When a last-minute injury to his horse halted Ryan Wood’s dream to compete at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2007, the then-25-year-old eventer vowed to return from his Australian homeland and gallop across the fabled blue- grass one day.
After selling all his possessions to move to America 18 months later, Ryan started from scratch, methodically building his career. Now 34, Ryan launched himself back into the spotlight last year when he returned to Rolex with three horses, and that was just the beginning of what proved to be the most successful season of his career.
A tireless work ethic and dogged resilience defined Ryan’s journey to the top along with the timeless truth that taking a leap of faith is often the first pivotal step in realizing a dream.
Born to Ride
Born into a family of recreational riders, Ryan grew up in a suburb northwest of Sydney, where he “just learned to keep one leg on either side of the horse.” Paul Tapner, who also grew up to be a top event rider, lived next door.
“I learned to ride without formal instruction, and we were rarely in a confined ring,” Ryan says. “Each day after school, I’d walk home from the bus stop, catch my pony, tack him up and go meet my friends down the road. We were surrounded by trails and farmland.”
His first pony, Bucko, a former circus performer, taught Ryan how to fall thanks to a trick of stopping to eat grass one stride after a jump. Ryan rode Bucko, and later his sister’s pony Star, in his first events at age 8 as a member of the Dural Pony Club. He was 12 when he convinced his parents to buy him a horse.
In the local paper, Ryan found an ad for a horse described as “the perfect gentleman.” His mom balked at the $2,500 price tag but agreed to see the horse. Paul, who was 17 at the time, gave his stamp of approval, much to Ryan’s delight. After some negotiating, the owner reduced the price to $1,500 and Countdown became Ryan’s new partner.
A 12-year-old Australian Stock Horse with ringbone, Countdown carried Ryan through the levels of Pony Club, and to numerous zone championships, where he met Boyd Martin, another top event rider.
“Boyd and I would go head to head at zone championships in everything from eventing and barrel racing to flag races and pole bending,” Ryan says. “We were all about the cheap thrill, whether it was a barrel race or going cross country.”
Boyd remembers Ryan as a fierce competitor in every sport—he also played rugby in high school—and was “a of a wild man” when he was younger. “I remember going for a trail ride with him and he would jump a garbage bin from a standstill on Countdown,” Boyd says.
When they weren’t jumping garbage bins, Ryan and Countdown were busy moving up the levels. Ryan knew he wanted to become a professional eventer and follow in the footsteps of his idol Matt Ryan, who won team and individual gold medals with Kibah Tic Toc, an Australian Stock Horse, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“I wanted to leave school when I was 15, but my mom convinced me to stay on and graduate,” Ryan says. “I wasn’t an academic at all; all I wanted to do was ride horses. I ended up passing every subject, which was a big surprise to my family.”
After graduating, Ryan landed a working- student gig with top Australian eventer Guy Wallace. After one year—and still dodging his parents’ demands that he “get a real job”—Ryan moved to New South Wales Equestrian Centre, home of Heath and Rozzie Ryan.
“Heath is a phenomenal horseman, motivator and trainer, and he had a fantastic facility,” Ryan says. “It was an awesome place to see how the best in the world train and compete. That was it from there. I never thought about doing anything else.”
Ryan rented a closet—not an actual room, he clarifies—in Boyd’s father’s house at “a mate’s rate” of $20 per week. The closet was big enough to fit a mattress, and Ryan could hang his clothes on the rod attached to the wall.
The culmination of Ryan’s early career came when he competed Countdown in his first CCI**** at Adelaide in 2002. Having never had a joint injection in his life, Countdown carried Ryan to 12th place when they were both 19 years old.
With his Adelaide goal realized, Ryan set his sights on the next: competing overseas. As Adelaide is the only CCI**** in the Southern Hemisphere, ambitious Australian event riders must travel thousands of miles to take on a different CCI**** event.
When Ryan met the Australian Sport Horse Koyuna Azgard, known as “Garfield,” taking the horse to a CCI**** was the furthest thing from his mind, much less a CCI**** on the other side of the world.
“He had a dirty stop in him, and my mate Jeff Braithwaite suggested I ride him for awhile to see if I could get him going,” Ryan says. “I took the ride, and he won four Intermediate horse trials and a CIC** in a row.”
Jeff sold the horse to Ryan, and with Countdown earning a well-deserved retirement in 2003, Garfield became Ryan’s next top mount. Together they racked up top placings in Australia over the next three seasons, and in 2007 they made the long trip to America to compete at Rolex.
Heartbreakingly, Garfield suffered an injury at The Fork Horse Trials in Norwood, North Carolina, his final preparation run three weeks before Rolex. Ryan ultimately withdrew. “That was a huge punch in the gut, coming over and having the big dream of doing a CCI**** overseas and then it not panning out,” Ryan says. “I decided then that I was going to move to America and have a crack at getting to Rolex again and seeing how far I could make it.”
Ryan returned to Australia to find the horse industry in turmoil, as the first equine influenza outbreak to hit the continent brought equine businesses to a grinding halt.
“You went to prison if you were caught transporting a horse, which shut down a lot of the horse business in Australia,” Ryan says. “That was as good a time as ever to move to America.”
Starting from Scratch
With his heart set on making his Rolex dream a reality, Ryan moved to America in the winter of 2008 to work for Bruce Davidson in Ocala, Florida, where Ryan continued to train with Garfield in preparation for Rolex in the spring.
He suffered the worst accident of his career just a few weeks later.
“I was catch-riding a horse at Ocala Horse Trials and he left a leg at a table and rolled over it. He kicked me in the head as he was getting up.” Ryan’s laundry list of injuries included a fractured knee, shattered eye socket and cheekbone, a broken nose, jaw and palate and a collapsed lung.
He was airlifted to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, where he underwent nine hours of reconstructive surgery on his face. “Half my skull is metal,” Ryan says. “Three metal plates and 25 screws. I also had a couple hundred stitches.”
Ryan desperately tried to recover in time to compete Garfield at Rolex two months later, riding through the pain even when his fractured knee needed more time to heal. He once again had to withdraw.
“It was a bit of a shake-up with coming pretty close to tragedy. Some of the skull fractures were pretty bad. It was a wake-up call to appreciate everything a little bit more,” Ryan says. “As far as riding was concerned, the biggest thing was just to keep going.”
While Ryan was forced to sit out Rolex for the second consecutive year, he bounced back in a big way once his knee fully healed, placing second that June at the Bromont CCI** riding Wynella Wolverine. He finished out the 2008 season with Bruce Davidson before transitioning to work for Phillip Dutton.
Boyd remembers seeing that same relentless determination to succeed Ryan had from their Pony Club days. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong when Ryan turned up to America,” Boyd says. “The first time I saw him after he moved he had broken every bone in his face. A lot of the horses he brought over didn’t work out. He had every reason in the world to run back to Australia with his tail between his legs. But he kept working and grinding away.”
Taking a Step Back
Garfield retired from the upper levels that year. Without a top horse to compete and with his Rolex dream on hold, Ryan shifted his focus to soaking up every ounce of knowledge he possibly could from Phillip, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“The first thing I focused on was my riding. I rode a lot of Phillip’s horses at shows and I broke a lot of horses in,” Ryan says. “He also encouraged me to bring horses and owners in and start building a string so that when it was time for me to branch out on my own I would be ready.”
Ryan bought Frankie, a Thoroughbred gelding, as a 6-year-old for $500 and a trade for free cross-country lessons. Steve and Karri Guy later came on board as owners of the horse. He found Fernhill Classic as a 5-year-old in Ireland, and the gelding became the first horse Ryan ever syndicated. “Later I found out he’d been sold and sent back to the original owner a couple times because of his unruly behavior,” Ryan says, but his raw talent made him a promising prospect.
McLovin came to Ryan as an 8-year-old Thoroughbred competing at Training level. “He was a little too much horse for his owner, so I started riding him instead.” Heather Sinclair stepped in as an owner to see how far Ryan could take the horse.
Ryan ultimately produced all three horses to the Advanced level while bringing in younger horses to guarantee a constant influx of new talent into his barn.
He partnered with Oldenburg breeder Ilona English of Summit Sporthorses, and Powell came to him as a 5-year-old with “a wow factor.” He also found Woodstock Bennett as a 4-year-old in Ireland, and Curran Simpson bought the horse for Ryan to compete.
By 2012, with a small string of talented horses and dedicated owners to his name, Ryan moved his operation to the barn adjacent to Phillip’s farm and established Woodstock Eventing.
“Phillip said to me, ‘Use every experience, whether you’re going Novice on a 4-year-old around a local event or you’re galloping an Advanced horse around an international track. If you can use those skills that you’re developing riding the younger horses around the local courses, then when your time comes you’ll be ready.’
“And he’s right. If all you’re thinking about is riding around a four-star next year, the chances of that happening are unlikely. But if you’ve got a long-term plan and you keep on ticking the boxes off, then you get there.”
Looking back to where Ryan started when he moved to America and how far he’s come, Phillip says his dedication and commitment to “making it work,” even on the hardest of days, stands out to him.
“Like anybody who is a professional event rider, through your career you have a lot of knocks and setbacks, but Ryan was never going to give up. He’s committed to making himself and his horses the best he possibly can,” Phillip says.
“It’s not something I think you’re taught. It’s the way he was brought up. He works very hard and always wants to improve. He’s always going to get help and seek out advice. He’s always out there trying to get a little bit better every day. If you can do that every day, then all of a sudden you can get pretty good.”
His Best Season Yet
A decade after he last competed at Adelaide, Ryan returned to the CCI**** level in 2016, taking Frankie, Fernhill Classic and McLovin to Rolex. Frankie took a flying leap into the first water complex and unseated Ryan, but he stormed around to two clear cross-country rounds with Fernhill Classic and McLovin.
Finally completing Rolex after so many years of trying to get there triggered a windfall of wins and top results throughout the rest of the 2016 season.
One month later, Ryan and Powell won the CCI*** at the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event in Allentown, New Jersey, the horse’s three-star debut and the first three-star win of Ryan’s career.
In June, Ryan won yet another CCI*** at Bromont in Quebec with Woodstock Bennett in the horse’s first three-star as well as the CIC*** with Frankie. The event didn’t have an Australian flag to display during the prize-giving, but fellow Aussie eventers Kate Chadderton and Dom Schramm unearthed one and held it proudly while their national anthem played.
“It was a great drive home—10 hours in the truck with Dom, who won the CCI*. Two Aussie guys coming home with three big wins was a great feeling and a great memory that I’ll cherish for a long time.”
And Ryan still wasn’t done winning. While Powell was named to the long list for the Australian Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro, he ultimately was not selected. Instead, Ryan re-routed to the American Eventing Championships in Tryon, North Carolina, where he won the Adequan USEA Gold Cup Championship with Powell and also took the reserve championship with Woodstock Bennett.
Dom says he remembers well the day he and Ryan sat at the Pitt Town Pub and hatched a plan to move to America. He’s also seen firsthand what he believes is the ultimate key to Ryan’s success.
“Ryan didn’t ride above the Preliminary level for three years when he moved to America. He was just riding, selling horses and working hard for Bruce and Phillip,” Dom says. “Instead of trying to buy horses that were halfway there, he decided he was going to go and find quality young horses and bring them along himself. It’s a testament to his patience. He’s willing to do the work, be thorough and produce a horse the right way.”
With Rolex checked off Ryan’s to-do list at long last and a strong string of horses he properly produced himself filling his barn, he is now shifting focus to his next major objective: representing Australia at the 2018 World Equestrian Games at Tryon.
“I’m aiming to have three horses at Rolex in 2018: Powell, Fernhill Classic and Woodstock Bennett. Being based in America is an advantage, and with this string of horses my goal is to make it an easy decision for the Australian selectors to choose me.”
As he reflects on 2016, Ryan has one more reason to celebrate such a momentous year: He also obtained his green card and is now a permanent resident of the United States. “Between Rolex, my first three-star win and a green card, it was definitely the best year of my life,” he says.
And it all began with a leap of faith.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.