Sharon White has been a part of the world of elite eventing for the past few decades. Her upbeat demeanor and contagious laugh coupled with an incredible work ethic and steely determination has made her a standout with fans. On cross-country day, spectators always know that Sharon’s on course when they see a flash of bright orange go whizzing past. In fact, when I stopped by Sharon’s Last Frontier Farm in Summit Point, West Virginia, almost everything was covered in orange—from paddock gates and cross-country jumps, to pitchforks and shovels.
Sharon’s biggest star right now is Cooley On Show (a 12-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding by Ricardo Z), or as he’s known around the stable, Louie. Last year at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, Sharon and Louie finished on their dressage score, placing 5th nationally, and 8th overall. The pair has also seen a 13th-place finish at Luhmühlen CCI4*, were 3rd at The Fork CIC3* in 2018, were named alternates for the 2018 World Equestrian Games and last month, finished 8th at the Cloud 11 ~ Gavilan North LLC Carolina International.
Sharon and I chatted about her plans for Kentucky while she grazed Louie, who was pretty fixated on the lush spring clover for our entire chat.
Tell me about “Louie.” What’s his personality like? What is he like to ride? Does he have any quirks or funny habits?
His own needs are the most important thing to him. Louie is a fabulous horse to ride around. I’m really excited about Kentucky. He absolutely loves the sport. Well—I can’t say he loves doing his dressage because he thinks that’s a little bit like work but he doesn’t think anything else is work. He doesn’t really stress about things, which is really nice. He takes care of his own needs and doesn’t stress because if you’re in his way of getting to his own needs, he just will move you out of the way. He gets a little excited before the cross country and that’s to my advantage because he can be a bit of a lazy horse.
What are some of the main things you’ve worked on with Louie this season? What are his strengths and weaknesses, and what types of exercises have you been doing to help him prepare for Kentucky? What are your goals for him this year at the event?
Dressage has been our main focus. I think that really improves [horses’] core fitness. It’s the phase we need to work on. So that’s been his main focus and it’s been good. We’ve been working on more balance, more hind end strength, keeping him sharp, keeping him interested. Before, I tended to just drill him needlessly and he would get bored, so I’m learning not to do that.
The first time [at Kentucky in 2017] was not successful, and then I went to Luhmühlen and that was wonderful and last year [at Kentucky] was excellent. He was 5th nationally and 8th overall and I’d really like to improve on that this year. I think our dressage is better and he finished on his dressage score last year and that’s what I’d like to do this year.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for the big event? How do you stay focused before and during such an important competition?
A lot of effort [laughs]. A lot of effort goes into not completely losing your mind before. It’s your big goal. So no matter what you’re doing—if you’re doing Badminton or Burghley, you have your big goal. If you’re doing a championship, you have your big goal and it’s really important to figure out how to not chuck everything else out the window. This horse is certainly prepared and ready. I’m prepared and ready. I work on myself. My riding ability—I work on it. My physical fitness—I work on it. My mental fitness—I work on it. And I try to do exactly the same for Louie.
I’m a big believer in pilates. I think core strength, for me personally, is everything. I’ve got a lot of metal in my body and injuries, so the stronger my core is, I just feel better. Everything feels better. My good friend Sara Murphy got me to go to Orangetheory in Ocala this year and that is addictive. Just like with Louie, when I take him galloping, I take him with a friend because he’s very competitive and that is really useful. He’s a super competitive herd animal. Well apparently, I’m a super competitive human because this Orangetheory—you are with everybody else and you can see everybody else’s [output]— I find it super interesting and useful. I’m not a very social person, I’m a little bit shy, so I didn’t think I would like exercising in a group, but the competitive instinct comes out and that’s addictive! So I really enjoyed doing that actually. I’ve continued to do it and its useful because, there’s a class at 4:45 in the morning, so I can go and it doesn’t interfere with my day; it doesn’t interfere with riding the horses and getting all the other things done and it makes me feel good, so I do it.
How did you first get started in eventing? What drew you to the sport? Who are some of your mentors and how did they shape you into the rider you are today?
My mom was who got me into riding and it was random. When you’re trying to find all the things for your children to do and so I had done it all. I was a ballerina at one point, and I’m not a ballerina, by the way [laughs], music lessons, etc. She had always wanted a horse and one day she said, “We’re going to go take riding lessons,” and she opened up the yellow pages and we ended up at the Great Falls Horse Center and they happened to event there, so that’s how I got into the sport of eventing. I didn’t know there was any other horse sport out there—I knew nothing, I just knew I loved horses. Instantly the smell and being around them was something I needed that brought me great joy from that first moment in time. And I don’t think it would’ve mattered what barn we ended up at, I probably would’ve just done that sport because I didn’t know anything else. I was not in a horsey family so I’m lucky that I ended up at an eventing barn because I really love my sport.
There are so many [mentors]. I’ve had so many wonderful people in my life. It’s so hard to say just one. There are definitely some standouts. At Great Falls Horse Center, my first riding instructor, when she moved on said, “you should come with me,” and she introduced me to Deana Vaughn who was Torrance Watkins’ groom for years, so that was my introduction into upper level eventing. [Deana] is the one who put me with Torrance and then I went to Bruce Davidson’s, so all of these people have been so influential in my life. And then moving back here, Jimmy Wofford has been—I always say the sun rises and sets on Jimmy around here. I feel so lucky to have him in my life. He is an incredible horseman and an incredible human being. He keeps me on the straight and narrow. There are so many people and they all know who they are. I’ve just been so lucky to be with the absolute best horsepeople in the world. You can learn from all of them and I am grateful for every bit I’ve learned from everyone. There’s just too many to list, But I’m grateful to all of you.
See also: Winning a Day with Wofford and White
You do a lot of teaching and coaching. What are some of your key training and horsemanship philosophies you share with these riders?
I am an absolute believer that horses go the way they’re ridden, so if I can show people that—and I just think that from personal experience. I know horses haven’t gone for me before that should have and I know it was all my mental state, so I think that’s so interesting. If I can help people through that and learn that faster than I did … that’s always my goal with my students is I want them to be better than me—faster than I was. I think your goal should be that your students surpass you. So whatever that might be at the moment. I love learning, so I love passing on what I am learning.
What are some of your favorite memories from the Kentucky Three-Day Event?
Last year would definitely have been my favorite memory, because Kentucky has been a mental challenge for me for a really long time. Last year I had my best placing and that was huge for me, actually. And not because I know I can do the physical aspect of it, it’s the mental aspect of it that’s the big challenge for me and it’s fascinating to work on that. Last year was a great memory, and up until then I can’t tell you that I had any great memories at all [laughs]. But it’s all what you put your focus on. I’ve been lucky enough to go there with a few different horses which I could shine my attention on that and be happy with that, but I’m a competitor, so you’re never happy until you—or you can be—but I have goals. I wish I was happy just to get there but usually, for the most part, I just ended up in tears at Kentucky and had to spend a lot of money on therapy afterwards, [laughs] so I’m really hoping that I’m past that point.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy with the horses?
I like trees. I like the dirt. I like the land. I like flowers and shrubs and I drive everyone crazy because I love—there’s scientific research too—that landscape, trees, dirt, make you feel better. I didn’t know that but when I read that recently, I was like score! I knew it! Horses make me feel good and trees make me feel good. If I’m not doing something with my horses I’m definitely doing something with the land around me.
Follow along with Practical Horseman’s coverage of #KY3Day19 on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Special thanks to our sponsors, Absorbine, Dublin and Kent Nutrition Group/Blue Seal Feeds for their support!