Seven years ago, Roberta Sheffield started working with Fairuza (aka Wonky) who was then a six-year-old that had lived in a herd of 100 horses and wasn’t even halter broken, much less able to perform a dressage test. Fast forward to Herning where the pair earned fifth in the first qualifier for the Grade III Individual Freestyle Final, their highest placing in that class at a World Championship.

Roberta started riding for the United Kingdom, but as she is a dual citizen, switched to riding for Canada in 2013. Her first World Championship was at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy when her Freestyle test earned her fourth place aboard Bindro T. Shortly thereafter, she acquired Wonky and started the detailed work of preparing the mare to be her future World Championship mount.

“I don’t have a great deal of funds, so I have to do the best with what funds I have,” explained Roberta of the decision to train the mare herself. “For me, it’s better to use the skills I developed when I was less disabled and develop a horse myself than it is for me to go and buy one. I couldn’t afford the quality of horse I would need to be here if it was already working and going.”

Although a friend did the initial “stunt riding” over the first couple of months, Roberta did all the rest.

“I do a lot of groundwork,” she said of the detailed process of preparing a horse to be the steady and thoughtful mount that she needs. “I like to develop the horses’ emotional stability and develop the partnership with them so they trust me, so when I come to ride they are much more looking to me for what to do with a strange situation of having someone on their back than running away from it.”

A full time rider and coach, Roberta has a number of students back home in Lincolnshire where she also competes in able-bodied up to the Advanced Medium level.

“I much prefer training and preparing horses and I love learning with horses.” says Roberta about the process of preparing to compete. “I love teaching them as well and learning myself and training the horses and developing a relationship with them. For me, the competition is the test of the training.”

While she most enjoys the training process, Roberta is still a top competitor.

“It was wonderful to win in Mannheim, it was just wonderfully emotional,” she said of winning both the Individual Championship Test and the Freestyle Test at the 3* German show in May. “I do enjoy it when I get there, and it’s always an honour to represent Canada. It’s always wonderful to wear the maple leaf and to go out on that stage and perform and to be able to show off our artistic creative process as a performance.”

Their performance at that show solidified their spot on the team coming to Herning ‒ but the trip to the Worlds became uncertain when Wonky became ill in July.

“We don’t know what was wrong,” she said of the mysterious illness. “She just wasn’t right and then she came up with a fever and we rushed her into Rossdales [Equine Hospital in the UK]. She was really not a happy bunny. They checked her out for colic, and her hearth, and her lungs, and everything else and they couldn’t really find a lot. They gave her a lot of antibiotics and she had a lot of fluids and care. They got her temperature down. There was no obvious infectious disease or anything like that. She was just poorly.”

Thankfully, the mare made a full recovery and was able to join the team at the training camp in Randers.

“I am incredibly grateful to Equestrian Canada for having great faith in me and for having their support when I was a jittering wreck wondering if my horse was going to be alive tomorrow, let alone whether I was going to the World Championships with her. There was never any pressure that she had to compete. It was always that her welfare was a priority; that was really special to have the support of Clive [Milkins, Para-Dressage High Performance Program Technical Leader] and Alan [Manning, the Para Team vet] advising me, supporting me, and helping me do the best for my horse. Alan has been keeping a really close eye on her this whole trip and has been very supportive.”

After Herning, Roberta will be repeating a familiar process in starting to train a new horse. Like Wonky, the new four-year-old gelding is a Gelderlander whose breeders have enjoyed following Wonky’s progress and wanted to give her the opportunity to ride one of their horses.

“We’ll see how it goes with him. I’ve not sat on him yet, so that could be exciting!” she said, explaining that the run-up to a major games is not a good time to be trying young horses, “especially when you have a disability that means when you hit the deck you tend to shatter. I’ve had to take a leap of faith with this horse. He looks right and like he’s got the right outlook that I can work with.”