If there’s one thing Richard ‘Paddy’ Otton loves more than a yarn and an afternoon kip, it’s schooling horses. Since winning his first hunt at Candelo Show at the age of 12 atop a horse named All Black, Paddy has been immersed in the equestrian world.
These days, he leaves the professional show jumping to his successors – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – who each carry on the Otton tradition, immortalised in everything from gold medals to Pony Club ribbons. But you’ll still see him galloping through the fields of his family’s Bega property on one of his “old faithfuls” – who he reckons could enter a show any day of the week and still do “pretty bloody good”.
The first generation of Ottons from Bega
Paddy represents the fifth generation of Ottons in Australia. The original head of the family, John Otton, came here in the 1800s, under rather scandalous circumstances. He was a skilled horse husbandman, employed by an English lord on a Devonshire farm just north of Exeter. This particular lord – Alexander Berry – took a trip to Australia and set his sights on establishing a European settlement on what we now know to be the Shoalhaven region of the NSW South Coast.
“In those days, the best way to get folks over to Australia to work for you was to set them up with a crime and have them shipped out as convicts,” Paddy says. Apparently John Otton was at the top of Lord Berry’s list, and so a plot to have him framed for stealing a horse unfurled. In November 1829, he was convicted of a crime he did not commit and given an ultimatum: face the gallows or go to Australia. The seven generations of Ottons that followed provide something of a spoiler to that story.
Clearly the first John Otton made an impression on his employer, who showed great remorse for his deceitful ploy and arranged to have Otton’s family – a wife and five children – brought out to Australia aboard the Layton shortly after.
“From what I know, he always had a shilling in his pocket and became a well-recognised man,” Paddy says.
John Otton established himself as a superior master plowman and shearer, and began amassing great parcels of land around the South Coast region. By 1839 he had leased some 5,000 acres of land between Berry and Bargo, in Southern NSW.
The fourth generation
Over the decades, the generations of Ottons that followed held onto much of the plentiful land across the South Coast hinterland. However, when Paddy’s father Murray passed away in 1963, just two years after Paddy and his wife Roslyn married, the government acquired half the land in death duties.
Murray had a great affinity with horses, having been involved in camp drafting and rodeos most of his life. He was also a proud supporter and a trustee for the Bega Show – a position Paddy took over after his passing.
“Dad always had a couple of sturdy stock horses that I managed to turn into jumping horses,” Paddy says. “That’s really where it all began; going along to shows with my dad.”
When Paddy’s father took over the homestead it was the third house to be built on the original slab, which was first poured back in the 1800s. Today, Paddy and Roslyn live in the gorgeous, five-bedroom farmhouse that has seen a handful of renovations over the years.
“It’s a wonderful old home,” Paddy says. “Roslyn and I did it up when we got married. My mum lived with us for a while before shifting to a nursing home. She always had wild stories to tell.”
The fifth generation
The Ottons are equestrian royalty in the Bega district, though Paddy is far too humble to admit such a thing.
“I’ve always been involved with horses right from a very young age,” he says. “If Bega Show goes on next year, I’ll have 78 years under my belt.”
Throughout the years, Paddy and his family travelled as much as they could, competing in shows across NSW and Victoria.
“We’d head off with five or six horses in the cattle truck with a tarpaulin thrown over the top,” Paddy says. “We did Parkes Show for 17 years running, which is something of a record, so I’m told.
“I always loved jumping hurdles. It was called Olympic jumping back in those days. They were solid hurdles and not particularly forgiving if you missed a step.”
Paddy lists off dozens of locations around the state where he either competed himself or took his successors to ride. “Young, Cowra, Grenfell – there’s a hell of a good run of shows out there,” he says.
“Back in the day, we’d do two shows per week and hope to sell a couple of horses along the way to cover our travel costs.
“The best part about doing the show jumping circuit was always having a whisky or a cup of tea after the shows and having a yarn with the other jumpers.”
In 1997 Paddy competed at the Masters Games in Canberra, where he cleaned up in all but two events. “I oiled myself up a bit around the property, doing some fair dinkum jumping in the lead-up,” Paddy says. It must’ve paid off as he came home with a stack of gold, silver and bronze medals. “That was my last time being a competitor.”
In the early 1960s, Paddy and his friend Charlie Smith founded a show jumping club in Bega to support the up-and-comers, which grew to become one of the strongest clubs on the scene.
“We held the first show jumping championships in Tathra in the Christmas holidays, and I won on a black horse called Kuala – a thoroughbred mare, who I held onto and bred a few foals from.”
The Ottons are still heavily involved in the club today – Paddy’s youngest son Jeffrey was club president and his grandchildren continue to carry the family name over the highest hurdles and into the history books.
The sixth generation
Paddy and Roslyn had four children: Sue, Murray, Jane and Jeffrey. Three of their kids live on the farm with families of their own, spread out in cottages across the property.
“All four of our kids were involved in horses in some way, but it was Poss who really took off with it,” Paddy says, referring to his youngest son, Jeffrey.
“Way back, he got a call from a friend who got smashed up competing at a show in Queensland, and they asked him to fly up and take over the team. They went on to Cairns and took out a couple of titles up there.”
The Queensland run took roughly three months but Poss couldn’t get enough. He took his own horses back up and continued to compete for five years, taking out titles and breaking records all over the state. But the World Cup show jumper now lends a lot of his time to another breed altogether.
The Ottons run cattle on their property, and Paddy admits Poss does a lot of the grunt work these days.
“We’ve had a fair bit of success with cattle. We won a beef breeders competition a few years back with some great Herefords, which was a nice feather in our cap,” Paddy says.
Poss travels a lot as a private buyer for an abattoir and a few feedlots around the state, but he also looks after the 500-odd black cattle and Friesian steers on the property.
“He’s got a pretty good name now,” Paddy says proudly. “He can look at a cow, guess the weight and be spot on.
“He works directly with buyers, and everything is done via telephone and a virtual handshake. Not long ago, four black cows snatched $2,000 a head, which was pretty good at the time.”
More recently, Poss has found unique ways to manage the property. With fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) ravaging the entire region and putting the cattle at risk, he brought in sheep – who love the stuff – to keep it at bay.
“Poss has got two mobs of sheep that he shifts about. The good old ewes will eat the fireweed like a camel – they’ll munch it right up.”
As an added bonus, the sheep fetch a decent price for their fleece, too. Paddy reckons that last season, the wool from their 150-or-so sheep brought in around $7,000.
The seventh generation
Paddy’s eight grandchildren have all inherited his love of the land, and some remain entrenched in the show jumping world.
“A few of them used to be great hack riders at the top of their field,” Paddy says proudly.
One of his grandsons, Todd, has been the Chef d’Equipe for various champion show jumping teams over the years. He was appointed the High Performance Jumping Manager for the Australian Olympic team that competed at the recent Tokyo games. He continues to work with the Australian Olympic Committee, keeping a close eye on the top performers in Australia and overseas.
Paddy tells me how proud he is that some of his successors have taken up the sport, but doesn’t hold it against the others who have gone down a different path.
“Our daughter, Jane, married Neal Bates – a champion rally car driver for Toyota,” Paddy says. “Their two boys – my grandkids – Harry and Lewis are both making their way up the ranks too. Horses or cars: it doesn’t matter. I’m chuffed either way”
The eighth generation of Ottons from Bega
With his family close by, Paddy spends plenty of time with his four great-granddaughters and one grandson – two of whom live on the property.
“We’ve got a couple of hellish ponies that keep them holding those reins tight,” Paddy says with a chuckle. “They go to Pony Club, and they’ve come back with a few ribbons, but it’s not about that for me. I just love to see them giving it a good crack.”
If you enjoyed this story on the Ottons from Bega, you might like our feature on the Cupitts from Mollymook.