Breeding: Best of British

Breeding: Best of British

When Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo stormed round the cross country course at this summer’s Eventing World Championships in Pratoni, it was considered by many to be the standout round of the day.

Add his fourth-place finish at these Championships to the second place he took in his first 5* at Badminton and it’s fair to say that it’s been quite a season for ‘Walter’. But Walter is not the only one in Ros’s stable catching the eye – his half-sibling, Pencos Crown Jewel, has been making her own waves this year, picking up a number of placings at 4* and finishing 11th at Burghley.

The exciting thing about these lovely young horses, though, is not just the results they are delivering but the fact they are both bred here in Britain out of a British-bred mare owned by Pennie Wallace. Through Pennie’s story, we can explore the journey from an amateur event rider with an interest in breeding through to achieving success at the highest level.

Could Pennie ever have imagined a year like this when she first started breeding?

“No! To have one top horse is fantastic, but to have two is pretty special,” she says. “When I sold Pencos Crown Jewel (Jasmine) to Annie Makin and Kate James as a six-month-old foal, Annie said to me, ‘if you were keeping her, what would you do?’ And I said, ‘I would look into embryo transfer and I would put her with a top rider’ – never dreaming that she would do that!”

The next chapter

Around that time, Pennie was working as a senior lecturer at Writtle College and another chapter of the story unfolded as Ken Rehill of The Stallion Company came to speak to her students.

“I showed him round the Lordships Stud and he said, ‘I think we could do something to help you here’. He gave the college a kind of bursary if you like to use his stallions to produce high-quality youngstock, which were then to be shown at the British Breeding Futurity by students and staff. However, he gave the bursary to the college, not to me personally, so to breed my mare Cornish Queen to his stallions I had to loan her to the college. They bred two foals, Lordships Graffalo by Grafenstolz and Lordships Parc Royale by Parco. I then bought both youngsters back from the college because I wanted to send them to Ros. Had they stayed at the college, they might not have followed that path.

“Walter went to Ros as a three-year-old. His first proper outing was to Houghton Hall for the Burghley Young Event Horse qualifier as a four-year-old and he was third. He went fantastically, qualifying for Burghley at his first attempt, and Michelle Saul, his current owner, came along to watch and bought him from me, basically based on that result.”

It was becoming clear that Pennie’s mare was a bit special. As well as Pencos Crown Jewel and Lordships Graffalo, she has also produced Lordships Parc Royale [who Ros competed to 3* and is now back with Pennie as a broodmare] and, most recently, Pencos Arctic King – a
four-year-old entire by Chilli Morning.

“Cornish Queen is tiny,” says Pennie. “You would never believe that Lordships Graffalo comes out of her because she’s only about 15.1hh and he is 17 hands. She was bred by Olympic team gold medallist Bridget Parker out of the 4* [now 5*] mare Cornish Faer and by Rock King. I bought her from Bridget as a six-year-old.

“The Cornish Faer line goes back to the likes of Ben Faerie, so it’s an incredible bloodline. I knew she had good traditional eventing bloodlines when I bought the mare, but I never dreamt it would do what it has.”

Pencos Crown Jewel. Photo: Adam Fanthorp

Laying the foundations

Like most of Pennie’s foals, both Pencos Crown Jewel and Lordships Graffalo went through British Breeding’s Futurity evaluation programme.

“The Futurity sets out to improve British breeding in two ways: by identifying future talent, so those horses can be helped into the sport; and by providing breeders with advice and feedback so they have the tools they need to understand how they can breed better horses year after year,” explains Dr Eva-Maria Broomer, Executive Director of British Breeding.

“It can be extremely useful, especially for new breeders, and helps give these horses the best possible start in life. Every horse that goes through the Futurity, from a foal all the way to a three-year-old, is seen by a veterinary specialist, a nutritionist and a team of internationally experienced evaluators,” explains Dr Broomer.

“The vets see the foal move on the hard, before it progresses to the indoor school, where the evaluators will see it move in walk, trot and canter and, with the older ones, over fences. So, you get a real 360˚ view of every horse.

“At the end of the evaluation, owners receive verbal feedback and a score, which is calculated both on the vet’s score and the score in the indoor school. We also create a linear profile, which is basically an objective description of the horse and its traits. The data we collect can be a great help to people looking for more information on a particular horse or bloodline.

“It’s nice for us to see Futurity graduates, such as Pennie’s horses, doing so well on the world stage. When we are looking at foals, it takes years to know whether we’ve got it right or not, so it’s lovely to see them out there doing their thing for the country.”

Sarah Bullimore and Corimiro. Photo: Adam Fanthorpe

Building a buzz

With all this work being done to ensure the quality of British-bred horses continues to rise, are our riders aware what is available on their doorstep? Pennie is not so sure.

“Trying to get our horses out there and seen in the sport is something of a numbers game,” she says.

“The likes of the Irish, the Dutch and the Germans seem to have a very good way of breeding foals, marketing them up and then, when they are three, selling them for good money. Our event riders go over there and buy them in their droves. All credit to them, but we need to do something about it. I would like to see more people have confidence to buy British-bred horses.”

British Eventing President Jane Holderness-Roddam agrees: “We have got to get better at blowing our own trumpet. We produce some of the best horses in the world, with the likes of these lovely horses of Pennie’s and the young gelding Corimiro, who has just come third in the Eventing World Breeding Championships for six-year-olds at Le Lion d’Angers with Sarah Bullimore. But we need to be better at promoting our stock and be proud of what we breed.”

Dr Broomer believes the lack of noise around British horses can be attributed to what she describes as, ‘a bit of a cultural disconnect’ between breeding and the sport here in Britain.

“I am from Germany and when I came over, I remember seeing nice horses out competing and I would say, ‘that’s a lovely horse, how’s it bred?’ And the rider would turn round to me and reply, ‘I don’t know’. And that would be unthinkable in Germany. You’d get the full family history of the horse!

“We’ve got to get our British-bred horses out into the right homes. All of the World Breeding Federation award-winners last year were small breeders with only two or three broodmares, a bit like our small breeders here in Britain, and all of them said the same thing of their success. They said it really came down to the fact that a particular horse happened to end up with that rider. That they had bred plenty of other foals who were just as good but they just didn’t have that luck and end up in the right place.”

“A lot of it is luck,” agrees Pennie. “I will fully admit that had someone else bought my first foal, this whole story might not have happened.”

So how do you get the equine talent of the future into the right hands? Georgie Belton has bred event horses and show jumpers for a number of British team riders through her family’s Gemini Stud, which started breeding in the 1950s, and she feels that a change of approach could reap rich rewards for both breeders and riders.

“Event riders are generally time-poor and like the convenience of shopping at auction for three- and four-year-olds,” she says. “It’s a compelling way for the riders to buy. They can think, ‘that’s great; within a few months’ time I’ll be sitting on that and before we know it, I’ll have my first run in a young horse class’. But the downside of buying three- and four-year-olds is that it is massively expensive and you’re not necessarily getting hold of the best youngstock.

“An alternative would be to consider investing in foals. It would not be unreasonable to think that you could buy three foals, produce them up to three years old and then sell one to cover the purchase price of the other two,” suggests Georgie. “You are effectively getting two foals free. It’s a fantastic business model. There are event riders doing this right now that are
being really smart about it, building relationships with the breeders and getting to know what foals their mares will be having each stud season.”

Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo at the World Equestrian Games

Georgie believes that for British breeding to be successful on the world stage, we need to be marketing horses much earlier in their life cycle and with a greater investment in marketing. This has led her to set up The Sovereign Auction as a platform for selling foals and embryos, with the very best show jumping and eventing bloodlines. Every lot that was sold at their first sale in September of this year was bought by either a 5* rider or an owner with horses at that level. This result caught the eye of many breeders, including Pennie who sent a full sibling to Lordships Graffalo as an implanted embryo to the next sale. That embryo was sold to a buyer in the USA for an eventual hammer price of £21,500 – not only making top-priced lot of the sale (bucking the trend that show jumping foals and embryos tend to out-perform eventing foals and embryos) but also making history for the Sovereign team as the first auction house in the UK or Ireland ever to sell an eventing embryo to the USA.

“The aim with The Sovereign Auction is to achieve the best prices, for the best foals and embryos, from a global audience of bidders rather than a UK domestic one,” says Georgie.

“We’re a bit like a farming cooperative. We’re giving a group of breeders like Pennie – who are not as big as the large studs but are breeding horses that are just as good, if not better – a voice on the world stage, thanks to Sovereign’s investment in both marketing and technology, which allows us to interact with a world market of buyers.

“We’re indoctrinated to think the Germans are better at breeding. They’re not better, they just spend more money on marketing than we do. We genuinely have the world’s best genetics right here in the UK – we don’t have to use stallions that are overseas, they are all here. We have got sons, grandsons and part-siblings to all the leading stallions in the world standing in the UK.

“While it is true that you might make more money from a foal by the likes of Contendro I, it is worth considering this: in the entire running of Burghley Horse Trials, I don’t believe that a son or daughter of any of the Schockemöhle stallions has ever won it. Paul Schockemöhle is considered by many to be the most successful sports horse stallion owner in the world, yet not one of his stallions has ever sired a Burghley winner. So, if you want to get big success in the sport, you don’t need to use big names and nor do you have to have lots of broodmares.”

This has certainly been true for Pennie and the incredible moments she has enjoyed with the progeny from her special little mare: “I had my son with me out in Pratoni and he’d got us some massive Union Jack flags made with Ros’s name on,” she smiles.

“When Walter went clear in that final show jumping round, we were jumping around like lunatics! The people all around me were wondering what had happened and I said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I bred that horse!’”