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The Scoop - Sammi Birch

This story is from the May 2019 magazine.


Age:
41

Lives:
South Cerney, Gloucestershire, England

Family history with horses?
Not really – my dad was persuaded to buy two mares and a stallion by a very attractive lady with large breasts when I was little, and it went on from there. He knew absolutely nothing about horses at the time!

What age did you start riding?
Six.

Tell us about your first pony.
His name was Blue and he was grey. My biggest memory is that we used to go to the kitchen door mid-ride and get a drink for both of us – he loved cordial!

Why eventing?
I think I loved the excitement of the cross country and the fact that you had to be really good at three phases. Dad wanted me to be a showjumper. I also grew up just down the road from the NSW Equestrian centre, so Heath Ryan was a huge influence and steered me towards eventing.

Your early upper-level horses were quite quirky. Can you tell us about them.
Hunter Red was a homebred Thoroughbred. He was a son of one of the mares and the stallion that dad had purchased. He was a failed racehorse and an absolute cross country machine. I remember in the early days he used to stand up at the start of the cross country – I remember attempting to crack an egg on his head to stop him from standing up. I think it is funny now and I don’t think I was ever coordinated enough to manage it. He ended up being 7th at Badminton when I was 21, so he was better than I could have imagined, but we learnt together.

Frederick Hunter was described by Heath as a ‘death machine’ and he bucked me off on a daily basis at the beginning. I absolutely loved him and didn’t seem to care how many times I fell off at that point. Once again hard work paid off as he won Melbourne and Sydney and went to WEG in 2002.

What did starting your eventing career with off the track Thoroughbreds teach you?
It taught me patience and the fact that they have to trust you more on the flat than even in the jumping and cross country. It taught me about the long haul and building a partnership rather than being a dictator.

What was it like relocating to England in 2005?
It was much harder than I thought it would be. I was suddenly in another country and everything was different. My whole support network was gone and I had to start again. It was like a new beginning. I was lucky to be based with Jacky Green (married to David Green) who took me under her wing, and I really could not have survived without her.

What are some of the highlights of your eventing career?
1996 – Reserve Atlanta Olympics
1999 – 7th Badminton on Hunter Red
2000 – Reserve Sydney Olympics
2002 – Represented Australia at WEG in Herez on Frederick Hunter
2004 – 2nd British Open on Enchanted
2004 – Reserve Athens Olympics
2016 – 4th Bramham CCI on Hunter Valley
2016 – Member of winning Australian team Aachen CICO and 10th Individually on Hunter Valley
2016 – Travelling reserve Rio Olympics on Hunter Valley
2017 – 3rd Bramham CCI on Hunter Valley
2017 – 4th Pau CCI on Hunter Valley
2018 – 6th Luhmuhlen and Aachen CIC on Hunter Valley

Who has been the biggest influence on your riding career?
That is such a hard question, as there have been so many people. Heath Ryan and Prue Barrett in Australia. Alex Franklin and Rowland Fernyhough in England, but the biggest influence is my parents who always encouraged me to chase the dream no matter how tough things were.

Sammi’s husband Ed and son Charlie

Sammi’s husband Ed and son Charlie

How did your husband Ed come into the picture?
I was introduced to him through a mutual friend and immediately felt a connection. He can’t remember our first meeting and swore he would never marry a horsey girl with a Terrier!
How has your eventing life changed since the birth of your son Charlie? When I was pregnant I wasn’t sure what I was going to feel like after Charlie was born. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to ride at all – let alone compete at the top level. But it turned out I really missed it. If anything, it has made me more competitive and driven. I just love riding horses.

Last year, you were diagnosed with breast cancer, and throughout your chemotherapy you continued competing three horses at advanced (new 4 star). How did you stay mentally and physically strong to continue competing?
I look back now and think I was nuts. I can now say I didn’t really face the cancer. I think I blocked it and just focussed everything on the horses and WEG. It was the only way I could get through it. It is safe to say that when Gizmo was injured and WEG was no longer on the cards, I hit rock bottom. I had to face the fact that I had cancer and was to have major surgery. I have learnt a lot about myself. It turns out I am pretty grumpy if I can’t ride!

How do you manage these lows?
I find it really hard and take it personally. I had such a bad year last year that I was convinced everything I touched went wrong. I try and focus on Charlie and Ed. They are the best things in my life and I am so lucky to have them.

Homebred Hunter Valley ll is one of the special horses currently in your life. Tell us about him and what he is like to ride.
Gizmo is nicknamed ‘Naughty Gizmo’ and lives up to his name every day. He is the naughtiest, cheekiest horse I have ever had and makes me laugh every day. A typical Australian male – arrogant and full of confidence. In Gizmo’s eyes he never makes a mistake, everything is my fault – he is probably right! He is little and athletic, lazy and sharp, a complete paradox, but he is my happy place. Even while he is on rehab I just adore riding him. I think we have a special bond. I can’t wait to have him back out competing. I really struggled when he was injured last year, as riding him every day was what got me through chemotherapy.
He is my therapy.

In your overseas eventing career, you have tackled some of the big 4 stars. What is it like to ride around and place at such illustrious events?
I try and think of every event as just another competition. I try not to think about the occasion and the hype and keep it all very low key. It is hard to do that at places like Aachen when you are trotting around next to Beezie Madden, but now I am older I really try and enjoy the event and enjoy riding. Most of the time that works well.

How many horses do you currently have in work?
Actually, more than I have had for a long time. Now I am getting back to full health I have some new, very exciting rides. I have 12 to compete for this season, which feels like loads to me. We also have a lot of full liveries, so there is riding them and teaching as well. It is pretty busy.

Share a typical day in your life.
Charlie normally climbs in bed and wakes us up at around 6am. Then it is time for breakfast, and the rush of getting him off to preschool. Ed does drop off and I do pick up. I am at the yard by 7.45am and then it is ride, ride, ride, and teach in between. If I am at home for the day I will ride 8-10 and teach a couple of lessons. I also teach one evening a week.

Helen Tagg, Hunter Valley II (Gizmo) and Sammi

Helen Tagg, Hunter Valley II (Gizmo) and Sammi

Your groom isn’t just your average barn groom. Can you tell us about Helzy and her role in your eventing career?
She is my rock. She is family. She not only runs the yard, but is godmother to Charlie and looks after him often. She is his favourite person in the world. We bicker like an old married couple but if I have a problem I will talk to her first. I still struggle if I have to go to an event without her. She is absolutely incredible at looking after the horses, and I am incredibly lucky and spoilt to have her. It is our 20 year anniversary in May!

What are the two qualities that you look for in a horse?
An intelligent face and good conformation. I also like a little bit of spark.

Mares or geldings?
I like both equally. A good horse is a good horse.

What is the best part about a career with horses?
Riding horses all day. And the fantastic people you meet.

What would your career choice be if you were not working with horses?
Physiotherapy.

What is the first thing you have to pack to take away to a comp?
Chocolate.

They say you never stop learning when it comes to horses. What are you still learning?
I am still learning so much. I feel I have so much to improve on and I just want to keep learning. I want everyone’s opinion so I can then decide what works for me.

What do you like to do outside of horses?
I like eating out and seeing friends, walking the dogs and watching Netflix. That is the best thing about being diagnosed with cancer – I discovered Netflix!

What are your long term goals?
To keep improving and enjoying riding horses. I would like to get back to Badminton again one day. It seems to keep eluding me!

3 things we don’t know about you?
1. I can’t cook.
2. I am currently watching The Crown for the second time – sad I know.
3. I wish I was better at everything I do.

Sponsors: Equestrian Australia, Gain Nutrition, Devoucoux, and Lycetts Insurance.

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