Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sharon White: "You Can't Beat Something that Makes Your Heart Pound".

We're lucky that fate would bring Sharon White from Alaska to horse-country Virginia.  Lucky because who knows if she would have ridden had she stayed in America's last frontier?  And if she had never ridden maybe she never would have evented.  Which would have been a pity as we never would have seen her win the 2008 Bromont Concours Complet  CCI***, or place 21st out of the Top 50 2008 Leading Riders, or take her mare, The King's Spirit, in 2008 to the Top 10 Leading Mares.  Sharon White has been selected for the USET Developing Rider Program six different times.  She has trained with the top talent in eventing including Bruce Davidson, Torrance Watkins, and Jimmy Wofford.  She's sweet, smart, quick to laugh and wholly devoted to her students and her horses.  Not to mention a gifted eventer.  Yes, it's a good thing that fate is on our side. 

photo credit to Mike McNally

Q.  How did you start riding?
A.  I started riding as one of the many things your mom made you do when you're trying to find out what your kid wants to do.  Ballet, piano, flute lessons.  And then came riding lessons and that was it.  My mom had always wanted a horse and never had one.  I started at the Great Falls Horse Center when I was twelve.

Q.  Where are you from originally?
A.  I actually grew up in Alaska.  I did not ride in Alaska and I didn't really know it existed.  It's not a good place to be an active event rider!  I came to Virginia when I was ten or eleven.

photo courtesy of Last Frontier Farm

Q.  What was the name of your first horse?
A.  The first horse I owned was Sprite--the epitome of the wrong horse!  Green horse and green rider combination.  She was a four-year-old horse off the track and I knew nothing.  I think I fell off her every day but I loved her to death.  I think in our first event we had about 300 penalties because it was before you got eliminated for having four stops.  For everyone out there struggling through some phase in eventing--I've struggled through all of them, with Sprite.  I remember when she first moved up to Training:  I couldn't get her through a triple to save my life.  Like I would fall down, pull her over...It was a complete nightmare!

Q.  What's your favorite thing about being an eventer?
A.  That would have to be cross-country!  That's definitely why you do it but then it becomes so much more than that.  You end up learning so much about your horse and I think that's so special.

Q.  How did you decide on orange and white as your colors?
A.  I decided on orange because it was a happy color.

photo courtesy of Kendall Church

Q. Tell me about your farm.
A.  I love my farm.  I feel very lucky every day.  It's called Last Frontier Farm, named after the State of Alaska which is the last frontier.  Not after Star Trek which some people think!

Q.  Do you have any pets?
A.  Oh yes.  I have two dogs: Butter and Theodore.  Butter is a Lurcher who I got from the Davidson's and Theodore is a hairy terrier who I got from the Murray's.  The Murray's event as well, so they're eventing-bred dogs.  And I have numerous stray cats that sort of move into the house because I'm not home often and I leave the door open and animals just move in. It cracks me up.

Q.  Do you have a favorite horse?
A.  Oh, my favorite horse would definitely, well, the most special one would be my first Advanced horse.  She was my first Advanced horse, first 4-star horse.  Ready About was her name.  She just taught me a lot.  She taught me a lot and there's something about your first Advanced horse.  I made lots and lots of mistakes on her and she always came through for me.  We were atrocious in the dressage!  It was before you had to get a qualifying score.  I had to retire her when you had to get a qualifying dressage score even though we had already gone around Rolex!

Sharon White on Ready About

Q.  How would your friends describe you?
A.  I don't know.  My best guess would be some version of out of her mind for how much she tries to do.  But I would hope, also, hope they would think very willing to help everybody.

Q.  Are you in a relationship?
A.  I am.  I have a fabulous, Swedish boyfriend.  It's been almost two years together.  And he does nothing with horses.  And, in fact, I think I scared him off of it completely.  He wanted to ride a little bit and he had done a little riding in Sweden.  I had this fancy six-year old that was so tall and beautiful.  I figured I'll put Henrik on him since they're both so tall and beautiful.  But it was a green rider and a six-year old horse...not my best idea!  I think he said he was never going to ride again!

photo credit to Mike McNally

Q.  Have you ever had any challenging moments that made you reconsider eventing?
A.  Every day.  It's a labor intensive sport.  It's a labor of love.  You're certainly not doing it for the money!

Q.  How did you know you were going to be good enough to make this your career path?
A.  Oh, I don't know.  I always thought I would be a great groom.  And it turned out that I could do more than that.  Another super thing I feel lucky about.

Q.  What would you have done if you didn't event?
A.  I did have other plans because my mother is very successful and I always thought I would follow in her footsteps--like a doctor or lawyer or something like that.

Q.  What are you proud of in your riding?
A.  I am proud of the hard work I've put into it and what I have managed to achieve.  I hope I'm a long way from being as good as I could be.  That's what I think is such a special thing, too, that it's a process and I feel like I get better every day.  I never stop working at it.  The longer you do it the better you get.  That's really nice.  You have a moment where you learn something new.  You can't beat that.  You can't beat that, and you can't beat the competition.  You can't beat something that makes your heart pound.

Q.  What is your schedule like?
A.  (Laughter).  Oh.  We've got about twenty-five horses in work.  We compete pretty much every weekend and I teach a lot, which I enjoy immensely.

Q.  Where do you compete?
A.  Everywhere on the East Coast.

Q.  What are your career hopes?
A.  Oh, I would like to have done Burghley and Badminton a bunch of times before I die.  I would really like to produce lots of nice advanced horses. I breed horses and also train young horses.  I bred Ready About, my mare, and she has had two foals.  I've bred a couple other three-star mares.  I've home bred five.  And I also produce the young horses; people will send me horses or I'll find a young horse.  I have some wonderful owners who are more friends in my life who have a passion for the horses like I do.

Sharon White fans show their support

Q.  Tell me about the Professional Rider's Organization (PRO).
PRO is an organization that we're starting to give more of a voice to the riders in eventing and to get the passion for the sport and the love of the sport out there, especially when there has been negative publicity.  People have focused more on the negative than the positive.  We have a fabulous sport.  I don't think there's a more well-cared for horse than the event horse.  The sport is fun and there's a great group of people that do it.  We'd just like the world to know and, in particular, the United States.

Q.  Is there anything you would like to add?
A.  The owners are what makes it possible.  The owners are so important, my staff is so important. I have the world's best groom now.  My owners are my friends and it takes a lot of synergy to give it the time to get the horses to the advanced level and stick with it because it is a labor of love for everybody involved.  

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Small Stand, Bad English and a Dream: Eric Leyssalle and The Devoucoux Family

Eric Leysalle represents Devoucoux Saddles, a French custom-saddle company.  Their saddles are exquisite, fit to the rider and horse and rely on the handiwork of the French craftsmen in Biarritz.  Representatives come directly to you and your horse (you'll meet Eric if you're in the Southeast) for a fitting.  If you need changes or anything else then they'll come back, no charge.  Brilliant.  Eric knows what he's talking about and he does it in a French accent.  What could be any better than that?  www.devoucoux.com

image used with permission of Devoucoux

Q.  Describe Devoucoux.
A. Good question.  It's a classy company making sports saddles for almost twenty years.  Jean-Michel Devoucoux is the owner and the beginning of the story.  He started it in 1994 and it was a small family; like a dream.  Now it's more professional because Devoucoux works with the best riders and the saddles has changed.  Every saddle is custom made for the horse and rider.

Q.  How long have you been working for Devoucoux?
A.  I've been working since 1994 with Jean-Michel, and he wanted me to know everything.  I saw the factories and in the office and learned everything before going out on the road.  That was a great experience and that was very good to know every part of the business.  I left for a little bit for PG saddles (French jumping saddles).  I wanted to come to the US and three years ago left again PG.  I started in Ocala which is funny because my English was so bad.  I started with a small stand and bad English.  In one month I sold 50 saddles.  The owner asked me to stay.  

Q.  How did you get involved with Devoucoux?
A.  I was working in a tack shop close to Versaille.  It was a big tack shop and Jean-Michel started selling saddles there.  I think it was not a good way to sell the saddle because you are not close to the customer and you don't see the horse.  If you like a saddle in tack shop you don't see the horse and the balance is different and every horse is different.  I started to sell Devoucoux in this tack shop and when I left Jean-Michel said hey would you like to come with us and do it on the road?  I was one of the first to sell the saddles in France on the road and be with the professional and the horse.  It's much better.   They asked me to come and I remember it was at a big event, Le Lion d'Angers.  I came very early in the morning and sat with Jean-Michel and a friend.  It started like this.  It was a lot of fun.  They say you want to go with us and I say okay.  So come to Biarritz and stay two or three months to learn everything.  After a month and a half I say I want to go on the road.  Jean-Michel said okay.  I went back to Paris and Normandy.  I was so busy.  It was the beginning of the story.

Biarritz, France.  
Used with curator's permission from www.old-picture.com

Q. What is your role there?
A.  I'm here to help the rider find a good saddle for him and the horse.  You have to listen to the rider and you have to know the horse.  Some want to be straight on their feet some want to be more comfortable.  For the horse of course you have to do the perfect fit.  The horse has to be comfortable.  You can hurt him so you have to be careful and to do the right saddle.  I listen first to what they're looking for and I try to find a good model first.  You have a wide seat, flat seat, narrow seat and after a size of flap and balance of horse.  It's easy to do with Boyd [Martin] and Phillip [Dutton] because they know what they want.  But an amateur, they are listening and need your help.  This is my role.

Phillip Dutton in his Blue Devoucoux
photo used with permission of Devoucoux

Q. Where are you from originally?
A.  I was born close to Paris, and after in a big horse area between Normandy and West of Paris.

Q.  Do you find you miss France?
A.  Yeah of course!  I miss my country but I love your country, I love to be here.  My brother and sister and parents are in Paris.  I come back every year to visit and stay a little in the South of France.  But I'm very happy to be in this country.  I love there's a lot of horse shows everywhere.  I go in the winter to Ocala.  I love to move, I don't want to stay in one place.  That's the great part for me: My area is from Pennsylvania to Aiken, South Carolina.

Q.  Do you see a difference in the sport of eventing in France vs. America?
A.  There is more eventing in the US.  A lot more.  Some in France, they have good riders too but there are a lot more competitions in the US.  It's easy to find some.  In France you have to drive four or five hours.  A lot of people are coming form Europe to compete in the US because there are more events in the US of course.

photo used with permission of Devoucoux

Q.  Why are Devoucoux saddles so good?
A.  I think the best part of Devoucoux is the fit for the horse.  Jean-Michel is the first guy to say we don't want to sell these standard panels.  Everything is for the rider and we really take care of the horse.  After of course great quality and service.  We really take care of the customer.  If the customer doesn't like it we change the panels.  We do it directly in the stables.  This is a very important point.  If you don't like your saddle we give you all your money back.  I love this product.  We have a wide range: dressage, jumping and Chiberta and cross-country saddles.  It's easy to work with different people.

From Karl Baedeker's  Southern France, Including Corisca (1914)

Q.  Where are the saddles made?
A.  The factory in Biarritz; you can go and visit.  It's a beautiful city; it's one of my favorites.  It's so close to the sea and close to Spain.  There are mountains and it's beautiful.  The factory is there and there's 50 person working there, maybe more with people in the office.  Everything is made in France.  Which is important because not everybody makes it in France!

Q.  Any fun stories from being on the road to fit saddles?
A.  One time I was on a big highway and the traffic was so bad like in Washington.  I'm used to being in traffic--and I remember a girl saw the saddles and asked me for a card.  And I go the day after and I sold a saddle.  A funny way to sell a saddle.  Every day I have fun!

Q.  What kinds of barns or farms to you go to mostly?
A.  I go everywhere where people want Devoucoux.  Professional farms, amateurs, big and small farms.  Sometimes I work with foxhunters because they need very comfortable saddles.  It's very different every day.

Q.  Are you in a relationship?
A.  I'm married with an American girl named Tammie.

Q.  Do you ride yourself?
A.  I rode jumpers for a long time.  But now I don't have too much time.  But the last time I rode, that's a funny story.  I rode with a friend in Ocala and she said Eric you should come and have fun with me.  I packed everything and was happy to come and jump.  She gave me a Chiberta and I rode an hour and a half over pretty big fences.  I really had fun.  I was sore but I hadn't ridden.  Everything was perfect.  We went out until about 2:00 am and I was still in pain.  My friend said you have to go and see a doctor.  So we went.  The doctor called me back and said you have go to the hospital you have very bad appendicitis. I went to the emergency room and did surgery.  I thought I was sore because I hadn't ridden in so long!  I was so in pain.  It took fifteen days to recover.  It's okay now, I'm fine.

Q.  What kind of things do you like outside Devoucoux?
A.  I like classic rock like Radio Head. Jazz.  French food like fish and oysters.  I like Citronelle in Washington, a French Bistro.  The Ice House Cafe.  Friday and Saturday night they have jazz bands.  Dan, the bartender, is my friend and everyone says he's the best bartender in Virginia.  It's just like home.  When I'm home I can walk everywhere.  I love D.C.  I'm a country guy and I like to be in the city.  You can be in Middelburg in 40 minutes and you can be in a museum or restaurants.  It's not a big city, it's big enough. I love this place.

Q.  Do you have a favorite wine?
A.  Burgandy wine and Bordeaux.  I love it.  I love white wine.  Bordeaux is classy. I like Burgandy because it's more delicate.  And I love champagne.  When it's good.  I prefer to have Coke than bad champagne!

Q.  Who are some of the riders you sponsor at Devoucoux?
A.  I love my customers and am close to them.  The legend Bruce Davidson, Phillip Dutton, Boyd Martin is lovely and funny and a great rider.  Leslie Law is from Great Britan but I think will ride for the US; he wants to be American.  I'm very close to Sharon White.  I want to thank these riders and Devoucoux for working with me.  Without these riders we are nothing.  It's a team.  
Sharon White in her Orange Devoucoux
photo used with permission from Mike McNally
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