An 18-year-old from the Illawarra has been selected as one of the country’s elite equestrian athletes to represent Australia at the Horse of the Year competition in New Zealand, but despite her ongoing commitment and dedication to the sport, the cost of competing at such a high level is adding up, with hope the community will help her take part in the event.
Taleha Urszulak has loved horses since she was a little girl and spends every day taking care of them or training with them near her home at Albion Park.
“Horses just give peace of mind,” she said. “Even though they don’t talk to you, you can tell that they’re listening. It keeps you calm and I just love them.
“They’ve always been part of my life and will never not be.”
Taleha persistently begged her parents to let her take up riding from as young as four years old and while they initially hoped to steer her away from the complicated and expensive sport, they quickly realised her passion was not going anywhere.
“It just got to the point where we had to give in and she got her first pony and was learning to ride and got lessons and we just saw that she loved the fast pace and the sporting side of pony club,” her mum Kellie said.
“When we joined up to Woonona Pony Club, a lady named Jane saw potential in Taleha and she and her husband have trained her since, and Taleha has just flourished.”
And the more success she found, the busier she became.
“It’s a big commitment,” Kellie said. “You’re at the horses twice a day feeding, grooming, exercising, and then on top of that you’ve got to be committed to go to competitions and the competitions usually aren’t local.
“We drive the horse float everywhere, so her drive and commitment has to be there in order for her to get that far.”
As well as studying veterinary nursing at TAFE, Taleha balances being a representative cricket player.
“Honestly, it’s just trying to get a schedule down and thinking how can I convert both sports into one and plan out the days,” she said.
But it’s her love of riding that has taken her across the world.
And at the end of last year, she found out that she was going to represent her country once again at the Horse of the Year competition, for her last year in the under-18s division.
“I went there in 2020 when COVID first started and honestly, it was the best experience of my life,” Taleha said. “It started off my international career with Mounted Games and it was the biggest event I’d ever been to.
“Now, with the amount of riders able and capable and talented enough to go over, it shocked me because you can’t really expect more than getting into an Australian side, so I’m just stoked.”
While travelling is exciting, it also means that she is unable to bring her own horse, and Taleha will first ride the one she’ll compete with just days before the competition starts.
“It’s a bit crazy, it’s an adrenaline kick big time and honestly, it’s hard but you’ve got to just trust yourself and trust the horse that you’re on,” she said. “You’ve got to just see how it’s feeling and if it’s in a bit of a mood you’ve just got to roll with it and go with it.”
And hiring a horse is just an added cost to the many others associated with participating in the sport.
“It’s probably one of the most expensive sports because not only do you pay a yearly fee and then equipment, you’re paying for the food, the agistment, vets, the dentist and then maybe a chiro or physio, it just never ends,” Kellie said.
“And to get over to New Zealand she has to pay her way in airfares, she has to pay for the competition itself, pay for the horse that she’s going to borrow, pay for food, accommodation, her uniform and it just adds up and is a lot of money.”
Sponsors such as Equine Canine Rehabilitation, Imperial Horse Floats and Horse Paradise are helping Taleha to fulfil her potential but the family is hoping that more local businesses or community members might be able to help by donating or contributing to raffle prizes.
“We’ve decided to help with the cost to collect cans and bottles, the 10c recyclables, and we didn’t think that we’d get a response from the community but Albion Park, Oak Flats and Warilla have just been absolutely amazing,” Kellie said.
Taleha heads to New Zealand at the beginning of March.