If you see a one-eyed magician at Melbourne 3DE, cheer him on!
WHEN Lisa North was a young girl she dreamed of horses.
Her parents had neither the land nor money to indulge her hobby so she spent every spare minute engineering ways to spend time with them: doing odd jobs at neighbouring horse properties, mucking out stables, cleaning paddocks, sweeping yards, and in return nagging anybody that would listen for a ride on any horse available.
She had no equipment of her own, other than a helmet she’d had for a birthday present, so it often meant riding bareback. Nothing put her off or stopped her; not bad weather, nor the hard work, nor heavy falls, one fracturing her knee, and one where a horse trod on her head and put her into hospital in a serious condition. Her only concern coming round from a long operation was that the nurses had had to cut off her brand-new riding boots.
But beyond casual rides in her childhood, a life with horses remained a dream … until she moved to Australia and her children had grown up and flown the nest.
What started as a move to the country and the chance for her and her husband to have a couple of horses for a bit of trail riding and low-level competition quickly turned into a love for, and commitment to, off-the-track Thoroughbreds, competitive riding and a thirst for show jumping and eventing.
After successful competition on a number of retired racehorses, Lisa by chance ended up bringing home from the horse sales an unwanted, 10-month-old, malnourished and lice-infested Thoroughbred colt.
Her only motivation was to give the colt a home and the early signs were that’s all he’d have. He showed no indication of his potential at any of the competition disciplines but that didn’t stop Lisa working with him, eventually getting him used to having her on his back, teaching him how to respond to her aids, and nurturing a very nervous, spooky, baby into a slightly less nervous and spooky adolescent. They bonded and (Magical Mystical) Merlin learned to trust her and work with her.
Soon, Merlin was climbing through the adult riding dressage classes, nearly always placing in competitions.
The horse that wouldn’t step over a ground pole began winning show-jumping events and kept winning or placing as the heights climbed up to and beyond a metre: 1.05, 1.10, 1.15, 1.20, 1.25 – adult riding gave way to elite competitions, including the Australian Show Jumping Championships. Lisa and Merlin were holding their own against professional riders with a whole stable of horses to choose from.
The cross-country horse that baulked at any fence painted with strange colours or decorated with plants blowing in the breeze started responding to the excitement of galloping around the course and leaping over ditches and brushes.
Within what seemed no time, Merlin was achieving qualifying results for the Melbourne 3-Day Event at the 2* level and, after gaining enough “qualifiers”, Lisa was on the verge of making her ultimate dream come true: she entered the 2020 Melbourne 3DE.
Then Covid-19 struck.
The event for June 2020 was cancelled with no plans to reschedule.
Keeping a horse fit and healthy for another year is one problem. Giving a horse the necessary experience at events leading up to the 2021 3DE is another issue when lockdown was causing widespread disruption to the competition calendar. But Lisa and Merlin kept going, not wanting to give up on what might be a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, until disaster struck.
One afternoon, Lisa was perplexed to see Merlin standing un-moving, on the laneway outside his paddock.
The wooden post and rail fence was broken and Merlin was clearly injured: he had a large swelling on his head, his eye was closed and blood was coming from his nostrils.
An initial vet inspection diagnosed a fractured skull but was optimistic his sight might be unaffected. However, within just a few days, a further investigation by an equine eye specialist revealed a completely detached optic nerve and 100 per cent blindness in his right eye.
Lisa was devastated.
On one hand she was greatly relieved that Merlin was still alive but fate had administered a cruel blow when their possibly one-and-only dream to compete at Melbourne had been snatched away.
After giving Merlin a rest and plenty of TLC, Lisa tentatively took him back into the arena to see what Merlin had left to offer. To her surprise and delight, his dressage movement was just the same.
Taking it easy at first, Lisa began to take Merlin over a few straight-forward jumps.
Unbelievably, he not only jumped as well as before, he also seemed to be less distracted and focused more on the jump, concentrating with his one good eye.
When his cross-country performance seemed also to be unaffected, Lisa became more determined than ever to enter the 2021 Melbourne Three-Day Event.
The highlight of his preparation was a third place at the Australian Eventing Championships at Wandin Park in the 2* class in March, 2021.
The disappointment of 2020 was soon put behind her and her June date with her dreams crept closer but just over a week before the opening of the event, Victoria went into lockdown again and hopes, once more, were dashed.
It took several weeks and months of soul searching to pluck up the determination to go again in 2022.
But having decided that she might never have another chance, Lisa made up her mind to start the training and preparation all over again.
Merlin, at age nine rising 10, was only just in his prime and there was every reason to believe he would get better and better.
But as if to test her even further, Merlin began to have some issues with the cross-country. Maybe he had lost some confidence or was short on event practice, but any combination of fences that curved to the right on his blind eye or where he only got to see the “question” being asked at the last minute resulted in a stop or “a refusal” (as it’s technically called).
Jumping into water became similarly problematic if the terrain meant he didn’t see the water until the last moment. Having seen the obstacle he would immediately jump it at the second time of asking but the 20-point penalties were frustrating and Lisa worried that maybe his good eye was causing problems as well.
Then, another set-back!
Merlin point-blank refused to jump into the water at one event and was eliminated. Lisa was stunned at the unprecedented turn of events but worked on the problem and put it behind her.
Then, at the next event an unexpected stop in front of a fence, at the last second, unseated her and the fall (benign as it was) gave her a second elimination. She had been unaware of the official rules and was disappointed to discover that two consecutive eliminations in the cross-country required her and Merlin to drop down a class to 1* and re-qualify for 2* competition: there is no 1* class at Melbourne 3-Day Event.
The clock started ticking.
The pressure was on at the Tonimbuk International Horse Trials in March 2022. Entered in the 1* class in a highly competitive field, Lisa and Merlin needed a clear cross-country round to re-qualify back up to 2* with very few events left should they be unsuccessful.
A good dressage test followed by a perfect show-jumping round left them needing a steady run out on the cross-country. Lisa didn’t worry about the time limit (and penalty points) and guided Merlin comfortably round the tricky Tonimbuk track with challenging fences in the woods and big gallops across the paddock.
When Merlin jumped confidently into the water at the first time of asking, she knew he would finish with a clear round. Despite a few time penalties, they finished sixth and Lisa and Merlin were back in the hunt for a Melbourne 3DE entry.
Another clear round at the Marcus Oldham Ballarat International Horse Trials reinforced Lisa’s belief in her incredible horse and set them up perfectly for Melbourne next month.
The journey with a horse is never straight-forward and there are so many potential pitfalls and unexpected turn-of-events that getting to the end is an achievement in itself.
Lisa has no expectations of Merlin at Melbourne: she’s just glad to be there and realise her dream at the third time of asking.
It’s been eight years since Lisa took Merlin home from the “abattoir waiting room”; six years since she first gently sat on his back; five years since her vet said he’d always be a liability, and to “get rid of him”; four years since a show jumping coach said “don’t waste your time”; two years since he qualified for M3DE for the first time, and just 50 years since a little girl dreamt of horses.
Dreams do come true if you believe in them enough and never give up.
* Simon Eassom is the unashamedly proud husband of Lisa and horse dad of Merlin.