This story is very personal to me. I did not know teenager Sarah Waugh who fell from a bolting horse and died at Dubbo TAFE in 2009, but I know - and deeply admire - her parents, Juliana and Mark Waugh. Our lives entwined through ‘happenstance’, when I reached out to them after becoming a pariah in my horse community for being passionate about improving safety.
Until then, I was in a state of bewilderment and hopelessness, unsure why modern concepts such as ‘due diligence’ and ‘best practice’ prompted such hostility in the equestrian world. The Waughs taught me I was not alone, and that determination and logic could push past many barriers. They also taught me if you try hard enough, you might even change the law.
Mark and Juliana are not the only parents to have endless unanswered questions about the death of a child. Everything about such an incomprehensible loss is nonsensical and cruel. But, when that child dies in a state government workplace, the urge for answers becomes a lot more intense.
The first question came soon after Sarah, aged 18, started at a ‘Jackaroo/Jillaroo’ (Certificate II in Agriculture) course at Dubbo TAFE and Juliana wondered why a horse in the riding class did not have a name. The reason, it emerged later, was because the horse was still a registered racehorse that last competed two weeks prior to arrival at campus. As such, the horse had not been decommissioned, reschooled or given a pet name.
Another question came when Juliana arrived at the scene of Sarah’s riding accident at the TAFE campus. Everyone was staring down at their boots, saying nothing. This was because Sarah was already dead, and the students and staff who had gathered were in shock, waiting for the police to break the news.
The biggest question of all came many months later, when the ‘thorough investigation’ that was promised did not happen. Out of frustration, the Waughs sought legal advice to start the ball rolling themselves. The reasons an investigation was not automatic are still not clear.
That was nine years ago. In the meantime, Juliana, Mark and their son, Sarah’s brother, Jonathan, have been broken individually and collectively so many times they’ve lost count. Juliana tells a harrowing story of once standing on a rooftop, ready to jump off, from the injustice. She also speaks of losing many friends from her obsession to hold those responsible to account. Even worse, the demons of grief came close to jeopardising the family’s own relationship.
It is hardly surprising. Three court cases - a coronial inquest, which cost the Waughs over $350,000 in legal fees to get over the line, a civil case and then a WorkCover prosecution - would put anybody and anything under pressure. For days on end, over many years and for many reasons, Juliana and her family have re-lived the day of Sarah’s death, and the ongoing horror of her absence.
Case in point, in order to help write this story, the Waugh’s had to re-live Sarah’s death again, for me.
They tell of a smart, feisty and talented teenager who had a deep love of animals, especially horses, with a poster of racehorse, Maykbe Diva, on her bedroom wall. As a child, Sarah wanted to ride and had regular lessons at a reputable riding school in their hometown of Newcastle, New South Wales. Juliana, a meticulous record-keeper, calculates that Sarah had around 50 lessons over her early teenage years. Her favourite school horse was a retrained and established Off The Track Thoroughbred named Arnie.
Gifted musically and academically, Sarah was tossing up between veterinary science and professional music for her career options (Mark recalls sitting with his daughter, discussing the pros and cons of each in depth). Finally, Sarah decided she would keep music as a hobby and apply for veterinary science. Although she had the required school marks to get into the course, on application, she was told she needed more practical experience, and to try again the following year.
To enable Sarah to get a qualification to undertake ‘gap year’ farmhand work, she enrolled in the ‘Jack-and-Jill’ course at Dubbo TAFE. Juliana made the move with her daughter and rented a short-term flat for them both. A few weeks into the course, Sarah had been earmarked to do some work experience on a sheep station. On the day she died, Juliana had just come back from getting new tyres put on the car for the trip. She had just jumped into the shower when two of Sarah’s classmates arrived at the flat and said Sarah had been in a riding accident.
Assuming the worst (which, at the time, she thought might mean broken bones and possibly a hospital stay), Juliana instinctively grabbed one of Sarah’s teddy bears, knowing she would need a little comfort. After the short drive to the TAFE campus, Juliana was taken into a room where a plain-clothes police officer delivered the tragic news. As anybody would, Juliana fell to the floor.
Mark and Sarah’s brother, Jonathan, were flown into town shortly afterwards and the family were given half an hour in the local hospital morgue to say goodbye to their beautiful girl. That night in bed, Juliana and her husband Mark lay alongside one another in their living nightmare with one of Sarah’s soft toys separating them so their grief did not touch each other.
The funeral was held one week later in Newcastle, rain holding off just long enough for Sarah’s childhood riding instructor and her favourite school horse, Arnie, to join the funeral procession, along with her beloved dog, Polly.
As for the plain bay gelding that Sarah was riding when she died? Not much was known about him at all until after her accident. He had arrived at the TAFE campus with a batch of five other ‘unknowns’ to fill an order for horses suitable for beginner riders.
Later, the horse’s registered racing name was found to be Snakey Thought. Prior to Sarah’s accident, another pupil had fallen off him several times and refused to get on him again. Always looking out for the underdog - and with a love of Thoroughbreds - Sarah took him under her wing and named him Dargo (after a misunderstood character from her favourite science-fiction program).
Although she had learned to ride as a child, Sarah had been out of the saddle for some time. Regardless, unless she was an experienced horseman or track rider, she was ill-prepared - and by no means strong enough - to stop an adrenaline-fuelled racehorse from grabbing the bit and bolting home after a group ride.
The TAFE riding instructor had called out to Sarah “pull him up” and she yelled back with panic that she couldn’t. Dargo was galloping as he had been trained to do on the racetrack, especially on the home turn. Sarah had lost a stirrup and fell in a cloud of dust, where she died on scene from head and neck injuries.
Juliana is a school teacher by trade - in effect, a professional guardian of young lives. Mark works in safety compliance for the transport industry, in his own business. Their loss of Sarah and professional backgrounds combined to create a formidable partnership to discover the truth behind her death and how it could have been prevented. (After reading the coronial documents and the many questions raised, I can honestly say it is the most incredible testament of a parent’s love for their child.)
The outcomes of the coronial investigation and other legal proceedings found Sarah’s accident was preventable and Dubbo TAFE had been negligent on many fronts. Mark went back to work and Juliana created a new role for herself - to create positive change in the horse industry by improving education and safety regulation. The driving force for both of them has always been this one question, something as relevant today as it was when Sarah died:
“Tell us if we are wrong?”
Juliana has tapped out countless words to bureaucrats, met politicians armed with reams of statistics and become deeply immersed in the horse industry as a safety advocate. Many academics in the field now consider her their friend and ally as they pull together the same direction for evidence-based practice. Juliana has also developed an extremely thick skin from being repeatedly dismissed as “just a grieving mother”.
Her first aim was to create workplace legislation to prevent an accident like Sarah’s from happening again. Persistence paid off. SafeWork New South Wales, after having a guide ratified in 2016 by Safe Work Australia, titled ‘Guide to Managing Risks when New and Inexperienced Persons Interact with Horses’, eventually introduced a mandatory Code of Practice for the New South Wales horse industry, titled ‘Managing Risks When New Or Inexperienced Riders Or Handlers Interact With Horses in the Workplace’.
In summary, it means employers or workplaces that do not follow the guidelines (which fall under the Workplace Health and Safety Act) may face criminal prosecution in the event of an accident. The code was gazetted in February 2017 and, in early 2018, SafeWork NSW rolled out a series of introductory workshops across the state to educate employers in the horse industry of their obligations.
On the morning of the recent Queen’s Birthday public holiday, a Monday, a friend (coincidentally, a well-known child advocate) texted me to let me know that Juliana has been awarded an AM (Member of the Order of Australia), for her efforts to improve horse safety.
The text read: “Bittersweet to read of Juliana’s AM. So well deserved. She is an inspiration. Please pass on my congratulations and heartfelt good wishes.” I phoned immediately to pass on this message and caught Juliana in the middle of cooking a family lunch that Sarah would/should have been at.
In fact, all going to plan, Sarah would have been hitting her straps as a practicing veterinarian, the reason she took a gap-year to be a jillaroo.
At that lunch, Sarah would have no doubt been telling her family funny stories across the table, filling them in on her worklife helping animals. When I asked Juliana how she felt about receiving the AM, she simply replied: “I’m just happy people are still talking about Sarah”. She said she also felt it would provide impetus for the next stage of her horse safety work. Always about Sarah, and always working towards prevention of another rider death.
I remember the first time I talked about Sarah Waugh and the SafeWork NSW Code of Practice, when it was still in draft stage. The conversation was with the coordinator of a large equestrian centre, of which I was a committee member. As a workplace (with centre staff, riding coaches, etc.), I thought management would take interest in the draft code and maybe want to give feedback. I also thought it was the dawning of a new era, where modern safety standards would start to be taken more seriously by those in equestrian sport.
But, the draft code of practice was not seen as important and Sarah’s death, which prompted the code, was dismissed as being a one-off. That didn’t sit well with my background in news media and community safety. I have seen too much tragedy and understand accident prevention is essential. Also, two young riders had recently died competing in horse trials in New South Wales and, to add another layer, this particular equestrian centre hosted horse trials.
Shortly afterwards, I resigned from the equestrian centre committee for many reasons, not just safety-related. I remained as secretary of a riding club that was also based there, but I became very unpopular.
Once, I politely - and bravely, it turns out - wrote to centre management asking for improved horse fencing and safer riding surfaces to be made a priority (after several worrying incidents, including multiple broken horse legs and a junior rider airlifted unconscious to hospital). I was later told committee members ‘joked-not-joked’ about physically hurting me if I ever wrote ‘another letter’.
I felt I had no choice but to follow up the operational oversights that I had uncovered. Many of these had been drawn to my attention by other members of the centre and also staff, but when it came to backing me up, they didn’t.
Issues ranged from the under-insurance of club events to a complete lack of policies and procedures, as would be required in any high-risk workplace. Even more disappointingly, when I tried to engage the support of the local state member of parliament, he actually appeared to be working against the cause (in a small town, no-one wants to rock the boat). The local council only became involved after intense lobbying - even though they are the owners of the equestrian centre and, ultimately, liability falls back on them.
The good thing about being ostracised from a community, however, is it gives you time to sit back and reflect. Horse riding is steeped in the tradition of being a thrill-seeking sport that tests courage and endurance. Sometimes, it seems safety and horses are regarded as being mutually exclusive (Whoever introduced riding helmets deserves full admiration, for that must have taken some work).
The rhetoric from government officials - and I have it on official letterhead, many times - is that equestrian sports carry “inherent risks”, as though nothing further can be done to reduce injury and death. I don’t agree with this view, especially when children and novice riders are concerned. These groups of people rely solely on others with experience to keep them safe and reduce risk of harm. I’m guessing because of the livestock element, horse riding seems to get put in a ‘too hard’ basket and, as a result, escapes many of the regulations of other workplaces and industries.
Also, the incorporated associations acts that govern not-for-profit sporting organisations are largely self-regulated and rarely enforced. Therefore, ‘sticklers’ for best practice, like me, rely on those around them to share the collective view. Otherwise, they may as well bang their heads against a wall.
I’m not sure I will ever come to terms with the cruel irony of being regarded as a traitor for wanting better safety in the horse world, but I am also grateful for being far enough removed to see things objectively. Given the high number of injuries and the glacial pace of change, there is much work to be done. Luckily, I did not have to lose a loved-one to be so resolute. Many times when I think about Sarah’s death, I find myself whispering “I’m so sorry, Sarah.” Her death was always an accident waiting to happen. Not only that, it could have been easily prevented if an adult like me, somewhere along the line, had pushed earlier for better regulation of riding schools.
I feel privileged Juliana has shared with me some of the creative writing she did as part of her ‘grief’ therapy after Sarah died. It is a series of short pieces based on her experiences, but written in the third person with fictitious characters. Juliana is a fine writer, even if she doesn’t know it yet. I sobbed reading them all, of course, but this line sums up so much for me: “The deep love by a mother for a child measured in the intensity of grief when they are gone.” - Juliana Waugh.
When I interviewed the Waughs, there was only one time we had to pause the conversation and change direction for a while. This was to be expected as it was near the time of the family’s annual pilgrimage to Dubbo each March to remember Sarah.
A memorial has been created on the bank of a river, thanks to a generous donation from a stranger. There is a rock with a plaque that has words Sarah wrote herself in her last diary entry, penned two weeks before she died. It is enough to bring any parent undone:
“Right now, I’m sitting overlooking Sandy Beach on the Macquarie River that flows through Dubbo. It’s half past six and the sun is finally setting. There’s a father and daughter down by the river, the little girl waist deep in the cool water throwing raindrops of light with each splash.
The lowering sun sparkles off the water like hidden jewels and the wind rustling through the trees warmly caresses my neck and face. I’m listening to the Man From Snowy River soundtrack and it melds perfectly with my setting. Cockatoos screech and small, unnamed birds twitter as I write these words.
There is a kind of calm and serenity I have very few times experienced. I’m drawn to enter the scene but afraid of losing it. This is absolute peace.” - Sarah Waugh
To me, Sarah Waugh is many things. She is a much-loved teenager with a beautiful smile who never grows old when she pops up regularly as a memory on her mother’s Facebook newsfeed. She is the talented musician on YouTube who can sing and play several instruments, with incredible passion and life.
She is also the girl from those coronial documents, lying lifeless in a cloud of Dubbo dust with torn jeans, which to this day, no one can explain. She is never far away and she walks with everyone who grapples to strike a balance between a high-risk activity, keeping other people safe and keeping the peace.
Juliana and Mark are now lobbying for the creation of a national horse register. If it existed in 2009, Dubbo TAFE would have been able to crosscheck details about Snakey Thought and determine he was unsuitable for beginner riders. A recent national survey conducted by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries has already confirmed an overwhelming support (for biosecurity and other reasons, as well as riding history).
However, the horse industry is fragmented and resistant to additional costs in an already-costly undertaking. And so, the hard work begins again for the Waughs. Thanks to Sarah linking us all together, they can now add me to their list of campaigners to help the cause. If I can help prevent another set of parents from losing a child through a horse riding accident then it will all be worthwhile.