Sharn Wordley is one quarter of New Zealand’s show jumping team at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, but most of us know very little about him.
On my way to Tryon, I was lucky enough to visit Sharn at his summer home in Kentucky while he was preparing for WEG, and discovered he is a man on a mission.
Going into the Games, Sharn was the highest-ranked New Zealand show jumper, and has been riding on a storm of success with his two top horses, Casper (his WEG mount) and Barnetta.
At 43, Sharn has developed both a successful equestrian career and a very successful business. He grew up in Wellington as a pony-loving kid; his mother Della Wordley remembers his first equine was a rocking horse when Sharn was about two years old, and he quickly graduated to a real pony. Sharn and sister Holly went to Plimmerton Pony Club where Sharn quickly developed a reputation for helping others – so much so he was often late for his own classes!
Initially, Sharn enjoyed eventing. “However, the subjective element of dressage used to frustrate me,” he says. “I like the definiteness of show jumping – either you leave the fence up, or you don’t; as opposed to someone’s opinion of your dressage test.”
Sharn began to specialise in negotiating the coloured poles, and his early results showed a lot of promise. Della can remember him competing on a range of horses and ponies, but soon the bright lights of overseas competition beckoned, and Sharn moved to Europe, basing himself in Holland and Belgium for around four years.
Over time, Sharn developed a European presence, being invited to many top shows. In Europe, you see, it is not simply a case of entering a show like we do here in New Zealand. Instead, at the big competitions, organisers invite the highest-ranking riders to take part. For an ‘outsider’ from New Zealand, Sharn did extremely well, competing at CSI05* Rome, CSIO5* Lummen, CSIO5* Hickstead and many others.
In 2008, Sharn was selected to compete for New Zealand at the Beijing Olympics. There, he joined Bruce Goodin, Daniel Meech, Kirk Webby and Katie McVean in the team.
But for Sharn, Beijing was both a blessing and a curse. Yes, there was the extreme pride of representing his country. But on the other hand, his horse Rockville was relatively green at the elite level and struggled with the dimensions of the fences. Sharn has a bitter memory of cantering down the last line and hearing the crowd laughing as the number of faults increased. It was a defining moment in his career. He realised that unless his horse was completely prepared for the challenge, he wasn’t interested in competing. ‘Why go to a competition unless you can be competitive?” he asks.
Sharn spent time re-grouping, re-locating and re-building. Part of that involved shifting to the United States where he now alternates between summers in Kentucky and winters in Wellington, Florida.
From a business perspective, Sharn joined forces with fellow Kiwi Craig Martin to form Wordley Martin Premium Equestrian Surfaces, which provides arena construction, installation and custom-designed arenas and stables throughout North America. The company focuses on both building top surfaces and ensuring they are maintained correctly over time. Craig, originally from the Bay of Plenty, is one of a select list of professionals worldwide who are qualified as a FEI Approved Footing Specialist. Their client list reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of USA champions, and their business is very successful.
Sharn continued to select and develop horses for competition, and right now he has an excellent string, including Casper and Barnetta. Both horses were listed on Equestrian Sports New Zealand’s High Performance Squad, released on June 4.
Casper is his stable star, and is currently sixth in the US horse rankings. “He’s a very consistent horse. He loves jumping, he plays with it and enjoys it. He is a lazy horse to ride, but he perks up when he sees the jumps.”
The 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding was produced by Andrew Bourns, an Irish rider who deals in horses. “He bought Casper in Belgium and produced him very well,” says Sharn. “I watched him for the best part of a year, but he didn’t sell because he was so quirky in the warm-up.”
Indeed, Casper could be quite wild. He use to panic and spook when a horse came alongside him, and this made him all but impossible to warm up. “If it wasn’t for that problem, I think Casper would have sold a lot sooner, for a lot more money,” Sharn explains.
Sharn managed to secure the horse for his owners, Sky Group, in mid-2015, and then his mother Della came up with a possible solution for the warm-up phobia. “Mum suggested I try race horse blinkers on him.” The results speak for themselves, and the blinkers are removed at the in-gate before Casper competes.
Together, Sharn and Casper have won three Grands Prix at Tryon, a second placing in a 5* Grand Prix at West Palm Beach in 2016, and a third at Lexington, amongst other wins and placings.
It bodes well for the days to come, even though the World Championships track will be in an entirely new arena at the Tryon International Equestrian Centre. There is every hope that the 16.1hh bay gelding, who is by Contender out of a Baloubet du Rouet mare, will remember his preference for the grounds.
Indeed, Tryon has been a very successful hunting ground for Sharn on a range of different horses. “Some people just have shows that they do well at and this one happens to be mine,” Sharn commented to World of Show Jumping recently. “It’s one of the shows where the horses enjoy it and I enjoy it. I love atmosphere and there is always so much great atmosphere here.”
When Sharn is looking to purchase a show jumper, he looks for consistency of clear rounds at every age. “I don’t have a particular type that I like, but it needs to have [thoroughbred] blood. I don’t ride strongly so I need a horse that wants to jump for me and suits my way of riding.’
Once a new horse joins Sharn’s team he takes its preparation very slowly. “Their well-being and the longevity of each horse’s career are most important to me.”
The formula is certainly working, as he consistently climbs the Longines rankings, but Sharn says the honour of representing his country is even more of a buzz. “From a riding standpoint, there is nothing better then being on a New Zealand team. It makes a massive difference. For me, it was always the pinnacle.”