Friday, Apr. 19, 2024

Sharon White Will Love Every Minute Of Her Rolex Weekend


It’s just past dusk on an early spring evening, and there’s one sound rising above the rhythm of horses munching their hay at Last Frontier Farm in Summit Point, W.Va.—the distant hum of a tractor.

“You see,” said Sharon White, as she walked down the hill from her parents’ house toward the indoor arena. “This is why I’m so lucky.”
PUBLISHED
WORDS BY

ADVERTISEMENT


It’s just past dusk on an early spring evening, and there’s one sound rising above the rhythm of horses munching their hay at Last Frontier Farm in Summit Point, W.Va.—the distant hum of a tractor.

“You see,” said Sharon White, as she walked down the hill from her parents’ house toward the indoor arena. “This is why I’m so lucky.”

It’s after 6:30 p.m., and White’s barn manager, Nicole Binneman, is watering and dragging the arena to prepare for the next day’s work—even though it’s her day off.

“I could not have a better person in charge of all the horses here,” said White. “That’s huge—I couldn’t do it without her.”

As White, 33, heads to Rolex Kentucky for the first time in five years, she feels well-prepared, thanks to the help of her team, many of whom you might spot at Kentucky with orange wigs and shirts and huge orange sports fingers in White’s signature color.

“It’s due to all of the amazing help I get on a day-to-day basis from everyone around me,” she said modestly.
“I could never do what I’m doing without everyone around me—my parents, the neighbors, my staff and clients and students.”

White may consider such loyalty luck, but her infectious passion for her sport seems to inspire everyone who comes into contact with her, especially after watching her return from a disastrous accident in the
fall of 2005 to the peak of her sport 18 months later.

A schooling accident aboard a young horse sent White to the hospital in August of 2005 with a shattered pelvis, separated from her spine, and a fractured sacrum. Surgeons screwed plates in the front and back of her pelvis, and she spent five months in a wheelchair. It took six months before she could walk with a cane and remount a horse (before the doctors’ recommendation).

“I was really glad when I could walk again, so riding again…the first time I rode I got seasick, I felt so far off the ground,” she said. “I feel so lucky, it’s hard to even talk about it. The sacrum has all the nerves at the
end of the spine, and I was really lucky not to be paralyzed.”

But White never considered a career change, even to a less risky equestrian sport. “It’s what I love,” she said. “I always told the surgeon, ‘Do whatever you have to so I can do what I want.’ ”

Ironically, White, who continues physical therapy three times a week, is only pain-free when she’s in the saddle. “I don’t know if that’s mental,” she said. “It’s amazing what your psyche can do for you.”

Her left leg still goes numb sometimes, and she has constant pains when she’s sitting or standing. “But it doesn’t stop me from doing anything,” she said.

With that attitude, White earned the support of everyone around her. “I never said to myself, ‘I hope she doesn’t do this anymore,’ ” said her mother, Carol White. “I know this is what she should be doing. From the first time I saw her trot on a pony named Hershey, I said, ‘Oh no, this is going to be forever.’ ”

As a popular figure in the sport, White was amazed by the response she received after her accident. “I feel so lucky to be part of the eventing community,” she said.

While her parents George and Carol were at the hospital every day, friends Deana Vaughn and Nancy Hubbard took turns spending the night with White, in a room overflowing with flowers and cards. “It was huge to me to have that support,” she said.

Most people wouldn’t be able to see the silver lining of such an accident, but White has. “I have a healthy respect now that not all horses can do everything,” she said. “It’s huge in my daily perspective, and I think I have far more empathy for my horses. I’ve learned a lot about what it is to hurt, be sore, and build the muscle you need to do your job.

“Getting hurt was the best thing, because it makes me enjoy the day-to-day process 100 times more,” she added. “It’s not just about the goal but the whole process.”

Back In Action

Anyone who saw White and Ronaldo fly around the Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.) in October of 2006 would never have guessed that just a year earlier she’d been getting around in a wheelchair. But the road from that wheelchair to Rolex wasn’t easy.

“She’s really coming back from a career-ending injury,” said her coach, Jimmy Wofford. “She still doesn’t have all of her fine muscle control, and minor balance points are still coming to her, and she’s still [much stronger on one side].

ADVERTISEMENT

“It speaks to her dedication about how hard she’s pushing herself to get to this level and be better,” he added. “She fools people because she has such a wonderful, sunny personality that you can overlook her grim determination to get where she is. She’s a very steely, tough individual inside, mentally and physically.”

At  Poplar Place (Ga.) that fall, White fell from another horse and still had to get back on and ride Ronaldo, who will be her mount at Kentucky. “He just took care of me,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky to have horses like ‘Bobby’ as I was coming back.”

Before White’s accident, Bobby had finished fifth at the 2005 Jersey Fresh CCI** (N.J.), and Buck Davidson competed him at the Virginia CIC** in November of that year. But White prepared him to move up to advanced in the spring of 2006, as she was rehabbing herself.

“I didn’t do a spring three-day because I was coming back myself, and coming back slowly,” she said.
White completed the advanced horse trials at Millbrook (N.Y.) and Poplar Place (Ga.) before catching the attention of the U.S. selectors with her performance at Fair Hill. Despite one run-out on cross-country, they obviously spotted great potential.

“That was such an honor,” said White of being named to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation’s winter training list. “It’s not like I won Fair Hill. I have a lot of respect that they put me on the list, and I was a long-shot. [Knowing someone has that faith in you] really bumps you up.”

The Next Step

White started riding Bobby in the fall of 2004, when former rider Jamie Striley handed the reins over. Striley, who had competed the New Zealand-bred gelding through a few intermediate events, gave owner Katherine Pratt a list of people she’d like to have ride him, and White was at the top of that list.

“He’s a very willing horse,” said White. “He has all the qualities you look for—he’s a super mover, a super jumper and has a great attitude. I have complete faith in the horse, and I know he has 100 percent faith in me. I’m so excited to be going to Rolex.”

White previously competed at Kentucky in 2002 with her 15.1-hand, Thoroughbred mare, Ready About, who was never a contender in the dressage but will always have a special place in White’s heart for giving her her first taste of the top levels.

“I’ve come so far since ‘Pippy,’ which was awesome in itself, but this horse certainly stands a better chance,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just tickled he’s going and has been so good, and that I could rehab myself—it’s just really special to me that I can go back out and do it.”

Pippy played a special role in the White family, as Sharon’s mother was diagnosed with cancer during Pippy’s career. The little mare provided inspiration for Carol during a difficult surgery and helped her to long outlive the doctors’ initial prognosis.

Although Carol isn’t physically able to attend every event, as she had done since White was 14, she’s sure to be at Kentucky. “It’s fun to go and have your child there with so many other great riders,” she said.

“The fact that my mother can go to another Rolex is huge,” said White. “And I hope to win her a watch,” she added with a smile.

One of White’s best friends, Beale Morris, will also be with White this year at Rolex, in spirit. Morris, a frequent competitor at Kentucky, died unexpectedly in 2005. “She was everything to me,” said White. “I’ve really tried to model all I do with my horses after her.”

The Right Match

Realistically, White isn’t expecting to win that watch, since Ronaldo hasn’t even been competing at the advanced level a full year yet. But she does hope to impress the selectors enough to qualify for a spot on the U.S. squad for the Pan Am Games in Brazil this summer.

“We should go to the Pan Ams because Ronaldo is named after a soccer star [and formerly owned by a Brazilian]. It’s just meant to be,” said White with a smile.

Pratt bought Ronaldo as a 5-year-old through 1994 World Champion Vaughn Jeffries of New Zealand. The gray gelding was owned by Alex de Luca Oliviera, originally from Brazil, who later moved to New Zealand and rode for his new home in the 2006 World Equestrian Games. He named his horse  after Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, who plays for Manchester United.

Pratt bought the gelding (Oldenburg—Cedarburg) for her daughter, Kirsten, to ride, but when Kirsten left home to attend the University of California at Berkeley, Striley took over the ride. And the rest is history.

Pratt is thrilled with White’s partnership with Bobby. “She rides him beautifully,” she said. “I haven’t seen anyone ride him the way she does. It’s easy to override him, but she has just the right touch. There’s a lot of trust between them, and that counts for a tremendous amount.

“She’s absolutely delightful,” added Pratt of White. “Even when she’s under a lot of pressure, she’s still friendly, approachable, gracious. She’s a good character and a good soul. She really loves Bobby, and she really cares for him.”

Pratt isn’t expecting her horse to be in the winner’s circle on Sunday—instead, she said the pair’s future is more important. “I suspect she’ll ride him to have a good first four-star experience,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for him to jump the heights but not worry about the time, a nice introduction to the big world.”

Pursuing Her Passion

White caught on to eventing early, riding with Deana Vaughn in Aldie, Va. While attending George Mason University (Va.), White trained with Torrance Watkins, working all day and taking classes at night. She graduated with an honors degree in English in 1995 and ran her own stable in Middleburg, Va., for a year before moving to Unionville, Pa., to train with the legendary Bruce Davidson at Chesterland.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There’s such history there, and they know so much about the sport,” she said of her trainers Watkins, Davidson and Wofford. “They’ve seen it evolve, and they’ve made it evolve, and they are all so unique in their perspectives.”

In 2000, she returned to Virginia, and she and her parents bought Last Frontier Farm in the fall of 2002. In the interim, White worked with Buck Davidson, Phillip Dutton and Mary Flood. Jules Nyssen has also helped with her dressage, including working with Bobby over the winter and in the lead-up to Rolex. But since her accident, she’s trained with Wofford.

“She’s a wonderful horsewoman,” said Wofford. “She knows her horses, and adjusts her riding and care and training to each horse. She doesn’t have one answer for all her horses, she has an answer for each horse.”

Likewise, White usually has an answer for each rider. She can be found teaching any time of the day, from daybreak at 6 a.m. in the summer, and the lights of the indoor are often burning later than 9 p.m., depending on her students’ schedules.

“I love teaching, and I enjoy it because I know how much I enjoy my lessons. I love learning, and it’s fun for me to have people come and feel the same way about being here,” she said.

White has developed her business and career the hard way—by teaching riders and training horses, with little sponsorship. She recently acquired a scholarship from the Equus and Equestrian Sport Foundation to help her pursue a spot on the 2007 Pan Am team.
 
“I feel like if I can do this, anyone can. It requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but it’s still possible because it’s my passion,” she said. “If you have a passion, the people who will support you are fabulous, even if it’s giving you a bed for a night.”

Although she’s a member of the American Horse Trials Foundation, White doesn’t like to solicit for money. “There are real problems in the world,” she said. “If someone’s going to make a donation, maybe it should go to people who don’t have food.”

Even though her parents aren’t able to fund White’s competitive goals as much as they’d like, White considers them as her greatest supporters.

“I have the most amazing parents you could possibly meet,” she said. “The kindness my parents have shown people overwhelms me, and I try to live up to that.”

White’s parents can be found bringing her lunch each day (she doesn’t take a lunch break), and she might eat it while teaching a lesson or in between riding the eight to 10 horses she schools per day.

So when you see the ribbon of orange-clad fans following White around the course on Saturday, you’ll know why they are so fanatical about seeing her reach her dream. As for White, wherever she finishes in the line-up at the end of Kentucky, she’ll be ready to get up and back at it with just as much enthusiasm the Monday after the event.

“They’re such majestic creatures; they really are the noble beast,” said White. “You could not have a bad day when you get to ride and be around horses for a living.”

Bits About Sharon

Non-Horse Hobbies: reading, needlepoint, racquetball.

Favorite Food: sushi.

Pets: four dogs (Butter the Lurcher, and Theodore, Christmas and Strider, Jack Russells), eight cats.

Personality: “She’s just a ray of sunshine,” Jimmy Wofford said. “You look forward to being around her.”

Current Horses: Ronaldo (owned by Katherine Pratt), The King’s Spirit (owned by Peter and Sue Barry), Wrenegade Q (owned by Laurie Volk), Fortunate Son (owned by Toni Massie), Vermeer (owned by Wiley Grosvenor), Fashion Plate (owned by Anita Bailey)

Horses Of The Future: Sharon has bred several mares and has a 2-year-old and 3-year-old out of her first four-star mare, Ready About.

Beth Rasin

Categories:

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse