By Lauren R. Giannini
Sharn Wordley loves horses. He’s endowed with equestrian genes from his Australian mother, Della, and grandmother, Margaret Wordley — one of the first female jumper riders in Australia and trainer of the horses in the family’s circus. Sharn grew up in New Zealand, the homeland of his father Andrew, and set his sights on international show jumping. He won the junior championship, then departed for Europe to work and compete. After riding in many Nations Cups, he made the New Zealand Olympic team in 2008. He had all the requisites: talent, determination and dedication, but luck didn’t go along for the ride in Hong Kong.
“My experienced horse got injured and the younger one was doing very well — second in a World Cup in Europe a few weeks before the Olympics, and had jumped a lot of clean rounds in European Grand Prix,” said Sharn. “But he was young and fragile. The atmosphere of the Olympics had an adverse effect on him. It was a disaster.”
On the first day, they had nine rails down. “It was pretty hard, you know, but it’s all character-building — it puts everything else into perspective,” said Sharn. “Now, if I have a bad round, I can deal with it a lot easier – nothing worse than my first Olympics is a good day. I remember coming down the last line and I could hear the crowd laughing. That’s not the most desirable memory to have.”
It’s often said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This certainly proved true for Sharn, who took his Olympic trial-by-fire to heart and, like the legendary Phoenix, emerged stronger and smarter.
“I was pretty down, but time is a good cure,” he said. “I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t go to a championship unless I was mounted on something that could be a top 10 finisher. Also, I actually stopped competing at a high level — I didn’t jump FEI for four or five years after the Olympics. I felt there was no point in doing FEI if I didn’t have the horses to be competitive.”
In 2013, however, Sharn got the ride on Derly Chin de Muze, the horse Eric Lamaze took to the 2012 Olympics. The mare is owned by Ashley Fleischhacker and Ashland Stables. “That’s when I got going again, when I had the right horsepower,” said Sharn. “We were second in the Invitational, third in the Million in Saugerties and had some other very good placings in four- and five-star Grand Prix in Wellington. Riding Derly kind of kick-started me.”
More focused than ever and still riding for New Zealand, Sharn made his way by leaps and bounds up the FEI world rankings to 75th out of 3,053 riders as of April 30, a major improvement from where he stood in the 2200s about 15 months previously. “It’s taken me eight years to get where I am today,” he said. “I have six Grand Prix horses at different levels and, every day, I’m fighting to get back there, to have another go at the Olympics and the world championships.”
For Sharn, horsemanship and partnership are extremely important. “Almost to the detriment of my career,” he said. “I take my horses very, very slowly. Their well-being and the longevity of each horse’s career are most important to me.” He wants his equine partners to have the best of everything, including the surface on which they train and jump. During the 10 years that Sharn and fellow New Zealander Craig Martin competed on the European circuit, they experienced firsthand the importance of footing and ring construction.
“We were business partners in Europe, but we were ready to come to America,” said Sharn, who made the move in 2004. “At first, we moved from show to show and saw a real need for consistent, quality footing. They were way behind Europe in that area, and the lack of good footing can be a major health issue for equine athletes. We started Wordley Martin Equestrian in 2007 and have built more than 200 rings and arenas across North America.”
Meticulous about site analysis, site preparation and drainage, Sharn and Craig custom-blend the various footing components to suit each ring, according to whether it’s indoors or outside. They also take into consideration the sport or discipline. Their client roster includes Kevin Babington, Peter Pletcher, Brianne Goutal, Phillip Dutton, Jacqueline Mars, Karen and David O’Connor, Max Amaya, Mikela and Henrik Gundersen, Will Coleman, Liz Halliday-Sharp, Clayton Frederick, Ashland Farm, Stillpoint Farm, Split Rock Farm and Salamander Farm, to name a few.
“We found different ways of doing things and unique products — even how we do the drainage for the arenas is a new concept to most people,” said Sharn. “Our idea was to give North America a product like what they have in Europe.”
Craig oversees the daily business of Wordley Martin Equestrian. Sharn trains and competes, but he’s as involved as ever. Wherever he goes, he’s in the catbird seat to promote their premium ring work, especially when riders complain about the footing at a show venue or their training facilities.
Sharn’s long- and short-terms goals as trainer and rider center on the continuing development of his horses. He’s in partnership with Ashland Stables for several horses: Auckland de L’Enclos, Hickstead’s Axel and Derly Chin de Muze. He’s also excited about several horses owned by the Sky Group.
“The Sky Group already had Barnetta (Westphalian: Baloubet du Rouet, out of Polydora), so I’ve been riding him for a year and a half,” said Sharn. “He’s a pretty straightforward horse. We were second in the U.S. Open in Central Park last fall — that was a very good show for him — and this year he was third in a big Saturday night Grand Prix in Wellington. Last year, the Sky Group bought Casper, an Oldenburg by Contender out of Falubet, by Baloubet du Rouet. He’s extremely quirky in the warm-up arena. I have to put racing blinkers on him to warm up. He’s only scared of horses that come alongside him. I think he was hit by a horse. As soon as I get to the in-gate, I take off the blinkers. He’s fine by himself, but he can clear a warm-up arena in no time.”
When New Zealand didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics, Sharn set a new goal: the 2018 World Equestrian Games. In May, his game plan included competing in the FEI five-star Grand Prix at Tryon International Equestrian Center in the five-star, then dividing his time through the summer and fall to compete Casper and another horse in Europe and Barnetta and the rest of his horses in Kentucky.
“I’ll go back and forth, a couple weeks here, a couple weeks in Europe,” said Sharn. “I have a really good group of horses and a great team. I’m not sure what shows we’ll do in Europe, but we’re qualified to jump in the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona. The last time I competed there was in 1998, and I’m really looking forward to riding there again. My goal is for this year to be even better and to keep going. I want another shot at the World Championships and the Olympics.”