Martha Terry talks to the rider from the Australian bush who has taken an unwanted ex-racer from ignominy to the eventing history books
Hazel Shannon has just joined a very elite group of event riders. Since winning the world’s latest CCI5*, the 27-year-old Australian — as-yet little known outside the southern hemisphere — now sits alongside Andrew Nicholson, Michael Jung and Kim Severson as having ridden one horse to win three five-stars at the same venue. That’s some accolade.
“It doesn’t feel like my name should be alongside those people,” says Hazel, who didn’t start eventing until she left school and went to work for top Aussie coach Heath Ryan, in New South Wales, where she’s still a working pupil. Her victory at Adelaide in November added to the titles she won in 2018 and 2016 with the chestnut thoroughbred Willingapark Clifford.
Hazel’s tale is the sort that inspires the likes of National Velvet. Country lass raised as a cowgirl, jumping logs for fun in the bush. Takes on a slow racehorse because no one wanted him and hits the jackpot — three times.“It blows my mind when I think about my partnership with Clifford,” Hazel smiles. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the ride on him. I feel like it was the same odds as me winning the lottery.”Eight years ago, Clifford was a jobless ex-racehorse in a Tasmanian paddock. Hazel needed a ride after her first eventer, her aunt’s Northern Fable, had retired. Clifford was bred by the Ryans’ neighbour Wendy Ward’s sister, who simply wanted him to go to a good home after his racing career failed to take off, so sent him to live with Wendy in Australia.
“Clifford hadn’t raced because he was too slow,” says Hazel. “The neighbours let me ride him, so I took him on just as a turnover horse, but he was likeable, cool, and fun to train.
“I had initially only been planning to do a one-star with him, but the next minute he was at five-star. We have a great partnership; he has the biggest heart. There’s not a day when he doesn’t give you 100%.”
A few wake-up calls
All good fairy tales have their bumps in the road, however. Although Hazel and Clifford contested their first five-star in 2015 (finishing seventh at Adelaide), there were a few wake-up calls en route.
At a four-star in September 2014, Clifford had a rotational fall at a sunken road, landing on Hazel and breaking her pelvis in five places. Five months later, she was back competing. But in April 2015, she had a fall from a young horse, suffering concussion and lying unconscious in hospital for a week. Yet again, she recovered in double-quick time to renew competition by July, well in time for her five-star debut. Hazel is sanguine about the falls.
“They haven’t changed my attitude,” she says. “I knew the sport can be dangerous and horses can be unpredictable. I think it’s made me less naïve and a little tougher.
“I’ve gone over those falls with Heath, my coach. I think it will make me more careful with green horses moving to the higher levels.”
The most recent snag in Clifford’s tale came in 2017, when Wendy suddenly needed to sell him due to bereavement. Australia doesn’t have the same owner culture as the UK, but Hazel’s emails to businessman Terrence Snow proved a smart move — he bought Clifford, and soon after added Cooley SRS — Badminton runner-up in 2018 with Oliver Townend and now called Willingapark Cooley — to Hazel’s string.
“I didn’t know Terrence at all, but he’s a big supporter of everything Australian, and eventing,” says Hazel. “He liked the story about me coming from the bush and Clifford’s background. Finding someone like Terrence in Australia is so rare — it’s 100 times harder to get owners here than in England.”
Cooley is a novelty for Hazel, in that she has not taken him up through the levels herself, but they’ve already been placed at CCI4*-S.
“I’m still learning which buttons to press,” she says. “It’s daunting taking on a horse that’s been produced by someone else for the first time, but he feels amazing to compete and that’s given me the confidence that we’ll click and make a good team together.”
Staying in Australia
Hazel visited England to try Cooley, and is hopeful of coming to Badminton one day on her cross-country machine Clifford, but there’s little prospect of her following the likes of Andrew Hoy and Chris Burton here more permanently.
“I’d love to do more of the big events and I can see what draws people over, but I have good horses and people here and I’d be hesitant to leave that,” says Hazel, who also has several broodmares and foals at the Ryans’.
She estimates “at least 50% of top Australian riders” have trained with Heath, and is hugely grateful for “the unbelievable amount of time he spends teaching me”.
“There’s no way I could have done what I have without him,” she says.
Heath still events at four-star but is primarily a dressage rider, and Hazel also values this aspect of her training.
“I’ve ridden at grand prix, but I prefer eventing,” she admits. “But on a proper dressage horse, it’s enjoyable. It’s a huge benefit to my eventing, as the dressage scoring is so important. Clifford is not a dressage horse and has a thoroughbred shuffle-trot by nature, but I’ve just taught him to do passage — aged 14.
Clifford has always been outstanding across the country, but such tweaks to the other phases are what Hazel hopes might make the difference in this Olympic year.
“He has a big new trot this season,” she says. “He’s a hot little thoroughbred and wants to go fast and on his forehand. He’ll jump anything, but this trot in a test is a new side to him.
“I’m aiming for Tokyo, so we have to give ourselves the best shot, but the Australian team is tough to get into.”
The other riders alongside Hazel in the treble five-star-winning quartet have each won multiple Olympic medals. Adelaide may be a softer option than the northern hemisphere events due to the smaller entry, but it’s still a top-level track and you can do no better than beat your opposition. Hazel’s in the running for Tokyo, and who’s to say the medals won’t follow?
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020