The Hazel Shannon Story
From nothing to winning Adelaide the biggest 3DE in the Southern Hemisphere
Hazel appeared at the Ryans training establishment at Heatherbrae near Newcastle NSW in January 2010. She was just 17 years of age and had travelled down from Mutchilba on the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland. Mutchilba rates a post office, a primary school and no pub! In Hazels final years at school year 11 and year 12 she went to Mareeba High and both Mareeba and Dimbulah where Hazel did primary school you will find on occasion Mangoes in Woolworths and Coles with little stickers on them saying Mareeba or Dimbulah. Actually Pineapples too! Those far north tropics is where Hazel grew up riding from the age of 3 years and part of a family which was involved in stock horses and mustering and camp drafting. Hazel’s dad Val is indeed the Chairperson on the Cape York and District Australian Stock Horse Society. That is the Australian Gulf Country!
In January 2010 Hazel had at that stage never ridden in an ODE. Hazel’s mum Melanie and her aunt Lynne had both emigrated from England when they were just 20 years of age. Lynne and Melanie had been in England growing up during the 1970’s and 1980’s when Captain Mark Phillips and Princess Anne were at the peak’s of their eventing careers campaigning all over England. Eventing was closely followed by the English public and Hazel, in a sun burnt tip of Australia, grew up surrounded by eventing stories as told by her mum and her Aunt Lynne. From these stories grew an Australian bush kid who had a burning dream to excel in eventing!
Initially Hazel started with Northern Fable who was 15years young and belonged to her Aunty Lynne who had trained and competed Fable up to that point. Fable and Hazel certainly did respond very positively to the training program at Ryans combining youth and experience which is probably the perfect formula and progressed through the grades in both dressage and eventing with unexpected success. Hazel competed within two years at Prix St George dressage level and 2* eventing. Unfortunately it was a bit like a Puff the Magic Dragon story and in this case as Hazel developed Fable got older. It did become clear that Fable was not going to go the whole way with her young and enthusiastic Hazel. This caused a potential set back and it was at this point that our next door neighbours Wendy and Allen came to the rescue and allowed Hazel to ride Clifford who is a Tasmanian thoroughbred who showed so little promise that he didn’t even get to be barrier trialed. Clifford was bred by Wendy’s sister Sue Deveraux and then given to Wendy to sell on. Wendy and Allen went from being long suffering neighbours to the Ryans to being the most brilliant owners and supporters of Clifford and Hazel. This partnership of Clifford and Hazel came together in 2011.
So what did Clifford have going for him apart from being a failed race horse from Tasmania!? As a dressage horse Clifford always had a truly great walk and to this day we are disappointed when he is not awarded 8’s for this pace. Clifford also has a heart of gold and a great temperament. Consequently he does produce a very reliable dressage test and always nails the walk. Unfortunately he does not always nail an 8! On the downside Clifford has very little natural charisma and blends perfectly with the crowd. His head is usually down a bit, he is chestnut, sort of washed out type of chestnut, he does prick his ears when he is approaching a jump but not really any other time and certainly not when he is getting photographed! Clifford’s trot is correct but definitely unremarkable. Clifford’s canter is nice and close to the ground and a little on the forehand and he has super correct flying changes which are good but inherit the boring characteristic. Actually Clifford can do flying changes every second stride beautifully and still be boring. The big thing that Clifford has going for him in the dressage arena is that he is technically correct and he always tries hard.
Jumping. Again Clifford is brave and tries hard. These days he is comfortable popping over fences up to 1.40m which is more than enough for Olympic Eventing. When he jumps however he does twist a little and sometimes his front legs are a little down and he jumps over the top of his knees. It does make you hold your breath but he is genuine and will try very hard to leave all of the rails in the cups. From a result point of view he is a brilliant jumper. From an assessment point of view he is a nice beginners pony club jumper. The thing that is impossible to assess is the fact that he tries so hard and is so so genuine and also he is completely committed to Hazel.
Galloping. Clifford being a straight thoroughbred does mean that he can travel at fast speeds for considerable lengths of time relatively easily. Usually you can see this by the balance and the enthusiasm that the thoroughbred will bring to the cross country course. Well true to being a straight thoroughbred Clifford does have speed and endurance but when he gallops he does do it Clifford style and gallops along on the forehand and if you drop the reins he is quite happy to pull up and eat some grass. With Hazel in the saddle however he will settle into the most amazing rhythm and make the most difficult cross country courses look like a set of exercises.
In 2015 Hazel and Clifford came seventh in the Adelaide 4* 3DE. This was a significant result and I ( Heath Ryan) felt that this left Hazel within striking distance of the Rio Olympics 2016. Hazel and Clifford had been working their way up through the ranks since 2011 and started competing at 3* level at the beginning of 2014. So Clifford and Hazel had taken 3 years to do this. Whenever you move up a level there is always a little period of acclimatisation to the new standard and this period does need to be dealt with sensibly with riders selecting more gentle events to gain experience before taking on the high profile events. Hazel and Clifford had taken three years to go from Introductory to 3* level. This is a very good time frame for that amount of progress to be made in. Certainly this is not rushed but neither horse nor rider have wasted time to progress through the grades from Introductory to 3* level. You will see a professional at the top of their game progress to 3* in two years. This is really flying and the horse does need to have a very experienced rider in the saddle. Most people will take five or six years to progress through those grades and this is a good time frame allowing for lots of experience and the horse to become aware of every possible scenario and just how to look after both himself and his rider. This pathway is for the very good amateurs. Really, riding at 3* is for an exceptional amateur or the top of the range professionals. So Hazel and Clifford started 3* in early 2014. They then went on and successfully completed seven 3* events with the final two events resulting in wins for Hazel and Clifford. So time to step up and on September the 14th 2014 Hazel entered the Equestriad at Camden run by Shane Rose. Shane has represented Australia at Olympics and World Championships and he does present an event of the highest quality with the cross country being truly challenging. Shane not only runs this event but also competes with numerous horses and so does jump the cross country course in all the grades including the 3* course more than once. This is a very unique recipe and does guarantee that in pushing the boundaries they are all “doable”. Anyhow this was Hazel and Clifford’s first look at a truly international 3* track. Well the cross country went badly for Hazel and Clifford and they fell at the sunken road. Clifford flipped over the first fence in and came down on top of Hazel. Hazel broke her pelvis in five different places and we were all completely shattered. This sort of fall early in your career will usually mean that a riders confidence is damaged and the deft uninhibited lightning quick reactions needed for brilliance on the cross country are shaken and often never return to the rider ever. It was a heart breaking fall and we all just concentrated on the fact that Hazel would recover. Well stop Hazel and Clifford, you have to be joking. Hazel took 4 months before she was back in the saddle and fit to go again. This was not quite what the doctors had told her to do and for me as her coach I was terrified out of my mind. On the 7th of February 2015 Hazel started at Wallaby Hill in the 2* and then from there went straight back into 3*. The recovery was unbelievable however fate was not finished with Hazel yet. In April 2015 which was just 8 weeks after climbing back into the competition arena Hazel fell whilst riding a young horse in the Albury ODE at 1* level. This time she suffered concussion and was basically unconscious for a week. She was flown from Albury to Melbourne and her family flew down from far north Queensland to be with her. There were lots of possible outcomes during that week whilst Hazel was unconscious being put forward by the doctors and most of them were not good. Well Hazel will be Hazel and why did any of us expect differently. Hazel in her own time became conscious and focused hard on recovery and getting fit again. This time Hazel hurried up the recovery period, again not quite in keeping with the doctors recommendations and within three months Hazel was back competing. Again Clifford and Hazel started at 2* level in early July 2015 and then back into 3* level. At the end of 2015 Hazel and Clifford entered and performed outstandingly to come 7th at the Adelaide 4* 3DE (Three Day Event). The two falls had certainly really eaten into the preparation program for the Rio Olympics. However as I said at the start of this paragraph we were aware that Hazel had against all the odds clambered back into a position where just maybe she could perform well enough to be selected on the Australian team for the Rio Olympics.
So 2016 dawned with Hazel and Clifford on a very different mission and program. They now switched from gaining experience at 3* level to trying to get their finishing score down under 50 penalties after dressage, cross country and show jumping. These scores really needed to be posted at the two remaining 3DEs for the Australian selectors to be forced to give Hazel and Clifford serious consideration. The first 3DE was Sydney in early May 2016. Clifford and Hazel started brilliantly in the dressage climbing in under the 50 penalties with a score of 47.3. Now the job was not to add any more penalties. Hazel had a brilliant cross country run but clocked up 2.8 time penalties and in the show jumping had one rail down which added another 4 penalties to the score. Hazel came 2nd at the Sydney 3DE which was unbelievable however her score ended up 54.1 penalties. Amazing score but not under 50 penalties. Illustrating how critical that score is was Sonja Johnson who won the Sydney 3DE. Sonja and her horse Parkiarrup Illicit Liason finished on a score of 48.9 penalties. Sonja is a past Olympian and there you go, under the 50 penalties. So 2nd at a 3DE at 3* is an amazing result and one to be treasured for the rest of your life. It is never the less just a tad short of an Olympic selection. Clifford did however pull up after Sydney 3DE in great health and there was no question that his star was on the rise. Would the Australian selectors consider Hazel and Clifford if they could put in a sub 50 at the Melbourne 3DE on the long weekend of June 2016? Well no one would know unless we gave it a go! Down to Melbourne went Hazel and Clifford. The dressage was good but the score of 51.5 penalties was very disappointing. Clifford is not yet an impressive individual and these aesthetics or lack of them certainly seem to impact on the dressage score. No use complaining however because this is the way it is whether the competition is in Melbourne or in Rio in South America. Bugger bugger bugger. Clifford and Hazel once again go brilliantly cross country but do incur 2 time penalties and again has one rail down in the show jumping to finish on a score of 57.5 penalties. This score left Hazel and Clifford in 5th place which was a magnificent performance but just not good enough for Olympic selection. So the Australian team is selected and leaves Australia Rio bound without Hazel and Clifford. Clifford is definitely improving every start now and his sights are shifted to Adelaide 4* 3DE 2016. This is the only 4* class in the Southern Hemisphere. Three weeks before Adelaide is the NSW ODE Championships at Goulburn. Clifford and Hazel rip in a dressage score of 48.3 penalties. Here we go again. We need to finish under 50 penalties. Clifford is now really comfortable at 3* level on the cross country course and he looks like a panther rippling around the big track effortlessly. Hazel and Clifford finish the cross country some 10 seconds under the time. No time penalties. This is the first time Clifford and Hazel have made the cross country time at 3* level. Show jumping? Clear again and a new boundary is achieved. Hazel and Clifford have just finished on 48.3 penalties. Hazel and Clifford have also just become the NSW 3* ODE Champions. To do that Hazel and Clifford had to hold out the best riders from SA, Vic, QLD, and NSW. In amongst those riders were Olympic Silver and Gold Medalists.
So here comes Adelaide. Early in November 2016. Clifford is in his best form ever and at 11 years of age is perhaps on the young side for a 4* horse but is entering his best athletic years. Hazel has somehow found all her confidence and is completely focused on the coming competition. Last year in 2015 Hazel and Clifford were the babies in the 4* class. This year in 2016 a lot of water has gone under the bridge and the partnership is showing signs of knowledge and skills way beyond their age. There is definitely a quiet confidence about the partnership this year. Dressage day dawns and Clifford is clearly in great shape. He warms up really well but does register the enormity of the occasion as he circles the arena just prior to the test. There is definitely a few nerves and anxiety in the air. The bell rings and in Clifford and Hazel go and as usual they do perform a really solid test. Was it brilliant? Well it was technically great but it was Clifford style. Charismatic? well no. And the judges award a 52.1 penalty score. Very disappointing score and very clearly we are going to have to do better in time to come. At Adelaide 52.1 penalties does leave Clifford and Hazel in 2nd place to Will Enzinger and Wenlock Aquifer. They have scored 51.8. These are very close scores so game on! Cross country and Clifford again goes into Clifford style and produces perhaps the most beautiful round ever. Hazel and Clifford are 1 second over the time so incur 0.4 of a penalty. Add this onto their dressage score and they now have 52.5 penalties and have surged into the lead… just! Will incurred 3.2 time penalties which was also the most amazing round and so his score went to 54 penalties neat. In the show jumping there is less than one rail between Will and Hazel. A rail is 4 penalties so if Hazel was to have one rail down and Will was to jump clear then Will would go back into the lead. The jumping is done in reverse order so the leader jumps last and so should Will jump a clear round he will put enormous pressure on Hazel and Clifford. Hazel warms up without watching the final few competitors with the goal of jumping a clear round and not putting any more penalties on to the final score. In goes Hazel and Clifford with a crowd of some 4,000 people looking on and you could hear a pin drop. Hazel is completely focused on giving Clifford the most accurate and best ride to the show jumps that she possibly can. After that it is all up to Clifford to make a really genuine effort despite having run so hard the day before on the cross country course and for sure Clifford will be nursing the aches associated with a big effort from the day before. Well Clifford is mister genuine and Hazel did a great job piloting Clifford to each fence and the result is a clear round and no penalties to add to their 52.5. Winner! Hazel and Clifford may have missed out on the Australian Olympic team to Rio but they have had the most amazing year finishing it off with winning the biggest 3DE in the Southern Hemisphere, Adelaide 4*.
So where to now? Clifford and Hazel are clearly going from strength to strength. The big goal now is to make the Australian team for the 2018 World Equestrian Games and then all being well to make the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. Right now the rider who won the London Olympics in 2012 and who won again in 2016 at Rio on a horse called Sam is Michael Jung from Germany. Michael and Sam have finished 4* events in the Northern Hemisphere with scores under 40 penalties. Under 40 penalties! Well that is a project that will take up most of the next two years. Look out Michael Jung and Sam! Here comes Hazel Shannon and Clifford!