Multiple Sclerosis has not stopped Heather Roberts from achieving her horse dreams, writes Jane Camens. And Heather has no intention of stopping anytime soon, despite her debilitating and crippling disease.
It was no problem for Heather Roberts that I rang her an hour earlier than arranged, forgetting that Queensland doesn’t have daylight saving. By 8.00am she had already “hit the ground running, doing the horses”. Her words. Heather has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), so ‘running’ is a light-hearted exaggeration, typical of her. Her strength, positivity, and amusing anecdotes about her life with horses left me in awe of what she has achieved and still plans to in the future.
Heather is now in her early 60s. I first met her on a recent ATHRA camp in southeast Queensland where many remarkable people did the week-long ride – including a six-year old girl, a guy in his forties who’d been riding for only three months, and several people in their late seventies or older. But the rider who struck me as the most remarkable was Heather. She sat a dancing little Arab and was fine until the breaks. Only then she
faced a challenge.
“When I dismount I have trouble with my foot staying straight on the ground and not twisting,” she explains. “I have to really concentrate and ideally I need someone to take my foot out of the stirrup.”
A couple of times when she’s been alone on her property Heather hasn’t been able to dismount. “I’ve literally had to throw myself off the horse. It was awful,” she says. Since then, she’s designed and had build a mounting/dismounting ramp.
Heather has packed in a heck of a lot of hard riding since she learnt to ride at the age of 35. She’d grown up in suburban Brisbane, in Toowong and later, when she married, she and her husband Vyv lived in the nearby suburb of Mount Gravatt where Vyv had a bread run. But she’d always loved horses.
She thanks her son Aaron for starting her riding. He was 13-years-old and experiencing learning difficulties when she and Vyv struck a deal with him. If he agreed to remedial schooling he could take lessons in something he wanted to do. He chose horse riding. When his parents told him they were buying him a pony (Chester), he thought, Heather tells me, “Bring it on. Let the oldies spend all their money.”
Heather laughs. “I used to say we bought a $500 pony that cost over $300,000. But the fact is that Chester changed our lives.” Heather started riding too and not long afterwards bought Archie, a standard bred. Her daughters Renee and Hayley also became infected with the horse-riding bug. Eventually, Heather and Vyv sold their suburban house and moved to acreage. And more horses entered their lives.
Chester was a quarter horse-Arab cross who, according to Heather, ‘looked like a keg on legs’, at least next to the Arabs on the property where he and Archie were initially agisted. Chester wasn’t much good at pony club (“Aaron went over more jumps than Chester,” says Heather) so Heather and Aaron took to riding their ponies through the state forest with the owner of their agistment property, Paul, who was training for Endurance.
‘One day Paul asked Aaron why I always had a cranky look on my face when we were riding,’ Heather recalls. “I told him ‘That’s my Prepare to Die face.’ Aaron suggested to me that I yell out to them to slow down. ‘Are you kidding?’ Heather said. ‘I’m not going to be the kid’s whinging neurotic mother! Not on your life!’”
Heather’s idea was that it would be a good bonding opportunity for Aaron and Vyv to participate in an Endurance ride while she and the girls stayed at camp “doing girl things”. Vyv did just one camp and said “no more”. Heather was the one who ended up driving the two horses, the three kids and two dogs to the weekend rides. And she was the one who rode, which hadn’t been her plan.
She recalls one Endurance ride with her youngest girl Hayley, who was then only about seven years old. As is customary, the ride began in the dark. Hayley, riding Chester, was veering awfully close to the edge of a cliff. A couple of times Heather asked her to move Chester across to the other side. Suddenly, Hayley announced that in the moonlight she could see fields of broccoli. In alarm, Heather told her, ‘Sweetie, that’s not broccoli, they’re tree tops.’ Hayley woke up for the rest of the ride.
Heather completed her first Tom Quilty ride (taking the full 18 hours) in 1997 on the wonderful Archie. Aaron and her eldest daughter Renee’ were there for her at the finish line at 10 pm. In that same year it had become clear that Chester, now stiff with arthritis, had earned the right to retire. She also realised that if she was going to continue Endurance riding she needed to let Archie have an easier life too. So, at the age of 43, she decided to breed Arabs.
When her marriage broke up in 1999 Heather bought 120 acres where Chester and Archie could live forever, and where she could invest her time in the Arabs. Chester lived with her for 10 more years and died after a final goodbye with Aaron. Heather was living on the property in a shed. “You know how horse people tend to do it tough?” she says. “Well, I had a chemical loo, but the horses had 120 acres.”
Heather ended up having a high-profile career as an Endurance rider, twice completing the 400-kilometre Shahzada Endurance ride – covering 80 kilometres for each of five days. She also entered the Tom Quilty three times, completing two successfully. ‘My last Endurance ride was the 2007 Quilty. I only got around the second leg and I was cactus,’ she said. ‘That’s when I knew I needed to give Endurance the flick.’
She spoke about the slow onset of MS and how, for at least a decade before it was diagnosed, strange things happened to her body. ‘I woke up one morning and my jaw was dislocated. The doctor thought I’d done it grinding my teeth in my sleep. I did several Endurance rides with a brace holding my jaw in place.’
There were other signs. The side of Heather’s face and her lips would go numb, which the doctor initially said was stress. But then Hayley’s horse cow-kicked her. It brought on a major attack that got her to a chiropractor. The chiropractor wrote a referral to neurologist, which Heather somewhat stubbornly didn’t see the point of – so she missed the appointment. But her pain got worse. Her doctor eventually sent her for a full body MRI. ‘” was thinking I had a brain tumour,’ she says. ‘When the results came in, I went in after work. He told me I had MS and did I know what it was? I knew only that it involved wheelchairs down the track. But at the time for me, the diagnosis was liberating. At last I had an explanation of why those things were happening.”
Although she can’t ride Endurance any longer, Heather isn’t planning to quit horses any time soon. ‘If I get overheated or severally fatigued, the MS flares up,” she says. “I push through. I’m a very very determined person. As long as I can throw my leg over, I’m going to ride my horse.’
In Southeast Queensland’s 2011 floods Heather got flooded in on her property for 22 days. There were nine creek crossings to get to the farm and all of them were flooded. She was up on the farm along without a phone, because all mobile towers were diverted to emergency services. She had power only because she’d “girl- proofed” her place and had her own generator. “I knew I was in trouble, I was having an MS attack and having all this trouble with vision,” she says. “When I finally got out I had to spend a week in hospital
having massive doses of steroids.”
The Arab Heather rode at the ATHRA camp was her now 14-year-old mare Michaela, home bred from a mare she owned called Tutaman Mystika, with whom Heather twice did the Shahzada.
“I know Michaela so well and I find her easy to ride. I’m hoping she’ll last me until I can’t ride any more. Actually, I’ve bought a little paint colt. I’m going to break him to harness. When I can’t ride anymore I’ll drive. I’m going to be that crazy granny who takes the horse and cart to Woolworths.”
“I don’t pretend the MS is not happening, but I suck it up.”
And as a sidenote Aaron is now 38 years old, with a wife and child of his own. He works as a farrier and in his wallet he still carries a crumpled picture of Chester – the pony that started it all.