White knuckle ride

Dressage superstar Brett Parbery has ridden life’s roller coaster with remarkable aplomb. But that’s really not such a surprise, because as AMANDA MAC discovered, he’s always up for a challenge.

Most of us have experienced tragedies and triumphs in our lives: dark days followed by a turn of the cards that gifts us moments of sheer elation. And on occasion, you’ll meet someone who has not only mastered the skill of surviving the down times, but has also learned from them, and, as a consequence, savours life’s victories with deep appreciation. 

Brett Parbery is one of those people, but then he’s had plenty of practice. Life hasn’t been stingy in handing him out both the highs and the lows: from tremendous successes on the international stage, to the death of much loved horses and a disastrous riding accident. 

Brett grew up in Dorrigo, a small town on a picturesque plateau in northern New South Wales. His father trained horses for cattle sport, and between his father and mother, although not a rider herself, Brett learned to ride. “One of my earliest memories is of my mother leading me around in the cattle yards teaching me the basics. I started riding properly at five on a rather naughty pony. Then, like many boys, I fell in and out of love with riding as I grew up, but came back to it when I was around 13-years-old and from then on, that’s all I wanted to do.” 

Variety lent plenty of spice to his riding life: some Pony Club, polocrosse, camp drafting, and then on to saddle bronc riding. “That was for several reasons,” Brett explains, “my father did it and I’d grown up around rodeos and camp drafts. My sister was into showing, so we went to Royals and agricultural shows where I usually gravitated to the rodeo ring, it was a natural progression.”

But Brett, being competitive by nature, is certainly not one to do things by halves. “I took it fairly seriously,” he admits. So seriously that he rode saddle broncs while studying real estate property valuation at university, making the National Finals in Australia on several occasions, and winning the Australian Professional Rodeo Association’s NSW Rookie Saddle Bronc Rider award in 1995. Then it was off to Canada and the US for a year to ride on the professional rodeo circuit, fulfilling a long held dream in the process.  

But by the time Brett arrived back home in 1998, he needed a change of direction. “I’d done what I wanted to do and I started to wind the saddle bronc career down, while at the same time looking for something else to get into. I was actually quite keen to go cutting training, but a property valuer living in Sydney doesn’t get access to a lot of cattle! I looked at reining, show jumping and eventing but they didn’t quite do it for me. Then I started getting a few rides on dressage horses that were either young or a bit too scary for their owners.”

From bronc riding to dressage? That’s a fairly significant leap, surely – but when I dig deeper, I discover the chasm isn’t as wide as I’d thought.  “Dad is a really good horseman and loved dressage. So there was great respect and fascination with the discipline as I was growing up. Because I come from a fairly diverse riding background I’d competed in a lot of riding and showing classes, so I had a reasonable position on a horse. Long story short, I started being drawn towards the discipline as a possible fit. I was quite liking the challenges it was bringing to me too.”

Ah, yes, that love of challenges – and I can’t resist asking what they were. “Well, it’s a sport of ongoing development,” Brett explains, “you just never feel that you’re ever getting there. There’s always something harder to do, and be better at. Every sport has a slight ceiling, but dressage has this constant progression attached to it and I really liked that. I liked the fact that I could continue to work hard and never really feel like I was getting the best out of myself.”

With that, fate kindly stepped in when Brett met dressage rider Vicky Brydon (now Lymbery) who not only lent him a horse, but also coached him. “That was really my start in dressage and without her help I don’t think I’d have gone on with it. It really was the break I needed, a key moment in my career. It was brilliant! I got the best of both worlds, a trained horse and a great coach.” 

In 1999, after a year spent competing on the Australian circuit, Brett decided to go to Europe to progress his dressage riding. After a tough start, he eventually landed on his feet and in an interesting twist, became the flat work trainer for showjumper Bruce Goodin’s horses. It turned out to be the perfect job, allowing him to immerse himself in training horses in the basics: a soft and supple walk, trot and canter, with the ability to lengthen, collect or turn at any given moment.  

But by 2002, it was time to go home. “I wanted to be close to my parents so I started a dressage stable in Tamworth, while at the same time working for a local property valuation firm. Although I really enjoyed my time there, after about eight months I felt that if I was going to make it happen I needed to return to Sydney where the action was with horses and riding. So I went back to the property job I’d held before going to Europe, and the valuation work supported my riding for the next four years.” 

During that time, Brett met Melinda. The couple became engaged and, just before they married in 2007, bought a property in Penrose in the NSW’s Southern Highlands. And that was the launch of an exciting trajectory. “We used the move from Sydney to Penrose to start my career as a full-time rider. Up until that time, I was holding down a property job in Sydney as well as managing a stable of 15 horses and three staff.  So transitioning to Penrose and a full-time stable wasn’t that hard. The opportunity had also come up to qualify for the Beijing Olympics dressage team, and I put all my effort into that,” Brett says.

Unfortunately, that effort came to an unexpected halt with the outbreak of Equine Influenza. “It shut the Australian horse world down, and it shut us down for eight months. I had to go back to a property job as well as running the horses. But when we came out of it in early 2008, I was back into horses full-time again.”

And partnered by Victory Salute (Sam), then owned by Carolyn Lieutenant, that included taking another tilt at Olympic qualification. “I took Sam to Europe in March 2008, and was there from March to August. We tried to make the Games but it wasn’t to be. I ended up as a non-travelling reserve and we came home at the end of that year.”

Disappointed but far from done, Brett rose phoenix-like to dominate the 2009 Australian dressage season. “Sam and I went through undefeated and then we returned to Europe to compete in the 2010 FEI World Cup dressage final in the Netherlands, where we placed in the top 10. At that time I still had the stable back at home and Mel was pregnant. We had great staff who looked after the stable and helped Mel, but it was really tough. It’s certainly hardest on the one left at home. While I’m overseas living this exciting dream of riding and competing in Europe, Mel’s at home pregnant, trying to keep everything together. These things are never easy but thankfully Mel is the most fantastic support,” he says, and you can hear the very genuine appreciation in his voice.

Still in Europe and training hard with top dressage rider Edward Gal, Brett flew home for the birth of the couple’s son, but after two weeks had to return to Europe to compete. “I did Rotterdam, Arken, Hickstead and then rode in the World Equestrian Games for Australia at the end of 2010. That was probably the best year I’d ever had. I was 10th in the World Cup final, 3rd in Rotterdam, 7th in Arken, 9th in the world in the Grand Prix Special and Freestyle, and I won the Grand Prix Special at Hickstead.” 

Brett pauses thoughtfully, and then adds:  “I think that’s something which won’t be done again by an Australian for quite a while. The way the sport’s going in general, and the way things are in Australia, I believe it will be a long, long time before that’s matched. I’m not saying I’m at all happy about that, I’m not. But that’s just the state of play – and it’s unfortunate.” 

After returning to Australia at the end of 2010, Brett felt ready to go back and do it all again. But then tragedy struck. “Sam died in 2011 and that was a very, very sad time. We were all keen to get back for the London Olympics and to try to be in the world top 10 again, and I do believe it could have been achieved. Sam was a great dressage horse and his loss left a giant hole in our hearts.” 

But life goes on and Brett eventually found himself back in Europe trying to qualify another horse, Lord of Loxley, for the 2012 London Olympics. Unfortunately the lead time wasn’t enough and they fell short. 

However, his trip to Europe was far from wasted. “The Australian eventing team was preparing in England, so when I didn’t make the Games, I began coaching them in dressage – and that was just a great time. I loved working with the eventers. Sport at a high level is one of my passions and I really thrive in that environment. After the dressage phase at the London Olympics we were leading, but unfortunately the team didn’t have the best cross country, and that put them out of the picture. It was such a shame.” 

Another turn of the wheel and Brett again recognised it was time for a new chapter. Back home in Penrose, he was running clinics and working on building his stable when Mulawa Arabian Stud’s Greg and Julie Farrell called. They wanted Brett to ride for them. “That was a real life line for me. I was with them for five years and thoroughly enjoyed every moment. My job was to help them build their stable, train their horses, and train their daughter Kate. They are such a beautiful family and such supporters of horses in general and especially dressage.”

And it was certainly a good time for Brett’s dressage career. “I won a lot of Australian championships with them and at the same time I had horses in training back at home including DP Weltmieser, PPH Zepplin and Good as Gold. I was lucky enough to qualify Weltmieser for the 2016 Rio Olympics. We would have been on that team but he had a lameness that I just couldn’t get right, so we made the call to take him out of the selection.” 

Despite the disappointment of missing yet another Olympics, the following year was a good one for Brett. Between the Mulawa stable and his own, he had four Grand Prix horses: “I had to make a choice as to who went to which show – it was just crazy,” he laughs.

Brett tells me that spending yet more time apart from his wife and son was the hardest part of his work at Mulawa. “I was just yearning to have my family under one roof, all of us in one place and running a horse business from one property. And then the opportunity came up to join Terry Snow at Willinga Park. The thought was that I would try to locate Mel, our son, and our team of Parbery horses at Willinga. We decided we’d give it a 12 month trial run. Mel would stay at Penrose and I would go down to Willinga to try and set things up. That meant I had to make the horrible decision to leave Mulawa, which I didn’t take lightly.”

But by the end of the trial, the couple had come to the conclusion that although Willinga wasn’t the right choice for them as a family, Brett should continue to work with Terry. 

Then in 2018, Brett took Weltmieser to the World Equestrian Games at Tryon in the US, but once again, the road wasn’t easy. “We had had a disastrous preparation with Weltmieser almost dying in February of that year. How he survived I’ll never know, but he ended up coming good just before the second last selection event, which he won after only a few days training. I started to work him back in very gently and after the final selection event we’d made the team. So I took him to Kentucky and based myself there with Dan James of the Double Dans. We came 32nd at Tryon, just one horse away from the Grand Prix Special. I had an exceptional bond with Weltmieser, and I would have loved for him to have made that Special.” 

 

It was after Tryon that Weltmieser was sold to an American family and so remained in the States, bringing to a close an exceptional partnership. “Getting as far as I did with him wouldn’t have been possible without the ongoing support, financially and otherwise, of his breeders and owners, Susie Duddy, and Brian and Barbara Marheine,” Brett recalls. “We had some great times together and it was wonderful to share his career with them. I was sad to close that chapter with such a great family, who have long been supporters of the sport in Australia.”

After leaving the US, Brett travelled to Europe to buy three horses for Terry Snow, who was keen to make a serious play for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. One of those horses, Theodore, looms large in Brett’s memory. “He was one of the best I’ve ever ridden, we just clicked,” he says. But tragedy never seemed far away, and in July 2019, Theodore died of cancer. Another great horse gone, another Olympic dream shattered. 

But 2019 wasn’t quite finished with Brett. “After Theodore’s death we pushed on and then in October I came off a young horse that we’d just bought. I broke my leg pretty badly, a fracture in the ball of my femur, and had to be operated on. That surgery had me sitting around at home for a couple of months with time to reassess and recalibrate. I was 48 and my son was by that time nine, and I wanted to make it more about him.  So with my family in the Highlands and Terry two hours away, and with the run we’d had, I made the hard decision to leave Willinga. Terry’s a fabulous man with a passion to support riders towards their dream of making the Olympics and the World Games, so parting didn’t come easily.”

And one awful final blow was still to come that year. In November news arrived of the sudden and unexpected death of their beloved Weltmieser. The Parbery family were heartbroken. 

After the devastation of 2019, the only option was to battle on. “So with a broken leg I set about rebuilding my stable, while at the same time re-credentialing myself as a property valuer. Then of course we had the bush fires in our area, and now we have COVID which has made things a bit slow. But in saying that, I have a horse of Terry Snow’s in training, as well as one of Glenn Fryer’s horses, and we have our Parbery Program.” 

It quickly becomes clear that the Parbery Program, launched around 18 months ago, has become one of Brett’s great passions – and with good reason. “It’s all about extending help and support to people who don’t otherwise get it and we do that by way of a syllabus that gives structure. One of the things I find that riders lack the most is structure and consistency in their training, and one of things a horse needs most is consistency.” 

The online program consists of six modules based around Brett’s own training structure, breaking it down into a simple framework with achievable and measurable outcomes. “It’s designed so people can engage, benefit from the online learning, and then go back to their coach to improve even more. I can’t tell you how excited I am watching people benefit from the training, and there hasn’t been one single bit of negative feedback from any of the nearly 300 people who have gone through the program,” he says.

Running alongside the modules is an online community that Brett is intensely proud of. “We don’t accept negativity, we don’t accept jealousy. Constructive criticism? Sure, bring it on. But we only want people involved who are interested in helping those around them improve, while improving themselves.” 

Despite fate dealing him some truly awful cards, I notice that in this moment, Brett seems not only to be enjoying life, but is also full of gratitude. “Yeah, I’m loving it, absolutely loving it. That’s what it’s about, just loving life and being thankful for the fact that I’ve got options, opportunities, and I’m surrounded by incredibly good people. I feel lucky, really lucky, and I really appreciate all the great people who’ve contributed to making my career what it has been.” 

I wonder whether he has longer term goals in mind – but as soon as I ask, I realise it’s a silly question! “I really want to get back to being a world class rider. I’m driven and I’m driving my wife mad with it too,” he laughs. “Even though my leg is still giving me grief, I do feel that I’ll be able to get back to that level. I’m working on finding the mindset that goes with being a world class rider. I’ve had it before, and I’ll find it again.”

Then comes a gem of hard-earned Parbery wisdom: “I’ve learned in life that while the good times are great, the sad times are every bit as important for your development, both as a person and as a rider.”

And you simply can’t argue with that.

 

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