“I have never been happier,” Cameron Hanley states as we sit down around a table at his beautiful barn where Hanley and his family moved in at the beginning of the year. And that’s a little weird, perhaps – considering the fact that Hanley a few months earlier and the day before he was supposed to move into his new stable, the first one he had ever owned himself, lost the ride on what basically was his entire string of horses.
And, it’s not like it did not affect him emotionally. There is the whole spectrum of emotions to go through during our interview session, including tears. But, surprisingly there is no bitterness nor regrets from Hanley’s side. Hanley has happiness as his focus.
“It’s from my father,” Cameron smiles mid-way in our interview session when asked how on earth he can remain so positive despite everything that has happened to him. “My father has always had the most positive attitude towards life, and he has been an inspiration to me.” Just to explain, Cameron tells a story of how his father fractured two vertebrae in his neck, ended in a hospital in a full body cast with four screws in his head. ‘I’m so sorry dad,’ Cameron said. ‘I’m so lucky,’ his dad answered. ‘The man in the bed next to me is paralyzed, and this could have happened to me too’. Or when his dad got prostate cancer, and explained to an upset and sad Cameron that he should not worry ‘they tell me if you are going to get cancer, this is the kind you want’.
“So, what I have learned about problems is – it’s all about perspective,” Hanley says. “You look at a problem from one angel, it looks really impossible. You look at it from a different angel, and it could actually be something you can benefit from. With all the problems I have had in my life, only positive things have come out of them in the end.”
The thing is: Cameron Hanley knows about problems. Probably better than anybody else. Because sadly enough bad things do happen to good people, and that is the case not only when it comes to Cameron’s father – but also when it comes to himself.
First things first though, let’s go back to where a lot of good things in Cameron’s life have their origin – from his father. Without him, the Hanley-name would probably not have rung such a familiar sound for showjumping enthusiast around the globe.
It’s not like you would think though. It was just that Cameron’s father – in addition to running a successful clothes shop – owned a pub. One night he walked into the pub and Cameron’s older brother Charles was playing pool, and he was really good at it. Cameron’s dad was of the opinion that as Charles was so good at it, he was also spending too much time at it – and to prevent further pool playing he bought a pony for Charles and a horse for himself. Little did Cormac Hanley know that his purchase would contribute to creating showjumping history.
“I owe everything to my dad,” Cameron says. “He sacrificed a lot for things he believed in, and thanks to him the family are all horse oriented.”
Cameron’s riding career started when he was eight. “My first memory from a show is being in the ring, and it wasn’t going my way so I pulled up and started crying and somebody had to come and lead me out because I would not go anywhere anymore,” he laughs. “I suppose when I was from 12 on, I started taking it a bit more serious and I went on to win a silver medal at the Europeans as a pony rider.” The pony – Kilclooney – was six years old, something that would have been quite unthinkable today. “I had ponies to produce from I was fourteen years old. My last year on ponies I had twelve high-level ones from people who gave them to me to produce, ride and sell.” In other words, Cameron started his career in the horse-business quite a lot earlier than the rest of us. “The trend goes back a long time,” he laughs. “We had to make the ends meet, it was a business for us.”
When Cameron talks about his father sacrificing a lot, it’s very real. The entire Hanley family lived in a caravan for seven years to make it go in the beginning. “My father gave up a very successful business, moved out of our home and build up a riding school. The plan was to build up a house on the property – but it took a lot longer than expected and we ended up in the caravan from when I was ten until I was seventeen. As kids we did not really notice anything, we were happy – had ponies to ride. But for him and my mother – living in a caravan for seven years – it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. That being said, I never saw my parents argue. So, in many ways it was a great way of growing up,” Cameron smiles.
Cameron’s father spotted his potential early on, and quickly realized that to become better and improve his son had to leave the country. “So, he organized a job for me in Switzerland for Gerard Etter through a mutual friend. I went there in 1991 for three months experience, but ended up staying for a year – and after this year I asked to stay one more and ended up staying there for nine years,” Cameron laughs. “I had a really fantastic time there, they were great people – I was treated like a part of the family. I had so many horses to ride, all kinds – big ones, small ones, fast ones, slow ones. And we got to jump a lot. I went on to do ten Nation Cups at the time I was there with five different horses and was reserve at the 1998 WEG.”
In 2000, Cameron moved closer to home – and started working for Ballasayre Stables in England. “I hit off a very special relationship with a horse called Ballasayre Twilight. In a short period of time, I was on four winning Nations Cup teams, won the King George V Gold Cup at Hickstead, won the Grand Prix in Dublin and then at the end of the year I won the Grand Prix in Millstreet – on Leonardo. It was a year that catapulted me to another level. The year after, the lady who owned the horses got ill and the horses were moved to Johann Heins in Holland to be sold.”
It was not the best timing. Cameron’s wife Evelyn was pregnant with their first child, and losing his job was according to Hanley ‘a bit of shock to the system’. The next years would be a bit of a setback, and after another year in England the Hanleys moved on to Germany. “A good friend of mine, Ralf Runge, took us in. Ralf has a great heart, was so good to us and helped us on our feet. From there I went to Schockemöhle for one and a half years. That gave me more experience, and I also won the Bundeschampionat when I was there which helped for my name in Germany,” Hanley explains.
During the time at Schockemöhle’s Cameron met Sevil Sabanci, and she held the key to the next chapter in Hanley’s showjumping career. “Through Sevil I got really good horses to ride. One of them was S.I.E.C. Hippica Kerman, which became a really special horse for me. He was double clear in so many Nations Cups, and fulfilled two of my life ambitions when he took me to the 2006 WEG in Aachen and also I got to ride clear on him in the Nations Cup in Dublin. I also met Livello there, who I ended 4th with at the 2009 Europeans at Windsor,” Cameron says. “I also got to train for Gerry Mullins which was fantastic. It helped me a lot as a rider, but Gerry also taught me to be a coach myself.”
From there, Cameron returned to his family – in this case his brother Carl and his wife Nadia that in 2010 had just moved to their yard outside Osnabrück. Cameron started up on his own, and another chapter began. Hanley and his brother found great younger horses like Antello Z and Living The Dream, as well as Chiara – now ridden by Ludger Beerbaum. The future looked promising.
Cameron’s life took an unexpected turn though, when he on a mid-summer day in June 2011 was out playing with his kids in the garden and injured his knee. “I was just playing around, doing some small jumps when the tendon raptured. I went to the hospital, did the operation – had to put the tendon back together and as it looked then it should have been three months of recovering.”
But, the next day Cameron’s leg had swollen up really badly. It was infected and had to be opened again. It didn’t stop there though, within a couple of days Cameron got really sick. The infection took strong hold with fever raging through his body and he had to stay for three weeks in intensive care in the hospital. “Every time there was an operation done, that was supposed to be the last one. Then, a few days later there was an infection again – so it was constantly a situation where we never knew what would happen,” he tells about the nightmare he and his wife Evelyn had to go through.
Eventually, Cameron got out of hospital. Four months had passed since the accident. The doctors were assessing what to do next. They were running out of ideas. “They suggested to remove all the soft tissue, and to fuse the joint so I would have a straight leg. Normally I accept things, but I thought about it and it would be impossible for me to ride this way,” Hanley says.
So, Cameron and Evelyn got an appointment with the main surgeon. ‘I can do something else,’ Cameron told him sitting on the other side of his desk. ‘I don’t have to ride to make my living. But I am sure you as a doctor, you are not just a doctor to make money. It’s not just what you do, it’s also what makes you who you are. For me, being able to ride horses – that is what makes me who I am. If I don’t ride again it does not really matter, but if I know I can’t – it does!’
Shortly after, the main surgeon came back to Cameron – he had been thinking so much about what he had said that Hanley had appeared in his dreams. The surgeon’s suggestion was rather out of the ordinary though. It was an example of a surgery done only eight times in India. ‘See if this can be an option,’ he told Cameron.
“So, they removed the tendon completely – the knee cap has been fixed to the joint and they took my calf muscle flaps to replace the tendon function – and that is how my leg works now with the muscle from my calf in my knee. Still, if I bang my knee I grab my calf because the nerves are all attached to there,” he laughs.
It was not done there though. The knee needed rest and then rehabilitation. The problem was that it was hard to bend, almost like a plank – and the infections would not let go. Things really did not look all that good. “We went to an alternative doctor at this point,” Cameron’s wife Evelyn says. “He found the root of the problem with the infection and why it could not be cured with antibiotics. Two weeks later the gap was closed and the infection was out.” Then rehabilitation could start. By this time Cameron’s knee could be bended to 60 degrees, and now he can bend it to 120.
Miracles do happen. Cameron could return to the horse back in October 2012, almost one and a half year after the first surgery. “When I sat on a horse again…Well it is where I feel the most comfortable,” he smiles.
“Cameron was unbelievable,” Evelyn says about the horror they both had to go through. “He was so strong and positive all the time. It was almost like I had to come to the hospital to get strength from him.” Cameron shoots in; “Things happen in life that are out of our control, and there is no point to be upset about something you can do nothing about.”
Again, Cameron has an approach to his experience which has to be admired. “I learned so much during this time. Up to then I thought of myself as only a rider. That is how I defined myself. But, when the riding was taken away from me – there were other things I could do. I could still run a business, I was still a good dad and I was still a good son – and also many other great things. There are so many other things to life. I love to ride, it’s a huge part of me and my life, but I learned it’s not the only thing. I learned to appreciate the things I do have in life.”
Coming back in the ring was not so easy though. “I felt so wobbly. As my leg worked in another way my balance was different. I didn’t have so much stability, so it took a bit time to get used to in the beginning. But, it went quite fast – I started competing again in February 2013 and in May I won the Grand Prix in Wiesbaden with Antello.”
Antello Z – he will always remain special for Cameron. “He was the last horse I sat on before my injury, and then when I was back he gave me my first big victory.” What Cameron did not know was that another one and a half later they would be separated again.
Antello Z was bought back for Cameron by Swiss sponsors as he made his return to the showjumping scene. After Hanley’s injury he had been partly sold, competing with Michael Whitaker in the saddle. More horses were added to the EuroAsia-string, and Hanley successfully started showing their horses. Exclusively. “I knew I was vulnerable that way. I don’t regret it, I had a great time,” he says.
The day before moving into their new yard, Cameron got to know that all his top horses would be leaving him. The owners wanted the horses closer to home, which meant they all would be going to Pius Schwizer in Switzerland.
“I had 750 bales of shavings, but only one horse,” Cameron says with a hint of irony in his voice as he shows us around the stables.
There is no irony left when we return to the subject though, sitting around the table overlooking the stunning outdoor and grass paddocks. “It’s the same as with the leg, you just have to look forwards and not to think about it too much. But I loved each and every one of the horses, so when I slow down and think about it – well, it breaks my heart,” he says. “But again, it’s a situation I could not change – I had no control over it so what could I do. I had to kiss them, say goodbye and wish them the best – that was it.”
“One thing I have learned is this: There is no point in looking back. You have to enjoy the moment and look ahead, and that is what I have been doing ever since they left.”
As co-owner of Living The Dream, Hanley kept the ten year old gelding though – but not without discussion and a couple of lawyers. It took a little over three months to find a solution. It involved Living The Dream leaving, but Antello returning – together with the eight year old Cas. Cameron and his friend Antello could once again be reunited. “Of course I am sad to see Living The Dream go, but I am delighted to be able to have Antello back,” he says. “I am very happy!”
So, our faith in karma has been restored. Good things also happen to good people. Our story can get a happy ending. Cameron can look forward to the future with a great string of horses that include Z Acodate DDL, Antello Z, Cas, Dalfsen, Facebook, Easy Blue, Ikketiska van de Noordheuvel and Nickoletta E– and hopefully towards more team appearances for Ireland both in Nation Cups and championships with the support from his loving family and his tremendous team that we have gotten to meet during our brief visit.
As to the cost of his current happiness, Cameron is determined the price has not been too high to pay.
“Whatever it has taken me to get here, whether it has been good or bad – it was all worth it.”
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson / text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2015.
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