30 July 2021

Wendy Schaeffer-Macdonald OAM competing at an equestrian event

Wendy Schaeffer-Macdonald OAM

Managing Director at Sunburst Equestrian
Chair of the Equestrian South Australia Board
Bachelor of Physiotherapy

At just 21-years-old, Wendy Schaeffer-Macdonald OAM, became the youngest Equestrian rider to win Gold for Australia when she graced the lauded podium at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. If that wasn’t impressive enough, she was also in the middle of her physiotherapy degree at the University of South Australia.

Wendy looks back on this period as a heady time – travelling the world at the top of her athletic sport and the achievements that followed – while also balancing her university career. Making it to the Olympics, though, was worth it.

Wendy vividly remembers the first time the hairs stood on the back of her neck as she watched the Australian flag being raised in the Olympic Village ceremony side by side with her fellow Aussie competitors. The Olympic glory that followed is still a highlight in her illustrious equestrian career that has taken her all over the world.

Wendy and horse, Sunburst, en route to Olympic Gold in Atlanta
Wendy and horse, Sunburst, en route to Olympic Gold in Atlanta. Source

“It was super special, and we were just privileged the competition went our way,” Wendy says. “The highest I’d been internationally before that was ninth and then suddenly, I'm first by a reasonable margin. The Australian team won the competition by 57 points, whereas previous years there has been a smaller margin.”

“It was exciting, but a bit of a surreal time as well, I suppose.”

Ever the modest sportswomen, Wendy’s efforts in becoming the youngest rider to win gold in the equestrian eventing sport was even more hard fought than you’d expect too. This is because nine weeks before the 1996 Olympics she fell at the local Naracoorte Horse Trials in the cross-country heat and badly broke her leg.

“Obviously the Opening Ceremony was fantastic, but I remember because I had broken my leg and had steel plates in there to hold it together and a brace, walking down the ramp to the Opening Ceremony was a little hard!”

“It was a steep ramp and not the best idea, but that was all good as it was incredible I was able to participate at all.”

“I don't know many other sports where you can have a broken leg and still compete. So that was a bit wild, but if you want to do something, you just make a way to get it done.”

First Veterinary Inspection at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky International Horse
Wendy at the First Veterinary Inspection at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky International Horse. Source

This courage and determination is not surprising considering the role model Wendy had in her mother, Di Schaeffer, a powerful force in Australian eventing – and a fellow UniSA graduate and lecturer – for more than four decades.

After taking up professional riding at 33, within six to seven years, Di went from a beginner event rider to the World Championships. Wendy remembers how passionately her mother worked during this period of time, and also how brave she was.

“It was very much a family thing, riding.”

“My mum was a bit of a late starter in the sport, but was always desperate to have a horse, and while she started late in her career it was very intense.”

“I would have been 11 when she rode at the World Championships. I remember being dragged around the country for a bit before then for qualifying events and all that sort of stuff. So, I certainly had a high-level exposure to the sport.”

A young Wendy (right) with mother and mentor, Di Schaeffer. Source
A young Wendy (right) with mother and mentor, Di Schaeffer. Source

“My equestrian career started reasonably seriously about the time I was 12. It was a natural progression for me to live and love horses, to be ambitious and to dream one day of doing what I had witnessed at those World Championships – someone becoming the best in the world on that day.”

A few months later, the family purchased an Off the Track Thoroughbred horse, Sunburst, which ten years later would ride to Olympic glory with Wendy in Atlanta's 1995 Three Day Equestrian (3DE) Event and win gold.

After the Olympics, the next two decades saw Wendy achieve even more success in many other competitions around the world, including the Australian Melbourne and Adelaide International 3DEs, a number of overseas International 3DEs in Ireland, Britain, Italy, Germany, and the United States International, plus more show jumping competitions in Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium.

Wendy also followed in her mother’s footsteps earning a Bachelor of Physiotherapy at UniSA. While she’s currently not practicing formally, this background in physio informs and has provided a useful foundation in her work now coaching and training horses.

Wendy competing with horse, Gitta Bella from the 2019 Canoe Tree Horse Trials Source
Wendy competing with horse, Gitta Bella from the 2019 Canoe Tree Horse Trials. Source

After years in Badminton in the UK, Wendy recently returned to South Australia with her new husband to run Sunburst Equestrian. Sunburst Equestrian at Sunning Hill is an equestrian services company in the Adelaide Hills, on the property her parents have built and nurtured since she was born. Here, Wendy produces quality horses for elite competitions, trains both the riders and horses, while also providing valuable agistment services.

When not competing, she spends her time teaching and training a broad range of ages, standards and horsepower with riders as young as four to those in their 60s. She is also currently training a talented four-star level rider on track to emulating her own international success.

Returning to South Australia – and also joining the board at Equestrian South Australia – has brought home how important the state’s equestrian community has been in Wendy’s success. She also acknowledges how lucky we are to have such celebrated events like the Australian International Three-Day Event Championships, one of the only six competitions at the five-star level worldwide held in Adelaide’s Parklands.

“It’s really been a big part of my career. I was the first rider to win twice – in 2002 and 2010 – and it’s a pretty amazing event out there in the Adelaide Parklands in the middle of the city too.”

Wendy with a group of young riders at the Equestrian South Australia Regional Development Clinic in the Riverland in April
Wendy with a group of young riders at the Equestrian South Australia Regional Development Clinic in the Riverland in April. Source

After her promotion to the Chair of the Equestrian SA Boards in May, the new role has brought fresh challenges, but Wendy is as motivated as ever to continue to champion the industry in the state and carry on her family’s equestrian legacy at Sunburst.

“I feel privileged to live and work on such a beautiful big property my parents have built. I've literally been here since birth, and now it's a legacy for me and my husband to work on.”

“It is an amazing lifestyle, and my office is right in my backyard in this stunning place in the Adelaide Hills. While it's very demanding, at the same time it's very rewarding.”

“It's what I do and what I love.”


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