In no other sport does individual success rely so much on another component. A lack of horse power saw Sharon go from Olympic success in 2008 and appearances at 4* level in 2010, to considering hanging up her reins completely by the time the Olympics came to London in 2012, after a run of unbelievable back luck.
“At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what a sound, amazing horse Tankers Town was. It’s only when you have to try and make another one like him, that you realise it’s not the case with all of them and I was very lucky in that sense.”
Sharon and Tankers Town, affectionately known as “Jasper” by his field pals, had a truly dazzling career that stretched twelve seasons at BE level. The pair quickly became one of the most consistent partnerships on the circuit and year-in, year-out, continued to impress. Jasper showed immediate potential in his debut season as a five-year-old, where in five outings at pre-novice and novice level, he did not finish outside of the top five positions.
He became a 3* horse in 2002 and after several eye-catching appearances, he made his 4* debut in 2004 at Badminton, of all places, finishing an impressive 32nd place. After several completions at that level, the reliable pair attracted the attention of selectors and were chosen to represent Great Britain at the World Equestrian Games at Aachen in 2006, finishing a credible 9th place individually. The duo kicked on from there, finishing fifth at Badminton in 2008, to again put them in contention for National recognition. Indeed, the pair were selected for the Olympic Games in Beijing and chipped in to clinch a team bronze medal.
Tankers Town seemed to age like a fine wine. His final season in British Eventing was arguably his most successful, as the pair reigned victorious at Belton, Chatsworth and Oasby. They were also victors at the 4* class in Luhmühlen; the last British pair to win on German soil to date.
“I was really lucky that Jasper was very consistent and didn’t have any injuries. He seemed to progress very quickly. I did have some other good horses at the time, but they didn’t quite follow on as I had hoped. A few of them got to 3*, but most didn’t make it to 4* through injury, so it felt like a very short window of success. Jasper had completed advanced events by the time he was eight and then Badminton and Burghley at the age of ten. He was at the top of his game, but when there is only one horse at that level, it feels so short-lived.”
One would assume that with such an excellent record and a reputation for greatly improving horses in the dressage and show jumping phase, Sharon would be inundated with offers of potential mounts. Indeed, she did have several talented horses in her stables, but did not have the same fortunes as she had enjoyed with Tankers Town.
“Just Maisie II’ was the most fantastic mare and there was a slight overlap between Tankers Town retiring and her competing at 3*. His last competition was in 2010 and she did Blenheim in 2011 and Bramham in 2012, but that was it for her at that level. We all thought she was my next one, but she just never came along as we had hoped due to numerous injuries. We also had ‘Red Amber’, who was also magnificent. She never reached CCI3* level, but she did a couple of CIC3* tracks and again, she just never quite broke through because of minor reoccurring injuries and so we made the sensible decision to also retire her. Both of these mares were talented horses, capable of reaching 4* level but unfortunate injuries ended their careers and they are now my fantastic brood mares.”
“I then had a really lovely horse, ‘Cavalier Bertie’, who competed at a few intermediates and one stars and he really was the shining star. He was only eight and he had so much potential, but he sadly broke his leg at Weston Park in April 2012. That was one of the main reasons why I stopped eventing as much. That was the pinnacle really. Maisie also got injured around that time and I didn’t have a good enough string of horses. 2012 was such a wet year. Maisie was being aimed towards Badminton as her first 4*, but it was cancelled, so she went to Bramham instead and then that was it for her. Everything that could have possibly gone wrong in that year did, in every single aspect and it all got a bit too much.”
“That is when I started taking up more coaching. At the end of 2012, I saw a UK CC BS coaching course advertised, so I completed that and it really has changed my life and started me on a new path. I had a few horses, but at that stage I was really close to giving up. If I hadn’t have had Maisie at that time, I probably would have quit, but it didn’t look like she would be out for too long with injury, so she had half a season off and I kept going. She came back out in 2013, but unfortunately was retired shortly afterwards.”
It is difficult to imagine any other sport where in the space of a few short years, an Olympic medallist, representative of Great Britain at a World Games and winner at the highest possible level could be without significant backing and considering voluntary retirement.
“I did want to get back to the top level, but I just didn’t have the horses to get there and when you have taken a fair few knocks, you start to analyse things. It’s a very expensive sport and I didn’t have enough consistent backers to keep putting money into it. David and Sue Howard have been the most amazing co-owners. They owned Bertie and continued to support me. They also now co-own ‘Loughnatousa Fabio’ and ‘Loughnatousa Venture.”
“I also lost a lot of enjoyment from the sport after what happened with Cavalier Bertie. It was a horrible day and it took a very long time for me to get over that. I’m very fond of my horses. I care for them probably too much and I felt responsible for what happened, that was a problem. Then with the weather and the ground, it was hard running.”
“I’ve always loved the big events and targeting horses for them, producing each one properly. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and producing each horse for the bigger picture is what I’ve always enjoyed. It’s hard doing it with horses who aren’t going to have a bigger picture, but finally I’ve got some coming through.”
Since Tankers Town retired, Sharon has remained a feature on the circuit through coaching and competing at the lower levels, producing young horses through the grades. Now, with a small string of quality mounts, she will again strive to reach the pinnacle of the sport and pick up where she left off in 2010.
“At the minute, I have Loughnatousa Fabio, who is eleven and Loughnatousa Venture, who is eight. They’re both very good horses. Fabio had a kissing spines operation a couple of years ago, so he’s been quite slow to develop and has taken a little bit longer than I had hoped. He is a bit spooky and tricky, but is a very talented horse. Venture is a very exciting eight-year-old, who has just done his first intermediate. He’s unbelievable and probably the most talented out of all of them. I’m hoping to do a 2* with him this year. I’ve been a bit slow with him also, because he is such a good show jumper, that I did consider producing him purely to show jump, but he has actually turned out to be an even better eventer and he really enjoys it. ‘Veyga’ is a 12-year-old, sired by ‘Cevin Z’ and he’s looking really promising for this season and beyond. He was 11th at Chatsworth the other week and is always competitive, so he is also a really exciting prospect. I may only have a string of three horses, but they’re three good ones and things are certainly looking up!”
Just when her professional life was beginning to blossom again, her personal life took an extremely tragic turn. She sadly lost her Father to cancer, just two months ago.
“Anyone who knows my family will appreciate just how close we are. He was my absolute idol, but he has left us with the most incredible property, which I am constantly developing. It is a former pre-training yard, with 60 acres of land and the same number of boxes. It has an indoor school, two sets of gallops and training fields for cross country and show jumping. I am very lucky to have it.”
When the chips have been down in the past, there have been rumours that Sharon would walk away from Eventing completely and turn her focus to pure show jumping. Indeed, this discipline could still feature in the Olympian’s future as she looks to life after eventing.
“Horse and Hound had said that I was planning to go into show jumping at one point. That was never my plan, I just started jumping more because I didn’t have the horses to event. They were all really young, so I thought I’d do something challenging and improve my show jumping rather than just doing intermediates and novices on horses that weren’t really good enough or ready.”
“My dream, however, is eventually to show jump some really big tracks and I would love to do that. Currently, I have event horses and I enjoy that, so for the time being, that is what I want to do, but show jumping is definitely in my future plans. I’ve been breeding a few horses that I think will be able to jump big in the future, so hopefully with the right stallion, we will get some horses to fit my long-term plans.”
Many may become deflated by such a poor run of fortune, but Sharon has maintained a positive outlook and has always worked to improve her future. This has culminated in her accepting several training opportunities and earning a stellar reputation in this field, in addition to the one she has forged through competing.
“I train the under 18 Eastern-region for British Eventing, so coaching is now quite high on my agenda. Everything has really changed. Hopefully, my eventing career will blossom again this season, but coaching does now take up a large part of my life. I teach most days and the under 18’s have their National Championships at the end of July, so I will obviously aim them towards that. The under-18 training gives me great flexibility to be able to compete myself, as I am not committed to them every weekend. Also, last year, I coached a resident rider to a team silver medal at the pony Europeans and the Eastern region won the 1* National championships, whilst the under-18 100 team finished 3rd, their highest placing thus far. I’d always hoped that I’d get horses capable of going advanced again, so this job suits me perfectly. Hopefully, I’ll be lucky and have the chance again with this group of horses. Some people don’t even get one chance to reach the top, so I’m really lucky in that respect and appreciate that I have had at least a chance.”
by Molly Shepherd-Boden