Horses and wool rule Sonja's world

24 Mar, 2004 10:00 PM
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SONJA Johnson is a young woman on a mission - or two.

Her immediate aim is to win a gold medal in the equestrian events at the forthcoming Athens Olympics if selected in the Australian team.

Sonja is the current Eventer of the Year and is ranked 15th in the world.

"I've done the work," Sonja said, "now I've just got to wait patiently with my fingers crossed."

And what is her other mission?

"I want to breed the best wool sheep in Australia and to tell the world how wonderful the fibre is that our Merinos produce," she said.

Both aims are not out of her reach, for Sonja is a registered wool classer who controls the selection and breeding of a flock which yields 150 bales of Merino wool annually.

Where does all this enthusiasm come from? Sonja is the daughter of Takalarup and Gairdner wool, crop and beef producers Dan and Phoebe Johnson, who herself is a keen horsewoman.

"I can recall being just shy of four years of age and sitting on our mare Cactus," Sonja recalled. "Then we worked this coastal block of semi-developed land which had cattle running on it. Mum gave me the job of riding into the undeveloped timber to bring the cattle out to where she waited.

"Then Jennifer Lucas, a Manypeaks beef producer, started a pony club there for the local children - me included. It was a great way of beginning friendships, which persist to this day."

Nearer Albany, the King River Pony Club had been going for several years. Sonja recalls many good and leading coaches exposed the riders there to more advance riding techniques.

"I joined the club which had a good competitive spirit. I remember, at age four, competing in the Albany Agriculture Show's best costume competition for riders," she said.

She was competing unassisted at six years of age. Later at 12, Sonja came second in the WA State Pony Club championship riding her own Pakiarrup Apollo, her first good eventer mount.

"I was marginally successful in my late teens," Sonja said. "At 18 years I won the WA Event Rider of the Year after winning the Open Event ride.

"At that time experienced riders like David Maguire, Katanning, William Wordsworth, then at Esperance but now at Williams, and Julie (Slattery) Isbister had taken me under their wings. They taught me so much about advanced riding."

From there progress sped up. As a mature rider, Sonja won the Melbourne three-day eventing on Just a Partner and again in 2001 on Ringwold Jaguar.

Topping it all off was the 2003 Australian Eventer of the Year Award and her world ranking.

"I'd been listed for Atlanta and now I'm listed for Athens. I'm absolutely determined to win there, if given the chance," Sonja exclaimed. In Athens, she'll be astride Jacup farmer Gussie Saunders eventing horse Jaguar.

At home, either on the Johnson family farms at Takalarup or Gairdner, Sonja is responsible for management and breeding of the Merino flock and cattle herd.

Her brother Charles controls the farm's crop program, across the total 4000ha holding.

For Sonja, wool is king.

"Even after years of doing it, I still get a surge of adrenalin when the first fleece lands on the wool table," she said.

"John Currie, of Elders Wool, Albany, has been a wonderful instructor. We argue a lot. I'm a registered SRS wool classer, but only do our wool. John challenges me and makes me think."

Her uncle, Roger Johnson, a Kalgan farmer, got Sonja off the starting block as a wool fanatic.

Roger emphasised the importance of blending.

The system in SRS classing interested her, as did the soft and stylish wools.

Wool and sheep breeding consultant Bill Johnson advanced her knowledge of sheep breeding.

It was Bill who advised her to contact Anthony and Linda Archer of the Norwood stud in Tasmania. Mr Archer has since classed her sheep.

"I went to Norwood in September 2003 and he's made me think very deeply about wool," Sonja said.

"This year we've brought in Norwood semen to try to speed the improvements in our flock."

Shearing dates are being moved.

The orange and green taggers will be shorn in June 2004 while the older sheep stay with the December shearing.

The trend is to a total June shearing. Sheep are not culled while they continue to produce strong lustrous fibre.

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