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Olympian vows to overcome cancer

Rio Olympian Julie Brougham is determined to beat a rare and aggressive cancer and return to the international dressage arena with her once-in-a-lifetime horse. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Vom Feinsten’s ears prick up the moment Julie Brougham opens the stable door at Karere Bells, her Manawatu farm.

“Here he is, my unicorn,” she says, feeding a carrot to ‘Steiny’, the horse’s stable name.

He is indeed her feisty, yet trusty, red unicorn. A mount like none other the Rio Olympian has ever ridden. Her “horse of a lifetime”.

When Steiny returned home from five weeks quarantined in the United States - after they’d competed together in dressage at the World Equestrian Games in North Carolina in September - Brougham was euphoric. “My whole being was elevated to a high,” she says.  

She needed that kind of boost. It was also the day Brougham’s hair began falling out in large clumps.

She’d just come home from spending five days in Palmerston North Hospital, after complications from her first course of chemotherapy.

This week, Brougham will undergo her third round of treatment, to kill a rare and aggressive cancer that has blanketed her abdomen like a ghostly white spider’s web.

It was discovered in October, when she returned from the United States with painful, unexplained stomach cramps. It was “a bitter pill to swallow”, she says, having competed after recovering from a hip replacement just five months before.

Despite all of these significant hurdles, New Zealand’s top dressage rider has kept an incredibly positive attitude. “I’m going to beat this cancer, I know I am,” she says.

And when she does, Brougham is determined to ride Vom Feinsten competitively again. “I’m looking forward to going back out there and showing the world what he’s really capable of. No one has seen him at his best yet.”

Not afraid to dream or hope, she wants to better the Australasian record they already hold for grand prix musical freestyle.

“But for now, I’ve hit the pause button,” Brougham says. “I’ve got to beat this cancer first.”

An incredible relationship

Julie Brougham made headlines at the 2016 Rio Olympics as the eldest member of the New Zealand Olympic team. At 62, she was 18 months the senior of her equestrian team-mate Mark Todd.

But that’s not what Brougham wants to be remembered for. She was only the third New Zealander to compete in dressage at an Olympic Games, and she and Vom Feinsten set New Zealand’s highest Olympic score, 68.543 percent, in the grand prix. They finished 44th.

Her age (she’s 64 now) is irrelevant to her. She began riding at four; she knows women competing well into their seventies. She’d like to join them.

The beauty of equestrian sport, she says, is that it’s neither ageist nor sexist.

Brougham and her husband, David, an orthopaedic surgeon, bought their 40ha of land at Karere, just south of Palmerston North, 30 years ago. It was Julie’s grandfather’s farm, where she rode her ponies as a child.

Now it’s set up for her horses, with a dressage arena that’s partially covered and has huge mirrors along two walls, so Brougham can keep an eye on Steiny’s graceful movements – his piaffe, passage, pirouette, flying changes and extended trot.

She holds regular dressage clinics here with coaches from around the world, and gives lessons to a small group of riders. “I built this for myself not knowing it would end up servicing the community,” she says.

Brougham and Vom Feinsten first met 10 years ago, in Germany. She was looking to buy a “smaller, hot and electric” horse. She scouted around a number of German breeders before settling on a chestnut Rhinelander gelding at the stables of world-renowned dressage coach, Ton de Ridder.

The first 18 months of the relationship between woman and horse were rocky.

“He was the most awful ride; he felt like a sewing machine. He was quite manic - he just kept going and going. But he never tried to buck me off, rear up or bolt. There was never any nastiness,” says Brougham. She vowed not to give up on him.

Only the cream of dressage horses make it to grand prix level. They need a good engine, Brougham explains, and a desire to work. “Steiny just happens to have an amazing attitude and work ethic. He also has a great lung capacity and can cope in the heat and humidity,” she says.

“Somewhere along the way, the two of us clicked.”

Brougham and Vom Feinsten competing at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. Photo: Libby Law Photography. 

Australian dressage trainer Ben Conn, who played a crucial role in advancing Brougham’s career, always maintained that the rider and her horse were very similar. “Both small and hyperactive,” Brougham laughs.

She believes others can also see their special bond. “In all of our test papers at the World Equestrian Games [WEG], they called us a beautiful harmonious combination.”

Sarah Dalziell-Clout, the high performance director of Equestrian Sports NZ, can see it – and knows it may be vital in Brougham’s return to the top of the sport.

“The thing on Julie’s side is her incredible relationship with her horse,” she says. “They have a huge amount of experience under their belt now.

“It must be of huge comfort to her, coming out of what she’s been through, knowing she has this really solid partnership with Steiny. To be able to go forward and keep going at the top of her game, and bring her next protégé through.”

The strangulating spider's web

2018 has been an unforgettable year for Brougham, but not for all the right reasons.

It started well. On the back of victories at the Australian national championships and the New Zealand Open at Equitana Auckland, Brougham and Vom Feinsten finally won the national grand prix champion title and the coveted Burkner medal in February, after years of trying.

They were reserve grand prix champions at the Horse of the Year show, and winners of all three grand prix classes at “The Way to WEG” three-star event at Taupo.

Vom Feinsten was on a roll, performing more consistently than ever before. But, all the while, very few people knew Brougham was masking a painful hip problem, following a freak riding accident.  

“I really don’t know how I got through that summer,” she says. “I was in so much damn pain. It was worse than the cancer.”

In May this year, Brougham had a hip replacement. The surgery came eight months after she was thrown from a horse, which then landed on her right leg. Investigation revealed she had arthritis of the joint and, during the operation, the surgeon discovered a small fracture of the ball of the hip.

In the months leading up to the surgery, Brougham’s amazing relationship with her horse came to the fore.  

“When Steiny and I compete, we find ‘our zone’, usually just before, or as we ride around the periphery of the competition arena. The zone for me is a oneness I feel with Steiny, and it’s exclusively ours. I’ve never experienced it with another horse - and there have been so many,” she says.

“At times when my hip pain was utterly inescapable, once Steiny and I entered the competition setting and went around the arena and into our zone, the pain disappeared. I was oblivious to it until I’d completely finished and dismounted.”

Just five months out from the World Equestrian Games, that are held once every four years, Brougham told only those close to her that she was going to have surgery.

As a surgeon who specialises in joints, David Brougham knew the recovery timeline with a hip replacement. “He told me ‘I’m pretty sure you’re going to be fine’. If there was a complication, we would immediately withdraw from the team,” his wife says.

“We’d won everything since the previous October, but we knew I could ride so much better without the jolly hip pain.”

After the successful surgery in Wellington, Brougham put her blinkers on and focused first on walking, and then riding, again.

Then, before she left for the United States, she began to suffer from frequent stomach cramps. But she was so consumed with packing and arranging to fly her horse across the world, she pushed them aside. When she arrived at WEG, they became more severe.

“The cramps were brutal. But still I was able to cope. I didn’t feel unwell, and my hip and leg felt great,” she says. “And we were mindful that I’d get my tummy sorted when I got home.”

As soon as Brougham returned to Palmerston North, she saw her GP then a specialist. “I increasingly felt like I was pregnant; it got to the stage where it was only comfortable to lie on my back,” she says.

A colonoscopy showed an obstruction; a laparoscopy revealed “a white sheet - like a big white spider’s web - that was all around my bowel, strangulating it,” Brougham says.

It was a serous carcinoma – a widespread abdominal cancer, “most likely of ovarian type”, her husband explains.

“When I was told I had cancer, and the only option for treatment was chemotherapy, I thought ‘that stands between me and a hospice for Christmas’,” Brougham says. “It was absolutely frightening.

“My oncologist, Richard Isaacs, said that to move forward, we had to shrink the tumour. But he warned me it would be hard-going.”

Sure enough, there were complications after the first round of treatment, where the bowel obstruction worsened. “I remember saying to David on the way to the hospital ‘I’ve had a good life, I can’t live like this.’” But after a few hours on a drip, she was saying: “Actually the world’s not such a bad place”.

David Brougham knew there was a risk that with each round of chemo “Jules would drop back a bit”, he says. “But it’s looking positive because of the improvement in her health, plus the markers look like they’re heading in the right direction.” He’s proud of the way she’s dealing with the physical and mental upheaval of it all.  

After this latest round of treatment, Brougham will have a hysterectomy and oophorectomy, to remove her ovaries. And then, more chemo.

She believes she’s fortunate to live in Palmerston North, one of five regional cancer centres in the country, and to have Isaacs - a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to oncology – taking care of her.

She also knows she couldn’t do it without her husband – “my rock” – and friends around her who’ve helped with the horses and clinics.  

“I’ve been pretty lucky with the way the skittles have lined up. I feel so well now, I’ve just flown. I’m able to do things quickly again,” she says. “I’ll have another small setback with the chemo, but I’m prepared for that now.”

Champing at the bit

What happens next, Brougham isn’t sure. But she’s confident she’ll be back in the saddle competing again.

Realistically, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are not on her radar. She would not put Steiny, now 15, through another intense Olympic campaign.

She has another young horse on the farm, Donna Hope, that she bred, broke in and trained. The six-year-old mare is now competing, and last month was the reserve level two champion at the Southern Hawkes Bay dressage championships, with Brougham’s friend Rochelle Speirs on board.

Brougham would “never say never” to another Olympics. “Yes there is unfinished business. If someone wants to offer me a top small or middle-tour horse, I could put my hand up again. My team [David and coach Andrea Raves] might run for the hills though!”

An elated Brougham after setting New Zealand’s highest Olympic score at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressage grand prix. Photo: Libby Law Photography

In the build-up to the Rio Olympics, Brougham and Vom Feinsten spent seven months competing in Europe, living in Germany with the de Ridder family, and competing in international CDI 4 star dressage events. “We were consistently in the prizegivings,” she says. “But my year away was at a significant cost.”

She’s disappointed that New Zealand couldn't qualify a team of dressage riders for Tokyo, as Vom Feinstein was the last horse standing in the Kiwi team at WEG – Wendi Williamson’s Dejavu MH died suddenly of colic and John Thompson’s horse, JHT Antonello, had to withdraw unwell.

Steiny had his own problems. Four days out from the Games, he started coughing. Raves and Brougham began walking him around at 5am on the day of his dressage test, “to get the gunk out of his lungs”.

“He did a foot perfect test, but he didn’t have his ‘Hey look at me’ attitude,” says Brougham, disappointed to miss her goal of scoring at least 69 percent by 0.001 of a point. They finished in the top half of the field in 36th overall - but only the top 30 went through to the grand prix special. Before Steiny came down with his cold, Brougham had been confident of a “70-plus” test.

“It was still better than any New Zealand dressage rider has scored at WEG before. I’m so proud of what we did in a less than perfect situation,” she says.

“I hope one day I’ll sit in a stand and watch the New Zealand dressage team competing at the Olympics and the World Equestrian Games.”

With her wealth of knowledge from competing at the highest level, Brougham believes she knows how the sport in New Zealand could lift its game. She’d like to see more Kiwi riders based in Europe: “Like any high performance sport, the more you compete against the best, the greater likelihood you’ll improve. And the judges get to know you and see that.”

New Zealand also needs better surfaces for competition arenas. Like many top Kiwi horses, Steiny has had issues with lameness after competing on grass and sand.

“The rest of the world has good surfaces. The number one thing holding us back is too many top-level horses sustaining injuries,” she says. Her goal would be to have all the main dressage venues in New Zealand sporting top-quality stability fibre surfaces.  

Brougham’s own arena has a surface made of fine Pinaki sand from Dargaville, blended with Clopf fibre, which resembles shredded carpet.

Brougham has so much to give to the next generation of Kiwi dressage riders, Dalziell-Clout says.

“Julie has been really fortunate to have an incredible support crew in Andrea and David, which has enabled her to get overseas experience for her campaigns. That’s been really critical - not only to her own development, but to the sport back here,” she says.

“She’s come back and fed into the system what we need to be doing from an international perspective, especially in surfaces and competition. And she gives the up-and-comers an idea of where they should be heading.”

Brougham is back riding Steiny around her arena again, for short gentle workouts.

Although the duo have some catching up to do, they’re both champing at the bit to be centre stage once again.

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