Born and raised in Nairobi, 54-year-old Sharon Ashley always loved animals. Because of this, her dream was to become a veterinarian when she grew up.
That was the case until she and her sister got their first horse when she was 12. Then the path became clear. Fast forward to 1997. Sharon set up Tack Rack, the only equestrian supply shop in East Africa, which, she runs to date.
“There was definitely a niche in the market. There were many horses around and they needed a good supply of equestrian items. We stock a wide range of equipment and supplements for all riding disciplines- racing, polo, show jumping, dressage, hacking and horseback safaris.” She says.
Additionally, Sharon is the only saddle fitter in the East Africa who is qualified with the Society of Master Saddlers in the UK. Saddle-fitting is something she considers very important as it offers comfort for both the horse and the rider.
“It’s really on the same line as a human being requiring a well- fitting shoe. Smaller or larger sizes cause discomfort, eventually leading to sore feet, sore knees, sore hips and a sore back finally- which will affect performance. A poorly fitting saddle on a horse will mean less performance. The more comfort, the better the performance.” She explains.
There are about 4,000 different items to horse riding in the shop, located in Nairobi ranging, from supplements, horse shoe nails, horse shoes, helmets, chaps, body protectors, most of which she has to import from other countries.
“Majority of our products come from the UK. Some from Germany, Argentina, South Africa, India and China. Shoes and nails come in from South Africa, but originate from Holland,” says the mother of three.
The busy shop also includes a workshop which specialises in repairs, including saddle tree repair. The workshop also manufactures custom-made tack including rugs, numnahs, girths and stirrup leathers.
“We try to source for materials, such as saddle soap, locally as much as we can in order to promote the local market. But it all depends on the quality required by the customer.”
Tack Rack’s best-selling products are horseshoes and nails, supplements, helmets and body protectors.
It’s important for horses to receive all the vitamins and minerals they can get, and more so the right ones in the right quantity.
Today, the vast majority of horses are confined to small areas, many having no access to pasture whatsoever and are sustained by grass and legume, hays and grain products.
On top of this, due to intensive farming practices, soils have been depleted of many key nutrients, altering the nutritional profile of hays to drop dramatically, causing horse owners to look for alternatives to keep their horses in peak condition—especially the high performance show horses.
There has been a dynamic growth in vitamin and mineral feed products as basic feeds don’t always meet the requirements of the horse.
Sharon supplies all required supplements, to help the hooves, coat and even the digestive system of the horses.
Over the 22 years, Sharon says that the industry has changed to being less reliant on the racing business. But the polo side has grown, especially with many Africans taking up the sport. A huge number are also taking up horse riding. Children are really enjoying the extra-curricular activity.
“It’s been fascinating to see the increasing number of people taking up horse-riding, and really enjoy the one-on-one with the horses.” She says.
“Another aspect of horses we assist is Riding for the Disabled (RDA) as a form of therapy, which is also becoming very popular. It’s an area that needs to be supported.”
RDA is practiced often with children who are unable to express themselves. It’s a weekly activity. They are assisted by side-walkers, and the feedback from the children is incredible. It’s an activity that allows them to build relationships.
“Horseback safaris is another area taking precedence in the tourism industry. It’s had its ups and downs over the years, but it’s currently on an up. More and more people are taking up the practice of using horses to view wildlife.” Sharon adds,
With over 100 account holders, being the only equestrian retail outlet in East and North Africa comes with its share of challenges.
“As much as we currently don’t have much competition, it means that we have to have all products available, which is a hard task because of the difficulties that comes with importation, taxes and duties.”
But despite the challenges, Sharon loves her job deeply, especially her staff of five.
“We’re a great team who work perfectly together. Three of them have been with me for more than eighteen years. Whenever I’m away, the best part is always coming back to them. We look out for one another,” she says shyly.
Currently, Sharon is trying to teach her saddler, James, the process of saddle fitting.
“It would be nice for him to understand exactly why a saddle may need adjustment for example. It also makes him proud of his job. I also connect local farriers to farriers from overseas who help to train them in their job.”