ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
BERT SHEFFIELD has an infectious ‘can do’ attitude and truly believes that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. At 37, and living with rheumatoid arthritis, this Canadian Paralympic Grade 4 Dressage Rider has numerous Championship titles under her belt in both para and able-bodied dressage. With her sights now set on Tryon and Tokyo, SARAH HYDE caught up with her to find out more.
"I’ve always enjoyed performing whether or not it’s sat on a horse"
When asked about her earliest riding memory, Bert recalled going along to a lesson at the local riding school with her best friend. Nothing extraordinary about that, but Bert grew up in a very sporty family (her father was an elite skeet shooter) where she was regularly surrounded by elite athletes - and their medals. As well as appreciating the amount of work put in by the athletes and their support teams, she realised from an early age that they were also “just people” and that if they could do it, so could she.
Bert’s mother Frances had owned and competed event horses, but sold her young horse to Yogi Breisner when Bert was born. A few short months after that first riding lesson Bert got her first pony at the age of six.
She showed Welsh cobs as a teenager and then at the age of 15 was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which affects all of her limbs and neck. “I couldn’t ride very easily at the time,” explained Bert, who left the horses at that point and took her life in a very different direction for a while. “I became a guitar rock musician, until my fingers gave up on me - I’ve always enjoyed performing whether or not it’s sat on a horse.”
"I’ve never bought a horse to be a para horse; I’ve bought them because I like them"
After graduating from university, Bert went to train as a British Dressage (BD) apprentice with Gareth Hughes. She had bought a Welsh cob, Calerux Cosmonaut (Splodge), as a foal a few years prior and took him with her to Gareth’s yard in 2004.
“I had wanted to produce show ponies and sport ponies, but was always really interested in dressage as well. When Gareth suggested I look into para dressage, I didn’t really know what it was.”
Bert was classified a Grade 4 at the big 2005 Hartpury conference. “In 2006 we were invited to the para team selection trials for the World Championships and got through to the final selection stage for the World Class Potential programme.” Despite Splodge’s "very difficult temperament" the pair had great success and he remains with the family to this day, looking after Bert’s young horses out in the field.
Realising she needed a different horse to progress, Bert bought her first international contender Wonderboy (Whoop), as a four year old straight off the boat from Holland in 2007. By 2011, he was BD Winter National Restricted Grade 4 Champion and qualified for every British Para Championship he was eligible for between 2011 and 2013. “He is crazily charismatic - and crazy as well! I’ve never bought a horse to be a para horse; I’ve bought them because I like them.”
In 2013 Bert started riding for Canada. “I have dual Canadian/ British Nationality due to my mother being Canadian and I choose to ride under Canada's beautiful maple leaf.” Bert was selected for the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in 2014, after a very successful Canadian Team European Tour, and rode Evelyn Little’s Bindro T (Dino) to eighth place in the Team test, sixth in the Individual Championship test and fourth in the Freestyle finale!
“I’m so grateful I was able to move into this new era in my riding career. I grew up surrounded by elite athletes so although huge competitions such as world championships are obviously very special, I’ve never seen them as impossible. The people winning the medals are just people and if one person can do it then so can I.”
"The people winning the medals are just people and if one person can do it then so can I"
Two years after WEG, Bert was selected for the Paralympic team in Rio riding her own Double Agent (Darcy). “We were really well prepared for Rio with a very experienced ground team. I was very proud to be able to represent my country at the Paralympics; it was amazing to compete for Canada.”
Bert rides at BD Advanced Medium level and trains her own horses, usually riding every day despite the rheumatoid arthritis. Because she competes in both able-bodied and para competitions, her horses have to be able to do both, and she is a keen advocate for hacking and trail riding in the training and wellbeing of her horses.
“The horses have to deal with everything thrown at them and their mental fitness is just as important as their physical fitness, which is why cross training is so important.”
Bert’s horses are stabled at a riding school where she has her own private corner and can use the indoor facilities - essential not just for training, but also when none of your horses are keen on the wind and rain! She has a good back up team and trains with UK-based Canadian team coach Clive Milkins (who was with her in Rio) and Arthur Kottas, formerly Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School.
“You can’t be an island. Most para riders at the lower levels have someone else train their horses rather than themselves, and this needs a rider who understands para dressage. There’s no point training a Grade 1 horse to Grand Prix standard because you’ll mess up the walk - you need a rider who understands that.”
Bert’s future is looking bright with her own very special mare Fairuza (Wonky) who she is training with Tokyo 2020 in mind, but not before contesting selection for her second WEG in Tryon this year with the stunning PRE stallion Bailaor XXXIII (Buddy), owned by Morgan Equine and trained to Grand Prix level in Spain. “He’s a very exciting horse to campaign. We’ve done very little with him so far at home, but with some training we’ll go out to some national shows and then compete internationally with a view to selection.”
“I’ve been very lucky to ride some amazing horses. I’m also extremely fortunate to have my sponsors and supporters, as without them I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Bert goes by the motto - “If you can dream it, you can do it, when you believe it!” It’s certainly working for her and is great motivation for us all.
Keep up with Bert's progress at her website: