How a Horse & Hound advert helped a Tokyo Paralympian find her ‘heart horse’

  • A chance phone call to an advert placed in Horse & Hound led to Canadian rider Bert Sheffield finding her Tokyo Paralympic dressage star Fairuza.

    UK-based Bert was looking for a new challenge when she spotted an advert for part-bred Friesian driving horses in H&H in 2015.

    “I contacted the breeder and he said, ‘I haven’t got any Friesian crosses left, but I’ve got about 100 [part-bred] Gelderlanders. Do you want to come and look?’” she explains.

    “She was pretty inexpensive, so I bought her thinking well if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then I’ve not lost much. I thought that she would be a project and I could sell her on, but actually the more she came out of her shell, the more I thought ‘oh I really like you’ and she’s stuck around. She’s not going anywhere. She’s absolutely my heart horse. She just has the most amazing temperament.”

    Bert Sheffield and Fairuza in the team dressage at the Tokyo Paralympics

    Credit: Liz Gregg

    Bert started “Wonky”, as the now 12-year-old is affectionately known owing to her crooked stripe, slowly, giving the lightly handled mare plenty of time to adjust to her new career.

    “It took quite a long time, but it’s amazing how she coped with it all,” she says. “I really enjoyed doing groundwork and horsemanship work as well as the dressage.”

    Bert adds the fact Wonky was “a bit of an underdog” appealed to her.

    “She’s unusual breeding for dressage. She’s no recorded breeding – I mean we know she’s Gelderlander cross KWPN, but it’s all driving lines, not fancy dressage lines. I’ve had to defend her quite a lot from people saying, ‘Oh, she’s ugly, she’s not elegant, she’s heavy, she’s old fashioned’. And she was very spooky and very quirky, especially at the beginning.

    “I just kept looking at her and thinking, ‘the brain is so good’. Because when you’re on her, she gives herself over to you. She doesn’t hold anything back. She’s incredibly expressive just in her daily way of being, so I always thought, ‘when I can get that on my side, she’s going to be amazing’. Everything about her is this total extrovert.”

    Bert took Wonky to the H&H Festival of Dressage at Sheepgate in 2018, where the mare competed in her first ever test outdoors, and from there they have gone on to bag wins and top placings across the world.

    In Tokyo, the pair scored a personal best of 72% in the team test and also finished 12th in the close-fought grade III individual contest on 69.77%. She also served as “friendly horse” to Sir Lee Person’s Breezer.

    “Tokyo was actually the nicest games experience I’ve had,” says Bert, adding this was both a combination of their achievements at the event and the fact the team were able to bond during pre-export quarantine.

    “Because the Canadian team is quite a disparate team. We don’t get to spend much time together unless we’re actually at a Games. So it was really nice to reconnect with the team before we were in that mega high pressure environment.”

    Bert adds that is the mare’s ability to focus and deliver in that pressurised atmosphere, forged through their partnership, that makes her so special.

    “Why she’s so lovely, to me, is because in that high pressure environment, she doesn’t quit. She doesn’t dry up on you, she just says ‘right what do you want me to do?’. She’s such a friend as well – since we’ve been home, we’ve been riding out on the stubble. Even when we were in Germany, before we went into the export quarantine camp in Aachen, we went hacking all around the locality around the edges of Cologne. She’s high performance one day and you could put pretty much anyone on her and take them out hacking the next. What a horse.”

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