Sarah Milne relaxes at home at Montrose Park, near Waikanae.

Seven months ago, Sarah Milne was lying on the operating table having major surgery to reconstruct her knees.  Last month, she achieved her rehab goal:  she won her dressage class and came a close second in another class, at her first competition since the operation. 

“Young people have no idea what it means to get two new knees. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any idea of what it would be like until I got them either!” says Sarah.

Sarah is a former Eventer who was once shortlisted for the Olympics on her horse Bush Singlet, earlier in her career.  But ironically, it was her love of skiing in New Zealand and Canada – and not her riding – that resulted in the multiple injuries to her menisci that led to her complex surgery.  Over time, the injuries had made her become increasingly bow-legged, and this made it more and more difficult for her to ride.    

Sarah’s surgeon was Helen Tobin, whose daughter Catherine is a Grand Prix Dressage rider, and so she knew how much riding meant to Sarah.

“She said six weeks with no horse riding.  So, I tried riding four weeks after surgery because I wondered if it was possible.   And the good news was that I could, but I followed the surgeon’s advice and left it six weeks like I’d been told to do.”

Sarah engaged a fitness physiotherapist and worked hard at completing every single exercise prescribed, and with as many repetitions as she was drilled to do.

When she was cleared to begin riding again, her biggest hurdle was that she didn’t have a safe horse to rehabilitate upon.  Instead, she had two young horses, one of was a bucker and the other was herd bound and “totally mortified by anything that happened in her life”.  Before surgery, Sarah had trained both horses to stand next to the mounting block so she could climb on them.  But, she says that was the easy bit.

Sarah returned to riding and won her first dressage class on Artemis VW who she rides along the beach with her delightful springer spaniel Pip.

“My legs didn’t work the same. And I was trying to ride again, and I had no kinesthetics, so no sense of body awareness.  My legs were all over the place. I was horrific, just horrific.  And, I was on these really green horses and I couldn’t ride.

“I just had to learn to ride all over again.”

Sarah kick-started a return to riding after she attended a clinic with UK-based Ride with Your Mind coach Mary Wanless, and has been training with Mandy Littlejohn and Simone Vanderplas ever since.

She says she was lucky to have support from Kate Fleming who helped to overcome the youngster’s bucking habit, and Kate took the horse onwards to win a New Zealand championship in December.

Then last month, after seven months of intense rehab, Sarah challenged herself to compete in dressage at the Horowhenua Dressage Group Summer Championship in Levin, and won her class on Artemis VW.

Sarah used to live in Cambridge, where she bred and rode horses.  Now she lives closer to her hometown of Levin, on Montrose Park between Otaki and Waikanae on a horse farm next to a beautiful beach.   She is the first to admit that her riding journey has been “a hiccup thing”.  From riding competitively, she took a break to study at university, completing a Masters in Psychology, specialising in Sports and following a professional career for a number of years.  She has a Masters in Sexual Health and has practiced as a sexologist.  

These days, Sarah trains riders and helps them to understand the psychological factors that influence their athletic performance, exercise and physical activity.   

“I love helping people that are focused on improving their performance, and putting in the time and the planning to improve it.  I don’t mind if the riders are relatively inexperienced or if they’re very experienced.   I just love the dedication,” she says.

Sarah Milne riding cross country on Milburn Magnitude.

Sarah says she truly believes that success comes through believing in one’s self, along with applying sensible training, coaching and plenty of repetition.

“Even though they may struggle, good riders remain focused on achieving their goals and overcoming huge obstacles in many cases.  Horse sports is not all about success, there’s also the knock-backs, but it’s about overall persistence, self -belief,” she says.

Sarah has bred horses from her property north of Wellington, and has trained two horses that have competed at the Olympics.  Writzmarc (named after her two brothers Richard and Mark) went to the Barcelona Olympics with Dutch rider Martin Lips, and a Thoroughbred renamed as Espionage went to the Seoul Olympics with Canadian rider Nick Holmes-Smith.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate. I didn’t breed many horses, but some of them were just amazing.”  Sarah rattles off multiple others she has either bred or trained, including warmbloods and champions, more than you could count.

So what is Sarah’s next goal?

“I’m going to say it:  I plan to train and compete a horse to Grand Prix Dressage.”

Such is the determination that started with a 13-year-old girl who grew up in town where there was no access to any horses. 

“It was only after many years of nagging my poor parents that I get my first horse when I was 13 or 14.  So for anybody who doesn’t have a pony, non-stop nagging does eventually work,” she laughs.

“And you never know where it will take you.”