There was something about Oaklea Groover that Rebel Morrow hadn’t experienced before, and it was the start of an extraordinary journey, writes RACHEL ROAN.
Riding her mum’s Western pleasure Appaloosas, Rebel Morrow learned the importance of a correct riding position from an early age – but it was an introduction to the respected eventer Simon Kale that prompted her move to eventing. Rebel, who first evented as a nine-year-old, was hooked. “I got the bug for it. I thrived on the excitement of eventing,” she says. While not the most competitive breed for eventing, the Appaloosas proved reliable and surprisingly adaptable. “They were so damn obliging,” she recalls. “They were brilliantly schooled and brilliant for us to learn on.”
Rebel and Groover land safely in the water (Image by Roslyn Neave)
Two years later, with some eventing know-how under her belt, she switched to Thoroughbreds to accelerate her progress. At 17, she was selected as a Young Rider on the Trans-Tasman team competing in New Zealand. “By that age, my parents were taking me to comps everywhere,” Rebel explains. “I didn’t think it would become a career, but I had the ability and the support I needed.”
In 1998, Oaklea Groover entered her world with life-changing consequences. The offer came through Rebel’s farrier, whose wife was riding trackwork on the failed racehorse. “Groover was so willing. He wasn’t like any other Thoroughbred I’d tried before. Most are still geed up from racing or a bit highly strung, but he just settled in. He had a fantastic work ethic.” After a few weeks trialling him, Rebel knew she was onto a good thing. She remembers telling her mum: “I don’t know what it’s like to ride a horse that’s been to the Olympics, but if I was ever to go, it’d be on this horse.” At 21, she’d found her perfect partner. “Whatever the feeling was that Groover gave me,” she adds, “I had never experienced that before.”
But there was a catch. “When I got Groover I noticed a bloody yellow discharge from his nose, so I had the vets scope him.” An hour later she received a call informing her that Groover had ethmoid hematomas, debilitating masses in his nasal cavity. “You either treat it, or you put them down. You can’t leave it,” Rebel explains. The solution was an extremely expensive and difficult surgical procedure, with no guarantees of success. In fact, due to its invasive and traumatic nature, many horses die either during or shortly after the operation. Based on his failure as a racehorse,
Groover’s owners made the decision that it wasn’t worth putting him through such an expensive operation.
The alternative was euthanasia, and Rebel couldn’t let that happen. So she purchased him for $300 – a knackery price – and pursued the surgery. The decision to operate was not one she took lightly. “After the second surgery I was distraught. I asked the surgeon if I was being humane putting him through it? Was I being selfish wanting him to be alive?” The surgeon told her, matter-of-factly, that no horse had survived what Groover had so far survived. She distinctly remembers him saying: “This horse is meant for something great. If the horse was struggling, I would be clear with you, but he’s fine. He’s handling it.”
Despite the risks and the huge cost – “the class of horse I had in Groover, you couldn’t buy that”, Rebel remarks – three surgeries to remove the hematomas were planned around Rebel’s eventing schedule, allowing her to campaign Groover without disruption to either the competitions or the procedures. “He never showed signs that he wasn’t coping with anything we were doing.” Monitoring him carefully to ensure his recovery was humane, Rebel recalls that by getting him moving to blow the discharge out, the riding actually helped.
The expensive risk Rebel had taken paid dividends in 2003 at the Trans-Tasman New Zealand competition. Rebel was grooming for Tarsha Hammond. At the last minute, another horse pulled up lame leaving the team short. “I was already booked on the flight, and without meaning to, Groover had actually qualified to be on that team. It was right place, right time”, Rebel says. “That was my first time with him on the international stage. We did well enough to end up on the elite squad.” After achieving a fifth place at the then Adelaide 4* (now known as the 5*), Rebel and Groover had unintentionally qualified for the Olympic Games the following year.
The day after one of Groover’s three surgeries
Rebel partly credits her lack of planning to their success. “I had no intention of going to the Olympics and was unaware of our potential. I never put any pressure on myself or him. We were just doing what we loved.” Clearly nostalgic, Rebel explains that Groover rose to the occasion at competitions, thriving on the atmosphere that gave him pizazz: “Nothing was a problem for him.” So, in 2004, 26-year-old Rebel and nine-year-old Groover were off to the Athens Olympics. “To go to my first games at such a young age, I was star struck. But Groover’s nature was oh, we’ve got this”, Rebel laughs.
Another factor in Groover’s success were the hours of training Rebel put in teaching him to stay straight after a fence; something she now drills into her students. “As we neared the end of that selection event, I misjudged a fence and landed slightly tipped forward and onto his neck. But he cantered straight, and I was able to reposition myself to go on to win the event. Had I come off, I wouldn’t have been to the Olympics.”
Rebel reminisces about the ups and downs in the years that followed: “We hit a low not being able to attend the World Equestrian Games in 2006 due to a sacro injury Groover had sustained, and then Equine Influenza hit. He suffered a spiral fracture to his femur during that time while playing in the paddock and although he came good, it wasn’t enough for him to return to competition. Losing Groover was the biggest low.”
Dressage at the 2003 Trans-Tasman Cup (Image by Roslyn Neave).
But she is grateful for the opportunities that arose thanks to Groover. “All my travels overseas have been due to the industry.” She lights up telling me how special it is when someone recognises her achievement in attending the Olympics, and how rewarding it is for her to pass on her years of knowledge to a student. “Watching it click because of something you’ve said and knowing you’re able to help someone with their journey is massive. It makes me feel like my years of experience are paying off,” she explains.
Rebel also loves the high of starting new horses, feeling the excitement about the potential they have, and creating a partnership with them. Now back in Queensland and based out of the Irvine family’s Larapinter Equestrian, she’s helping to set up a cross country course with hopes to rival Wallaby Hill and plans to run an annual event. “I’m super happy to be advising on their set up,” she tells me.
She spotted her current horse, Maximus Prime, at her local jump club, fresh off the track, “full of talent and looking cheeky”, she laughs. “It took me a while to gel with him, although I could feel he had ability from the first ride”. And while she has only owned Max for 4 years, she thinks he has what it takes to go far.
Feature Image: Saved from the knackers, Rebel’s $300 superstar Oaklea Groover (Image by Roslyn Neave).