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Dedication pays dividends with Aaron Hadlow

You have to admire the dedication and tenacity of some of Australia’s best riders – and Aaron Hadlow is certainly one of them, writes REBECCA ASHTON.

Most riders in Australia come under the amateur banner, but few if any have won the World Cup Pacific League. Aaron Hadlow has reached the top of his sport but had the same beginnings as many of us and continues to hold down a ‘normal’ job while competing at the top level.

The first horse to arrive in the previously non-horsey Hadlow family was when Aaron was just five years old. “My older brother won money in a drawing competition and wanted to get a horse so Dad ended up going to the sales at Goulburn and bought a horse called Juicy Fruit. I think it cost $200.” The little horse came with a saddle and bridle. Dad Mark, a panel beater by trade, rode him home but experienced an unplanned dismount in the main street of Goulburn. Juicy Fruit went galloping off and had to be stopped by the police.

Soon afterwards, the family moved to Koonawarra near Wollongong to find better work and schooling opportunities. Aaron and his brothers befriended a lady, Karen Knight, living at the end of their street who owned a horse that they used to ride four times a week before she sold it … to them!

Vahlinvader shows why she’s Aaron’s top horse (Image by Australian Jumping).

Aaron was going into first grade at school and four of the five Hadlow children were riding. “My older brother had a paint horse called Cherokee who he rode for a while then gave up. I took over that ride. My sister was a very good rider but she didn’t really want to put in the hard work. She just wanted to turn up and ride. Considering how much effort she made, she was very successful before she stopped. It ended up with just my identical twin Tim and me riding, and we’ve been riding ever since.” The pair had good horses, bad horses, horses that bolted, the works. They would ride around the streets with their friends to get fish and chips by the lake or go to McDonalds.

If the boys wanted to ride after school, Mum and Dad would send them off to get the horses from where they were agisted and bring them back so they could help them saddle up – both brothers were too short to manage that on their own. “We would go up with the bridles, jump on using logs and fences, and ride them back bareback.” But being cheeky Aussie kids, the boys didn’t go straight home. It was down to the bike track to play tip on their ponies before heading home to cranky parents who informed them it was too late to ride, and that instead they had to walk their ponies back to the paddock to cool them off. Of course, it was a gallop back up the hill to put the horses away. “That was our foundation; hooning around bareback, falling off, getting back on.” The ponies fared well, living off very simple food with never a day off lame or with colic. Perhaps kids and horses were tougher back then!

Aaron and Vahlinvader, winners of the 2022 Waratah Showjumping World Cup Qualifier (Image by Simon Scully).

Aaron is saddened by the way the great horsey area they grew up in has changed; no kids riding the streets now, and new housing estates have marched across the landscape. Unfortunately, this is now common in many regions in Australia, so that these days kids can’t ride at will without a saddle. It concerns Aaron that those carefree opportunities to muster resilience he and his siblings experienced are no longer available to youngsters.

Things started getting a little more serious as the twins hit their teenage years, got better horses and began to specialise. Although he starting out jumping, and according to Aaron he was the better jumper of the two, Tim turned his hand to hacking after becoming too nervous to jump the bigger obstacles. He’s still successful in the show ring today. Basically Aaron just liked going fast! “Really I just loved galloping! I loved jumping, sporting and cross country but Dad stopped me doing the latter because I was just going too quick. I did do track work before and after school just for a bit of money, but the racing never really interested me.”

After finishing school, Aaron began working for Rod Brown before moving to Hillary Scott’s Oaks Sport Horses for a time. He loved both jobs but then equine influenza hit and it was clear to the young rider that a job away from horses would be smart. Although he’d studied hospitality through his HSC and had gained an apprenticeship as a chef, Aaron changed tack and landed himself a role as a trainee procurement officer for the Illawarra Retirement Trust, before moving into the accounts receivable department at WIN television where he still works today. “It’s a job that helps pay for the horses. I work from 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening, and then I either teach or ride owners’ horses. My partner and I also have an ice cream business. There’s never a dull moment.”

There is no doubt Aaron understands the meaning of hard work, but with little work/life balance, there are some cranky moments by the end of the week! Dinner with friends almost never happens and with ten horses holidays are hard to organise, so shows are the opportunity for time away. Aaron is aware that such a heavy schedule can take the fun out of competing so he’s had to learn to recentre himself, take the pressure off, and enjoy the competitions because they’re really what’s important to him and what he wants to focus on. The occasional mediocre year after a successful one and going through COVID where he struggled a little mentally, feeling he had no purpose with no competitions, has driven home to Aaron the joy of success and to never take it for granted. Every win is to be celebrated.

Aaron aboard Justin and Di Wilkinson’s Cera Stiletto (Image by Simon Scully).

The biggest of those successes to date has to be winning the World Cup Pacific League in 2018/19 aboard his own mare Vahlinvader. Believing the mare was too green to be taken on to such a big overseas show, Aaron instead opted to go as a spectator. “Oh my god it was incredible. It taught me we need really high quality horses. The horses over there are absolutely amazing and I think there is a lot of depth to their education as well,” something that perhaps to a degree is lacking in Australia. “I’d love to go up and train with George Sanna at Chatham Park, but to make it worthwhile, I’d need to take four horses on the four hour round trip, and working full time, it’s just not possible.” Aaron would very much like to see Equestrian Australia offer more squad clinics for those who don’t have the time or money to train regularly with top coaches, which he believes would add greater depth to the sport as more riders would have better opportunities.

Aaron flags winning his first World Cup Qualifier in Gatton in 2018 as one of his most memorable highlights. “I said to Dad the year before that I was so over being rusty going into those events because I was only doing one or two a year and it’s a big difference jumping at 1.45 to 1.55 or 1.60. The margin for error just gets less and less as the fences get that big.” But really the main highlight for the 35-year-old is in producing consistency with Vahlinvader and his team horses. Keeping them all sound, happy and competing well is where Aaron finds his joy.

Aaron and Vahlinvader took out a 4th place at the 2019 Sydney Royal (Image by Australian Jumping).

The horses on his team are impressive. Along with his top mare, Aaron rides Bellhaven Coolibah (Slick) who is owned by Deborah Heindl of Bellhaven Stud, as well as Bellhaven Toulon Blue. He has a half ownership in the five-year-old gelding Bellhaven Santiago. Then there’s Justin and Di Wilkinson’s Cera Stiletto, Jazdan Raphaela (Ella) owned by Melinda Rechichi, and Paula Pratt’s Ironbark Grove Colonel (Jock). “I own a four year old gelding by Cornel who is just coming into work, and a daughter out of Lucy (Vahlinvader) by Cornel who is also rising four and is due to foal any day now. I’m currently working from home on foal watch!” And finally there’s Aaron’s faithful old mare Step Sister, now 28, who accompanied him on the Young Rider circuit and is living at best friend Kristy Lee Hogan’s property.

According to the show jumper, the biggest challenge at the top of the sport is the feeling of isolation. “It’s a very lonely sport. It’s something that I’ve probably struggled with a lot both physically and mentally because there are times when you feel like you just want to give up. Then you go out and do well, and it gives you motivation to keep going – but it is very lonely.” Aaron would very much like to see more team events to perhaps make the sport a bit more welcoming and inclusive.

Deborah Heindl’s Bellhaven Coolibah, another impressive horse on Aaron’s team (Image by Simon Scully)

Despite this, there are still aspirations for the NSW’s south coast based rider. “I would love to go to New Zealand next February for a couple of shows. With Lucy’s World Cup win a few weeks ago, that money will go into the trip fund.” Aaron dreams of being able to produce something to take him to a World Cup Final, an Olympic Games or a World Championship, but if he can’t consistently produce double clear rounds in Australia then he believes he’s not up to the standard to go overseas.

And he’d love to be based in the US for a spell: “I think it would suit my style; quick, fast in your hand horses. I’d like to take two or three horses to ride so I’m not doing stable duties. I would have to take clients’ horses and I could do it from a financial perspective. I have a very good work ethic and I don’t want to end up used and abused in a job as a yard rider. Whether I get there or not, I don’t know, but they’re my goals.”

Aaron wants to be a good producer, to be at the top of the sport and to represent the country – and with that recent World Cup qualifier win on Lucy at the Waratah World Cup Grand Prix, he’s still right on track to fulfill his dreams.

Feature Image: Aaron and Vahlinvader in winning form at the 2022 World Cup Qualifier (Image by Simon Scully).