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Sheila Laxon - An Interview with Christian King

Ms Sheila Laxon created Australian history in the horse racing industry by becoming the first woman to train a Melbourne Cup winner and Ethereal became only the third mare to win the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup double in 2001. Christian King talks to Sheila for Brain Injury Awareness Week at the Bendigo Club.

At what age did you become involved in horses and what was the fascination?

I would have been riding horses from when I was very young (I can see by the photos I was only knee-high to a grasshopper!) and I just loved everything and anything to do with them.

From my understanding, you entered into racehorse stables in England at the grand old age of twelve. How did that come about and were your parents happy about this?

The local trainer was short of help on the weekends and approached my Mother to see whether we may be able to work for him. Both Mum and Dad thought we should be capable of doing that.

What was your job whilst working at the stables and what other jobs did you do?

We used to muck out and groom then and, before long, we were riding them.

What age were you when you moved to New Zealand?

I moved to NZ when I was 27

Did you do your apprenticeship as a jockey there?

I did, but I was an Amateur rider for 10 years prior to becoming an Apprentice

How long did it take you to establish yourself as a prominent jockey as a woman in a profession that is dominated by males?

I wouldn't consider myself a prominent jockey as I did not ride a big number of horses during the year, but I did ride a hurdle winner in my first race day ride and was lucky enough to establish a pretty good hit rate when I did get the opportunity to ride.

As a professional jockey can you tell us how many races have you ridden up until 1991?

I rode 12 winners as an Amateur but they were all but one in professional races and one as an Apprentice (and won Apprentice Ride of the Year Award with that win!)

On the day of your accident you accepted to ride the horse you had your accident on. What thoughts were going through your mind about the horse prior to race time?

I was dubious about riding him as I had a feeling I shouldn't accept the ride and told the trainer, husband Laurie, as much. He said it was going to win and didn't I want to ride winners? Riding him down to the barriers, I knew he was much sorer than when I had ridden him previously and thought I'd tell the vet so he would be scratched. By the time I arrived at the barriers I changed my mind, as I could not explain to the trainer and owners about how much worse he was and he probably should win anyway.

After the race had started do you think you were relaxed and comfortable within yourself and the way the horse was travelling up until the time it buckled beneath you?

I watched the replay many times afterwards and the horse stumbled a couple of times in the race before he fell, but I was riding him confidently to that point.

What do you believe caused the accident?

He had been sore all through his training since we had had him and the vets and blacksmith were unable to determine where the problem was. I believe that whatever was causing his problem blew apart and he went down without putting his front legs down to break the fall.

Do you have any memory of what was happening to you prior to being knocked unconscious?

I remember going to the start and standing in the barriers but nothing after that.

What other injuries did you sustain in the fall?

A broken leg

Do you believe if you were not wearing a skull cap at that time do you think you would be sitting here telling your story now?

No I probably would not have survived

When you were admitted to hospital in a critical condition had you regained consciousness?

No, it took 8 days before I knew that I regained consciousness

When you regained consciousness were you aware of where you were and what were your thoughts at that time?

Yes, I remember exactly where I was looking after I was told I was in Waikato Hospital, in New Zealand. I remember thinking "This isn't Waikato Hospital" and saw the actual building which I knew to be Waikato Hospital out of the window.

How long did you spend in hospital and what injuries did you have to take home with you?

I spent 7 days in Gisborne Hospital and then just the weekend at Waikato Hospital. I went home with my leg in plaster and was unable to communicate much at all, had no memory retention and was very unbalanced.

How supportive were your family and your closest friends when they were told you had sustained a brain injury?

My Mother was very supportive and strong, but many of my associates shyed away from dealing with me.

I can only imagine rehabilitation consultants working in this highly specialised field could have been very supportive in your hour of need?

The consultants do a very good job, but have many people to attend to. They have a broad outlook on your injury consequences and are trained to assist you in a general sense.

From my understanding of your story when it was revealed you had sustained brain damage you were left to your own devices in rehabilitating yourself. How did you do this and how long did it take you.

I think I was pretty strong about wanting to get out of the hospital after I had viewed "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" on the first night of regaining consciousness and felt I had to prove I really was OK. I think that drove me to do as much as I could possibly do in every aspect and my recovery was probably a lot quicker because of that desperation to prove myself. I think that about three months later I was able to do a lot of things I found impossible when I first left hospital.

How painful psychologically and physically was this process and had you ever contemplated committing suicide?

I must admit I did feel very isolated because of the environment I lived in - I could not contribute any more to the lifestyle we participated in and I could now understand why people do commit suicide - it certainly does seem to offer a very easy way out of a tough situation.

What became the motivation to soldier on?

To prove to everyone else I was OK and would do all the things that I had been doing prior to the fall.

Sheila, some commentators have described you as being a highly motivated individual fiercely competitive and one of the hardest working people they have ever known. Where do you think those traits come from?

I guess my Mother always used to tell me that the world's my oyster and you put into life what you reap and a huge amount of my drive came from people saying that I was mad after the fall. I wanted to prove them wrong.

Sheila, I want to come back to a question I was going to ask at the beginning of the interview. When Ethereal won the Melbourne Cup I could imagine the jubilation you felt from a professional point of view but on a personal note was that win a personal message to all those people who simply deserted you and though there was no hope for ever achieving very much after you had been diagnosed with brain damage.

I did feel a huge amount of satisfaction when Ethereal won the Melbourne Cup and quite a lot of that came from thinking "There you go, I really am OK and have overcome the obstacles that brain injuries can cause"

Do you have a message to the readers out there who have suffered a brain injury?

Most certainly. I know how it feels when you think you are going to be like this forever and it seems such a huge mountain to climb when you can only creep forward in inches. And those inches don't seem to be making any forward movement at all, but add them all up and one day you can look back and see how very far you've come. So never give up and don't think that you'll never make it back to normality.

Christian King - Published Midland Express 20.09.2004

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