Sharon aces tests

Elphinstone rider takes out top Victorian dressage award

AFTER celebrating the recent arrival of a spirited little Arabian foal on her property at Elphinstone, Sharon Butler says she now understands how first-time fathers must feel.

Every day is amazing, due to the fact my horses are healthy and I get to ride them every day. To me, the competitions are just a bonus - Sharon Butler

The dressage rider - herself a mother of two - watched in wonder as the chestnut filly she has named Evi made her much-anticipated entrance into the world.

"I'd never felt like that before. I realised this was how fathers must feel when they see their children born," says Sharon, 46.

"I lost a foal last year because I wasn't here when she was born, so I made sure I was this time. And to see her there on the ground, my heart was pounding. The bag was over her head and I lifted it up and then she was up and drinking.

"Now I go out every day and watch her run around and think how amazing she is."

Sharon hopes that one day, little Evi will help her repeat the equestrian feat she achieved this year on her 16-year-old Arabian warmblood Shahwan Park Richtoffen.

The pair won the Horse Riding Clubs Association of Victoria Top Ten Dressage Award, which is based on the number of points a rider earns for placing in dressage tests throughout the September-to-August season.

Sharon finished fifth last year on another horse, but ranked number one in 2012-13 after she and "Ricky" scored points for top-four placings in 17 separate events - including Albury and Wangaratta, Dunolly and Bullengarook.

"The Top Ten is a big win for this stage of my life," she says. "My horses sat out in the paddock for 10 years before I brought them into work because of various circumstances and now I feel as if I have focus and aims and goals and am heading in the right direction.

"It's good to win something and get that recognition."

Success has not come easily for the stay-at-home mum.

As well as managing seven horses and her 30-acre block on her own, Sharon also cares for six-year-old daughter Shayla and 24-year-old disabled son Jay, who has diastrophic bone dysplasia syndrome, a skeletal disorder that results in a form of dwarfism.   

"Lots of things get left not done and I'm always running around picking up the pieces," she says. "There's meals to cook and clothes to wash, then all these lawns and all those horses.

"I don't have a dressage arena like a lot of other riders. Some of the top ones even have indoor arenas. I only have a base that I put down two years ago, but I can't afford sand so it's just a flat area to train."

Teaching her horses their dressage movements and building up their stamina and strength requires a huge commitment.

Sharon says she needs to work them every day, whether in the arena practising routines or in the bush doing hill work for physical exercise and mental stimulation.

But with so much on her plate at present, she is taking a year off to finish jobs around the house and enjoy weekends with her children.

The horses are also making the most of the break, she laughs.

"They're all happy - it's good for them to just chill out, be a horse and eat grass. I don't want them getting too fat, though. I'll have to check the fuel tank before we resume work and approach accordingly!"

Sharon has a very practical approach to her craft.

"I am trying to train my horses athletically through natural horsemanship, whereas a lot of people are really dressage-orientated," she says.

"I don't use equipment like side reins or lunging whips. I'm trying to get the best out of my horses by understanding how they work and using that to get those top dressage movements.

"Because it's my pathway, it doesn't matter how long it takes - I just do what I can do in my own time. Then when I compete, it gives me an idea where I am at with the training."

She loves the challenge of training her horses to a top level herself: Ricky is rated an advanced dressage horse while her second mount, Jules, is just below him at level one.

"Even if I wanted to sell the whole lot, move into town and a nice little townhouse, I just couldn't do it, though I've wanted to so many times," she says.

"Over the last 12 months, things have started to go my way and I feel like I can do it all, even though it is so exhausting."

Sharon grew up in Chewton and has always loved horses.

"There's a story my auntie told me later in life that when I was three, I was running around the house saying how I was going to have horses. My auntie apparently turned around and said, 'no you're not, you're far too poor to have horses'.

"But I was lucky to have an old fellow in Chewton, the late Reg Hoskins, who had horses and who used to lead me around on them when I was in primary school.

"I'd always be asking people if I could borrow their horses, but I never had a bridle or a saddle so I'd just jump on bareback. I never really learnt to ride, I just got on and went."

In her teens, Sharon joined a pony club with some friends and later was given her first horse.

When Jay was young and going in and out of hospital, she was working for a horsewoman in Trentham and ended up having dressage lessons with her.

"That's where I started competitive dressage," she says. "A lot of dressage is understanding the training scale that you have to stick to - it takes many years to train a horse to high levels.

"Now I do all my training with Ken Faulkner, who is based in Esk in Queensland but travels all over the world with his clinics and comes to Longlea in Victoria.

"I've just taken my young horse to a clinic over four half-days there. He also does a two-day clinic at Narre Warren over the Australia Day long weekend and I'll try and get to that.

"Ken teaches you so much about horses and the way they think and behave."

Sharon has been a member of the Bendigo and District Adult Riders group and says she loves being involved in that side of the equestrian scene.

When asked about her riding highlights, she pauses before answering.

"I think every day is amazing, due to the fact my horses are healthy and I get to ride them every day. To me, the competitions are just a bonus."

Sharon received a sash and prize rug for her Top Ten win at a HRCAV presentation ceremony in Melbourne on November 29.

She aims to return to the saddle in time to prepare Jules for a tilt at the 2014-15 dressage title.

And when new foal Evi turns two, she will also start learning the ropes.

"Hopefully, she will be my first horse that I will work up straight from scratch."

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