soil, the pair were selected to represent Australia at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez in 2002.

“We could almost front
two teams at the moment.”

When Sammi, Hels, three horses and two dogs relocated to the UK in 2005, the plan was to stay for a few years, however, they never left. While Sammi remains an Australian at heart, England is now home. She misses her family in Australia, and admits that she is struggling with the thought of being unable to spend Christmas 2020 with her parents. “I would normally see them at least every six months. This year was definitely planned to be a ‘go to Australia for Christmas’ year. And my dad’s getting older,” says Sammi. “I found that very hard this year, the fact that normally if anything happens, I can just get on a plane. It’s been another challenge for 2020. Everyone’s in the same position, but it’s tough.”

With 29 horses on the yard in England to look after, Sammi will be kept busy over the festive season while Gizmo enjoys a well-deserved break. “He’s having a little holiday, then he’ll slowly be brought back into work. He’s a bit of a brat, if we put him out with another horse he tries to play with it and then he’ll end up getting kicked or something like that, he’s injury prone!” Sammi laughs. “So we keep a close eye on him. He’s going out in the field by day then back in at night so we can control his behaviour.”

As 2021 dawns, there’s plenty for Sammi to look forward to. Having now qualified for the postponed Tokyo Olympics, Sammi’s tone is pragmatic as she shares her thoughts on selection. “Obviously I would love to represent Australia at Tokyo. Riding at the Olympics has been a lifetime goal, and now we’re qualified. I just wanted to tick that box this year. We’re qualified and all set, and we will wait and see what happens.”

“We were traveling reserves for Rio, and that was great for us at that time. I think he’s a real Tokyo horse. I think the Aussies are really strong contenders; I would be surprised if Australia does not win a medal at Tokyo. The problem for all of us in contention is that we could almost front two teams at the moment, and do well on both of them! That’s the hard thing, of course, I would love to go but a lot happens between now and then. And yes, we have a lot of depth right now, but then horses do tend to fall apart in an Olympic year. It happens every time – I obviously became a victim of that coming into WEG 2018. So we’ll wait and see.”

Tokyo dreams aside, Sammi has an exciting stable of horses to campaign in the New Year, including Finduss PFB with whom she has qualified for Badminton following their results in Portugal. On return from Barroca d’Alva, Sammi was delighted to meet a new arrival from Australia – Gizmo’s four-year-old half-brother, Dasher.

“Gizmo was the first foal out of the mare Lilly, who was by Brilliant Invader, and Dasher is the last,” says Sammi. Like Gizmo, Dasher spent his early years with her good friends Prue and Craig Barrett in Australia, who started him under saddle. While Gizmo is by Wirragulla Hamlet, Dasher is by Sandhills Sensation, a horse that the Barretts bred and produced. As Sammi explains, he is quite travel-light after his quarantine period in Australia and the long trip to England, however, he hasn’t stopped eating since he arrived. “Hels is a feeder!” she laughs. “To be honest, he looks gorgeous. So fingers crossed he’s going to be good!”

While Sammi crosses her fingers for Dasher’s future, those in her village collectively cross their fingers for her; for some riders, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has been a disaster, yet for Sammi the timing may work in her favour. When it’s suggested that she deserves a bit of luck, Sammi laughs again: “Well, I’ve just had some, so I’m happy!” If Sammi’s Olympic dream does come true in 2021 it will be due to a whole lot more than just luck – hard work, commitment and a brilliant team will be the key ingredients – and everyone will agree that she has earned and deserves it. EQ

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