Riding to their own beat

When Shae Herwig recently won Champion ridden Spanish Andalusian mare, and National Champion ridden Spanish Andalusian on her beautiful mare Andaluka Diva at Australia’s National Championships, nobody knew the story of heartbreak that lay behind the triumph.

Growing up in the Northern Rivers region of Australia as the third-eldest in a family of four girls, horses were always a way of life for the Herwig girls. Some of Shae’s earliest memories are of riding with her sisters down to the creek for a swim. “We’d often double on our old horse Crystal,” she says, “and for all of us riding with our mum was just a natural thing.”

The ‘natural’ order of events led to Shae starting Bangalow Pony Club at the age of four in sub-juniors on her first pony, Charlie – “a crazy little thing,” she says. She stayed in the Club up until 2016 when she turned 25, and says that it gave her a great grounding for her competition life. A few “hand-me down ponies from my sisters,” saw her become highly-competitive at the age of 12 on a Palomino called Levi, and as she got older it became obvious that for Shae, horse-riding was not a passion she was going to ‘grow out of’ anytime soon. And it wasn’t just riding – it was also the community spirit that attracted her to the horse world. In 2010 she was crowned Bangalow Show Girl, and passed her title to her elder sister Maddy, the following year.

But it wasn’t until she was offered a free-lease of a young mare, Barbie, that her love of Andalusians was ignited. “Barbie’s owners told me that she had some Andalusian in her,” Shae recalls, “but when I saw her papers I was stunned to see that she was a pure-bred Australian Andalusian. I’d never really seen the breed, or taken any notice of them, but once I bought her, I thought that given she was a pure-bred I should at least try her in some classes.”

It was a match made in heaven. “Barbie and I won every class we went into, in led, hacking and dressage,” Shae says. “She took me to multiple Champion Riders at Pony Club, and when I took her to our first ever Andalusian Championship we entered into two led classes so I could see how it all ran, and came away with two seconds at the State Championships.”

In the meantime, as well as her success with Barbie, in 2015 Shae had taken on a young slightly nervous three-year old part Friesian part Welsh-Cob gelding, Jasper, a highly nervous horse who, in Shae’s words, “was pretty close to being a rescue, because when I saw where he was kept I just wanted to get him out of there.” Working with her two horses, and with the Saddle Hub, her life was the perfect balance – horses, horses and horses!

But unbeknownst to Shae 2015 was about to be her annus horribilis. The family had kept all their horses for many years on a 40-acre paddock just up the road from their family home, and the horses were a healthy, hardy mob with nothing wrong with them other than the normal litany of complaints with which horses delight their owners.

“What we didn’t know was that the paddock had Crofton’s Weed on it,” says Shae, “because none of our horses had ever eaten it or got sick from it. The first we knew was when I noticed that Barbie seemed to losing a bit of stamina, and that her breathing was odd, when we called the vet we were shocked to hear that she pneumonia, and that he put it down to the fact that she’d been eating Crofton’s Weed. We had no idea it was there, or that some horses can develop a taste for it.” (Crofton weed is an erect, perennial plant or a small, soft-stemmed shrub. When the plant matures, the stems become woody and turn brown or a brownish-green. Some horses enjoy Crofton weed because of the carrot-like smell produced from the roots and the slightly sweet taste of the young stems. Continued access to Crofton weed will cause a horse to become ill in as little as eight weeks. The first symptom of Crofton weed poisoning will be a persistent cough that is made worse by exercise. Lung and heart damage can occur if a horse is allowed to continue eating Crofton weed.)

Barbie – and all the horses – were taken off the paddocks as soon as the diagnosis came in, but it was to late, the damage to Barbie’s lungs was done. “I was devastated,” Shae says, “I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t curable, or that it had just happened in such a short space of time. I decided to take her in her last couple of led classes, and she won Champion led at Bangalow Show in 2015, and Supreme Led at Ballina Equestrian Club all breeds show, but after that it was a question of retiring her and hoping against hope that at least she would survive.”

It was around this time that Shae also invested in a beautiful and somewhat cheeky young buckskin, Murphy, with the ambition of bringing him along as an all-rounder. “I bought him when I realised that Barbie could never be ridden again,” she says. “He was a cheeky young horse but with a lot of potential, and so I set to work with him.”

Little did Shae know however, that this was just the beginning of her horse trials. Not long after Barbie’s diagnosis, when she was agisting Murphy and Jasper at a nearby property, Murphy developed a cold. “It was nothing unusual in the beginning,” Shae says, “it was treated, and it seemed to get better, but the mucus from his nose kept coming back, and finally it was diagnosed as a fungal infection, which of course we kept treating.”

It was during this time that Shae also suffered a fall from an overly-exuberant Jasper who mistook his first-ever trot pole for a massive jump. “I landed awkwardly and broke my ankle,” she says, “and I was quite honestly in agony.”

An extensive operation followed, which meant pins in the ankle, plus, of course an extended period of healing and rehabilitation away from riding. “I made the decision around that time to send Jasper for training with two local trainers Leah and Lindsay Felton,” she says. “I didn’t want him to simply sit in the paddock until I was ready again, and because of his particular set of nerves, I thought it would be good to get professional help with him.”

But in the meantime, there was still Murphy. “I’d spent literally thousands on vet bills,” Shae says, “and he still wasn’t getting better, in fact he was getting worse. Then the vet gave me the devastating diagnosis that if he was to have any hope he needed to go to the University of Queensland at Gatton, and have an operation to scrape out all the fungus, which would cost me $5000. I just had no idea what to do. I couldn’t afford it, and I couldn’t bear to put him down.”

(At this time I have to confess to a personal interest here, because Shae rang me to see if Save a Horse Australia would take him, and because of his young age and long-term future potential, the Charity agreed. The funds were raised for his operation, and after some months off for rest and recuperation, Murphy – renamed Muz – was back under saddle again, with his own fascinating story about to unfold as an up and coming star – now named Aztec – in Mikayla Jade’s stable of trick-riding horses. )

Murphy was surrendered to SAHA at the end of 2016, and in February 2017, Shae’s heart was well and truly broken when Barbie lost her fight for life, suffering what they believe was a massive heart-attack in the early hours of the morning. For the then-twenty-five-year-old, it was truly a long, dark night of the soul. “I felt total despair when Barbie died,” she says. “My ankle was still bothering me, I’d lost the best friend of a horse you could ever have, I’d had to give up on Murphy, and I had no idea whether Jasper was going to come good, I really did question whether I was going to keep going with horses, but then what I kept coming back to was that when I couldn’t ride with my broken ankle, that was what made me fall into depression. I just wasn’t ‘me’ without riding, and even though I’d lost so much, and it had all also cost me so much, I knew that somehow I had to keep going.”

There was a small detour back to jumping and dressage with a local Warmblood mare, Summertime, but Shae realised that the passion she’d had for Barbie, was also a passion for the breed in general.

“When Barbie had first got sick, I’d actually thought about whether she would recover enough to carry a foal,” she says. “Obviously it was a pipe-dream but it was with me long enough for me to make contact with Victoria Davies, the Para-Equestrian, who breeds and competes on the Spanish breeds.”

In May this year, a Facebook ad popped up that attracted Shae’s interest. Victoria was selling her PRE Spanish mare, Andaluka Diva, and Shae couldn’t help but be interested. “Firstly, of course, she looked very like my Barbie, secondly I was already a huge admirer of Victoria and her riding – against all odds – and it seemed almost too good to be true that a horse trained and ridden by her would be on the market,” she says.

There was an instant connection, not just with Diva but also with Victoria. “I spent some time at her place, and went down there a couple of times to ride and train with Victoria, before Diva came up north in July,” she says. Impressed with the amazing work Lindsay and Leah Felton had achieved with Jasper (now also a superstar in his own right), Shae also turned to the Feltons to help her understand Diva’s psychology.

“She’s really a dream to work with,” she says. “She took to competitions and the led classes so easily, but she is sensitive and she can be nervous under saddle, so we’ve been working a lot on that.”

In fact the team have been unbeatable ever since their first shows – walking away with led Champions in their first local shows, and then 1st and reserve champion in the led Baroque, and 1st and reserve champion in the ridden at Toowoomba Royal, followed by their amazing results at the Nationals.

Something Shae, who continues to work for the Saddle Hub, has found is that the Andalusian world has been very welcoming to her. “It’s exotic,” she says, “and it’s competitive, but it’s not at all unpleasant or unfriendly. All the women who have competed for so many years have been so friendly to me – and you don’t often see that in the show world. I’ve felt very supported and they’ve been very helpful. At the start of this journey I went not knowing a lot about the competitions, and I’ve been really privileged to find such lovely people.”

An unlooked for result from the friendship that’s grown between Shae and Victoria, is that Shae is now Victoria’s High Performance groom. “Whenever she is competing somewhere big I fly and join her,” she says, “which will include WEG in American and the Olympics in Tokyo if Victoria qualifies, so I am extremely lucky that everywhere I go I’m learning more and more about the breed, and how to handle and ride them.”

In the meantime the family connection to horses continues to run strong. Shae’s mum, Kim, has bought herself a Friesian so she too can continue to compete with her daughter; Bonnie’s children ride; Maddy still owns a few horses, and Jade, although she is an accomplished gymnast, still has horses and rides.

“I can’t imagine a life without horses,” says Shae, “it’s as simple as that.”

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