Palos Verdes Equestrian Sharlena Sarmast Balances Health and Stress in a Competitive Milieu

Jump for joy.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Diane E. Barber
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell & McCool Photos

Sharlena Sarmast was 9 years old when her parents imported a Hanoverian show jumping horse from Germany for her mother, Karen, who rekindled her childhood passion for riding. Not long after the new family member settled in at the stables in Palos Verdes, young Sharlena exclaimed, “I want to do that!” She pulled on a pair of riding boots and was on her way to discovering her calling.

“At first when I watched my mom training with Blue and I saw other kids riding, I felt scared because I had a bad experience on a trail ride when I was 7,” recalls Sharlena. “I fell off, and the horse stepped on my back. I did not think I would ever ride again after that.”

Curiosity soon overrode fear as she reveled in her mom’s horse-loving joy. Karen saw the light in her daughter’s eyes and bought her a mini horse as a pet to encourage her to spend time at the barn, which led to Sharlena taking riding lessons. She started slowly with ponies and, after building confidence, moved on to full-size horses under the expert tutelage of local horse trainer and instructor Alden Giacopuzzi.

Sharlena competed for the first time at a small, local show with a lesson horse at Ernie Howlett Park in Rolling Hills Estates in 2016. She rode basic equitation and was delighted to place fifth in her class. More shows followed with various lesson horses as she diligently worked her way from flat groundwork to jumping.

After she experienced the thrill of “flying” with horses, there was no looking back as she moved on to bigger U.S. Equestrian Foundation (USEF) events. Two years after Blue’s arrival, she competed with him for the first time in 2018 at an event in San Juan Capistrano and brought home her first show jumping blue ribbon.

“Sharlena is dedicated, passionate and has a really good eye for distances,” shares Alden. “The hardest part is to decide where you take off from for a jump. It is a real science, and you must be in the right place.”

After many successful competitions throughout Southern California, Blue is now enjoying retirement. Sharlena’s current partner is Caretani—a Holsteiner that the family also imported from Germany. Both horses were relocated to Canyon Country in Santa Clarita. Their new home is at facilities well-suited for very large horses, with open fields and beach access to balance the rigors of training and showing.

“It was the last show with Caretani in San Juan Capistrano before school started this year. I really enjoyed it! Our rounds were clear and solid. He was very relaxed, so I wasn’t as nervous as I usually am.”

Sharlena’s family is so supportive of her passion that they bought a second home near their horses and her current trainer, Mike Hebert. “Sharlena has many strengths, but the one that stands out the most is how tough she is. She’s not one to flinch even the slightest if you throw a challenge at her. She also genuinely loves horses. Kids who truly love the sport and the animals are the ones who make it … and that is Sharlena,” says Mike.

Sharlena currently competes in the USEF A-circuit junior amateur division (ages 12 to 18) and in open classes with adults who are jumping at the same level, while she strives to become a professional rider. Classes average 30 to 50 people the first day, and after eliminations there are typically 20 to 30 competitors the remaining days. A typical jumping course takes two to three minutes to complete unless there is a jump-off competition, which can be five minutes.

Like many athletes, regardless of their accomplishments, Sharlena is anxious when she competes. “I am super nervous every time,” she says. “I like to stay at a hotel close by the night before, because if we drive straight to the show from home, I have a lot more anxiety. Aloe vera juice and breathing exercises help calm me down.”

When Sharlena arrives at the show grounds, she prefers to be alone to mentally prepare—except when she walks the course with Mike while she wears her lucky boots. “We talk about what to do when I enter the course. We count steps, discuss how to approach the jumps, make the turns and what to do when we finish.”

When asked what her favorite show has been, she says, “It was the last show with Caretani in San Juan Capistrano before school started this year. I really enjoyed it! Our rounds were clear and solid. He was very relaxed, so I wasn’t as nervous as I usually am.”

To help her stay fit when not training and competing, Sharlena works out with weights at home, does extensive stretching exercises and takes her Great Dane, Tyson, on long walks. With her sights set on next year’s show season and a future with horses, Sharlena watches countless videos of show competitions (hers and those of others) and studies professional riders for inspiration.

“I imagine taking this forward to a professional level,” she shares. “This is more much than just a hobby to me. I will always have horses in my life.”

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