When Julie Brougham and Vom Feinsten rode into the dressage arena at Manfeild Park last weekend, a hush fell over the crowd.
“It had been pretty noisy in there, but you could have heard a pin drop,” Brougham says. “He’s a bit of a local hero.”
Yes, they’d come to see her champion horse, nicknamed ‘Steiny’, who’d competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics with Brougham on board. They were only the third New Zealand pair to ride dressage at an Olympic Games.
But they’d also come to support 65-year-old Brougham, who’s had the fight of her life over the past 12 months.
“It was so good being back in the saddle,” she says.
It’s been exactly a year since Brougham and Steiny last competed together – at the World Equestrian Games in North Carolina. Brougham had returned home ill with stomach cramps, and by October 2018, she’d been diagnosed with serous carcinoma – a widespread abdominal cancer.
LockerRoom went to visit Brougham at her farm, Karere Bells, just south of Palmerston North, in the early stages of her treatment.
Since then, she’s completed six rounds of chemotherapy to fight the rare and aggressive cancer. She also had a series of setbacks, and emergency surgeries when things didn’t go right.
There were days when she struggled to find the energy to walk the short distance from her house to the stables. She lost a lot of weight, and found it difficult to eat.
“But Steiny has played a big part in my recovery. Even when I was pretty unwell, I was still able to get on and ride him because we know each other so well,” says Brougham, who was always determined that they would ride competitively again.
At the Dressage Central Districts championship show in Palmerston North last Sunday, Brougham and Vom Feinsten not only competed again for the first time, but they won.
Before the event, Brougham had been more concerned about how her horse would feel out in the spotlight again.
“Steiny had been going really well. But he’s been at home for a year, so I was worried he was going to feel a bit fragile when he got out there in the atmosphere, in front of the judges,” she says.
Her concerns were unfounded, as the 16-year-old Vom Feinsten produced a clear round and topped the field.
Brougham, who’s been riding since she was four and set the highest score by a Kiwi dressage rider at an Olympics in Rio, says she soon realised she’s not lost any of her competitive streak.
“I feel like the competitor I was. I still want to do well, I still want to win, I still want to get a high mark,” she says.
In fact, she admits she was disappointed with their score of “69 and a bit”; she was aiming for 70 percent – a mark considered a very good score in dressage.
“I know it’s silly of me. I should be so proud the horse had a clear round and everyone thought it was fantastic,” she says. “But the competitor in me always wants to do really, really well.”
Physically, she felt fine during and after the competition.
“I certainly don’t have the energy I had before, but hopefully it will come back. I’ve given up my afternoon nap,” she laughs.
“I have a student here helping me at the moment. When she first arrived, it was such an effort to walk to the stables. When I think back to that time, I just feel so fortunate to have got to a place where I am relatively pain-free now. It’s such a big deal.”
During her treatment for the cancer, Brougham suffered a number of serious setbacks. She was hospitalised with complications after the first round of chemo; surgery in January to remove her ovaries and Fallopian tubes led to infections and the removal of part of her large bowel, which was dying.
She had a stoma put in – an opening in the abdominal wall where the body’s waste can be collected in a bag. Another operation to reverse the stoma wasn’t successful – she needed emergency surgery soon after, when she was in “the worst pain of my life” – and now the stoma and bag are permanent.
Brougham is discovering it’s not exactly an ideal situation for an athlete. “Stoma bags are notorious for leaking and bursting. You’d think that here in 2019 it would be possible to have foolproof bags,” she says. “It’s very frustrating.”
But, as she frequently says, “I’m still here”.
“The chemo makes you terribly ill, but the cancer responded so well to the drugs. I’m very conscious that things could always be worse,” she says.
“I’m so fortunate to have a wonderful family who’ve been incredibly supportive of me.”
Brougham and her husband, David, an orthopaedic surgeon, have two adult children. “And my friend Rochelle Speirs and her mum were here every day looking after Steiny.”
In her first time back competing, and judging, Brougham got a thrill from seeing new young faces and new young horses on the local dressage scene. But she’s not ready to bow out yet.
“This win won’t be our last,” she says.
Their next competition is likely to be Equidays Mystery Creek next month, where Brougham hopes to take part in a masterclass with 2012 Olympic dressage gold medallist Carl Hester.
She also hopes to make it back onto the international dressage scene, taking Vom Feinsten to Australia next February for back-to-back CDI 4* competitions at Willinga Park in New South Wales.
“We won’t be competing him a lot; you have to look after your good horses,” Brougham says. “And we don’t have great competition places in New Zealand. All our surfaces are pretty unhelpful for a dressage horse.
“I was absolutely chuffed that so many people turned up to see Steiny compete. And a lot of those people had put their hands in their pockets to help us get to the World Equestrian Games last year.
“So I was really glad that I was able to say ‘here we are again’ and ‘thank you’.”