A naturally talented horsewoman, Evelyn Freda White excelled first as a show-jumper and later as a racehorse trainer, but it was for her colourful personality that she was best known in the horse world. She was born on 10 November 1909 at Napier, the youngest of four children of Eva Muriel Rutherfurd Ward and her husband, Frederick Foster Clendon White, a farmer. Her father was the son of William Bertram White, a prominent resident magistrate and government agent in mid nineteenth century Northland. Freda, as she was known, grew up in relative comfort on the family farm, Turua, near Havelock North, riding with her two sisters and brother to the local school on ponies.
Given the choice of attending Nga Tawa, an expensive private school at Marton, or a state school, Wellington Girls’ College, Freda chose the latter. She boarded there until she was 18, shining at sports such as swimming, athletics and hockey, but not academically. Soon after leaving college she found work as a housekeeper for farming friends in Hawke’s Bay. Her duties included farm work, and she joined in fishing, shooting, tennis and other sports, notably preferring the men’s rather than ladies’ rifle club nights. She represented Hawke’s Bay at hockey, and rode both her own and other people’s horses. Her riding skills and fearlessness meant she was especially in demand to handle difficult show-jumpers and hunters. Had she been born 50 years later, Freda, short and slender, would almost certainly have become a jockey, but women were barred from riding professionally until the 1977–78 season.
White bred her first horse, Kopere, in 1929. He became a champion show horse, and was still winning ribbons at the age of 21. She later acquired a thoroughbred, Harbour Bar, and for many years travelled the show circuit with both horses, winning numerous prizes that supplemented her income. Harbour Bar, a ‘big nervous, snorting horse’, was given to her by Frank Donnelly of Flaxmere Stud, near Havelock North, who also gave Freda her first job dealing solely with horses. When she left around 1932 to join Granny McDonald’s racehorse stables in Palmerston North, Harbour Bar was sent after her: nobody else could manage him.
White and McDonald were similarly strong characters, each used to doing things her own way. Inevitably they fell out, and Freda went to work for another local trainer, Doc Knapp. She continued to ride all the ‘pullers’ in the district, and could school three horses at once – riding one, with two on leads – around the jumping course. White also used her riding prowess to earn extra money. A favourite ploy was to challenge another rider to a game of follow-the-leader over fences and gates at night. Few other riders and horses were bold enough to negotiate a high wire fence in the dark, so Freda invariably won her bet.
Challenges, pranks and bets were part of White’s life, as she described in her autobiography, Horses, people & fun (1976). Her adored brother, Gordon (always called ‘Doggy’), taught her some tricks at beer drinking that enabled her to out-drink most men. At a time when women were expected to be ladylike, Freda was the opposite: her swearing was legendary and she usually dressed like a man. Yet when the occasion required it, she behaved with decorum. She was generous and good natured, and behind her hearty, gruff manner was a fondness for such traditionally feminine pursuits as flower arranging and embroidery. She never married, because, as she put it, ‘No bugger ever asked me’.
Freda White first applied for a trainer’s licence in 1941, but was turned down, and it was 1971 before she got a provisional licence. Under the rules of racing she was able to train any horses she owned, although only one, Teak, whom she bred in 1958, was good enough to win more than a handful of minor races. His earnings (from winning such races as the New Zealand Grand National and Wellington Steeplechases) enabled White to add on to her modest cottage at Halcombe Hill, near Feilding, where she had moved in 1954. Teak’s most memorable win was the 1974 Hawke’s Bay Steeplechase. Almost 16, the old gelding attracted a large crowd to witness what was to be his final race, win or lose. His unexpected victory was hugely applauded – as much for his popular owner as for his remarkable feat.
That was the pinnacle of Freda White’s career. Despite countless falls and broken limbs she continued to train and ride well into her 60s, but eventually arthritis and failing eyesight forced her to retire. She ended her days in a Feilding rest home, and died on 14 August 1995 in Palmerston North Hospital.