Best of bwoothrlds
Celebrated standardbred trainers David and Catherine Butt have expanded their equine pursuits to include a new purpose-built equestrian centre on the outskirts of Christchurch, as ANNIE STUDHOLME discovers
As you drive down the winding road to the tiny settlement of Woodend Beach it’s plain to see why David and Catherine Butt’s Birchbrook Equestrian Centre is hot property in both the harness world and the sporthorse world.
Less than a ve minute jog to the beach, the stunning 88-hectare property has produced many champions. It’s not only home to their own small team of standardbreds and broodmares, but their son Bob Butt also trains from here, as well as leading father-and-son duo, Robert and John Dunn.
It’s an impressive set-up with tree-lined laneways, numerous barns, three training tracks, a swimming pool, and treadmill, but it was the close proximity to the beach that initially attracted them to the property in the late 1990s.
Back then, very few trainers were beach-training full time, but the Butts could see the advantages. “Sure, it’s easier on their legs and joints but I think it is the mental freshness that the beach brings out in them which is the most important part of it,” explains David.
e decision to move from West Melton to Woodend Beach proved to be the making of their careers. Almost overnight
For Catherine, it was a major shock to the system moving from their previous lovely new house. And it was nine long years before the old cottage finally made way for a stylish new dwelling and as their training business grew, they kept expanding, buying more land. First, it was 20 hectares next door, and recently they added a further adjoining 56 hectares, taking them to almost 90 hectares in total.
“We have a lot of broodmares and it was getting harder and harder to find good grazing, so we thought it would be great to be able to have them at home and graze a few cattle. It was too good an opportunity to miss,” explains Catherine.
Over the past two years they have scaled down their own training operation to make way for son Bob to go it alone. Fewer horses in work has allowed them to consider other business opportunities that utilise the land, beach and facilities, which is where the idea of an equestrian centre was first mooted.
Although harness racing and equestrian sport seem worlds apart to outsiders, here in Canterbury at least, many families are involved in both, and the Butts knew plenty of families with children riding.
Despite their limited knowledge of equestrian sports, the love of horses is the common link. While they have ended up working with standardbreds, the couple agree they could have just as easily ended up working with thoroughbred racehorses or show jumpers. “It’s all about what you are exposed to,” says David. “At the end of the day, horse people are horse people. If you like horses, you like horses. We might not know much about equestrian sports, but we know horses.”
Having experienced such success with beach training, especially with horses with leg problems, the Butts knew the beach would be a huge attraction for all riders, and with a mass exodus of people moving away from Christchurch in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, the surrounding areas were experiencing massive population growth. While the growth was breathing new life into the smaller towns, it had meant finding suitable grazing and good places to ride had subsequently become much more difficult.
Growing up, Catherine had always wanted to ride but her parents were busy with their market gardening business and her father spent all his spare time with the standardbreds. “Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to give people that opportunity to have horses without the need for owning land,” explains Catherine.
Their vision for Birchbrook Equestrian was simple: to build a centre where people not only had a safe place to keep their horses, offering unparalleled beach access, and use of their state-of-the-art facilities and arenas, but also a facility where people could have DIY horsecare or close to full livery, depending on their circumstances.
Both David and Catherine grew up surrounded by standardbreds. David is the grandson of legendary trainer Wes Butt, part of New Zealand’s first family of harness racing. As a child growing up in West Melton he rode and did pony club but as soon as he was old enough to drive, the ponies went begging. He went on to become a top young driver, twice finishing second in the Australasian Junior Drivers Series, before becoming a successful trainer on his own account.
Catherine too was destined for a career in the standardbred industry. The daughter of owner/trainer John Thompson, she was immersed in it from day one. “I had plenty of opportunities with horses, just not with riding or pony club,” she says. Prior to getting married, she used to drive at the workouts and only stopped driving fast-work after an accident in 2003 which tore three ligaments off the bone in her leg.
David trained on his own account from 1983, training 99 winners, before joining forces with his wife in 2002. It’s very much a team effort. With David doing the driving at home and on raceday, it falls back on Catherine to ensure all the horses are ready to go, and on raceday she’s responsible for gearing them up, looking after them, talking to the owners and doing the accounts.
Within two years the Butts had made history, taking out the premiership for the first time with 79 winners. It also made Catherine the first female to win a training premiership in New Zealand.