Shauna Sarah Ferguson was born at Yellowknife’s only hospital on May 26, 1953. Her father, Cliff Van Oostdam, a mining engineer, had moved there for work, with his wife, Harriet. Shauna was their third child, born after Joanna and Jay, but it wasn’t long before they moved south to Regina. There, life changed dramatically.
When Shauna was a toddler, Cliff disappeared and started a new family in Mexico, leaving them on the edge of town, barely a block from the sprawling prairie. “We didn’t know what we were missing,” says Jay, Shauna’s older brother. “My dad just wasn’t there.”
With their dad gone, and their mom working full time as a SaskTel secretary, Shauna was free to indulge her freewheeling nature. “We could go wherever we wanted,” says Jay. Shauna, who kept her red hair cropped short, would take long, adventurous bike rides, leading neighbourhood kids over streams and rolling hills far from home, convincing them to spend an extra hour tromping through the woods. More than once, in the middle of the night, Shauna and her teddy bear stole away onto the moonlit fields nearby, only to be brought home by a neighbourly farmer. “She’d push the envelope as far as she could,” laughs Jay.
When she was just a girl, Shauna fell in love with horses. By 10, she was biking several miles up Highway 1 to ride at a stable; she’d collected money from family and friends to offset the fees. “She was bright, vivacious, could talk to people,” Jay says. But “she grew up fast.”
In Mexico, Shauna’s dad had two more girls, Sandra and Debbie. Shauna first met her new sisters on a month-long visit to Tsawwassen, B.C., where Cliff was briefly living. It was the last time she saw her dad. Cliff returned to Mexico, and later shot himself.
As a teen, Shauna’s rebellious streak grew more pronounced. At 15, she could pass for 18. She got into bars and became involved in Regina’s music scene. “She couldn’t stand school,” says Jay, “so she ran away.”
It was months before her family finally learned that Shauna was living in a converted stall at the horse track in Saskatoon. She slept on a small cot, and got up at the crack of dawn to feed the thoroughbreds she groomed and prepped for races. “She was who she wanted to be,” says Jay. “She knew what she wanted to do.”
Shauna’s passion for horses took her to Winnipeg, Edmonton, New York and across the Atlantic to Britain. In the early 1970s, she arrived in Vancouver to work at the Hastings Park race track. There, Shauna, nicknamed “Hair” for the thick, red braid that fell down her back, worked with renowned trainer Alan May. She developed an uncanny knack for dealing with the most temperamental, frenetic horses. “She had a quiet way of figuring them out. Some say that she could talk to them,” says Jay.
Her love of horses was contagious. Jay worked briefly at the track in Vancouver. Their sister Sandra moved up from Mexico to become a trainer too. “She taught me everything I needed to know,” says Sandra.
After a few years, Shauna moved to a farm in the Fraser Valley community of Aldergrove, where she kept a small stable. In 1989, she rented a spare room to a mail driver named Keith Ferguson. They fell in love, and he never left. “That was basically it,” Keith chuckles. “It’s a different kind of love story.”
As their romance grew, Keith joined Shauna’s horse training business. Their largest success was with a young horse called Kid Katabatic, whom Keith named after the winds that blow through the mountains. Notoriously ill-behaved, “The Kid” would freeze up and refuse to go through “anything that looked like water,” says Keith. But Shauna was a patient trainer, and managed to transform the stubborn thoroughbred into a B.C. Hall of Fame racer that set records and amassed more than $600,000 in career winnings.
In September 2000, Shauna and Keith were married. Shauna gave Keith a half interest in a young horse.
On April 9, Shauna went riding at Keenebridge Farm in Langley, B.C. As her horse trotted around the yard, Shauna suddenly jerked in her saddle, and lost her grip on the reins. She fell backwards off the horse, snapping her neck as she landed headfirst in the dirt, and was pronounced dead in hospital. Shauna was 58.