‘Foals should grow in a natural environment for as long as possible’: Argento’s breeder Keeley Durham reveals her winning ethos

  • Many people will be familiar with the name Keeley Durham – as well as a successful showjumper in her own right, she’s a respected producer, owner and trainer. But she is also a small-time breeder with an outstanding strike-rate, producing such superstars as John Whitaker’s Aachen grand prix-winner Argento.

    However, Keeley only pursued the breeding side of the sport on the advice of Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton – and thanks to a chance buy.

    “When John [Whitaker] was riding Welham [who Keeley owned], we were once down at Nick Skelton’s yard and he suggested that I should get a broodmare and start producing more young horses,” says Keeley.

    “I thought this was a great idea, but I did not really act upon it until about two months later when John asked me to go and collect something for his cattle from a local farmer, and I ended up coming back with a two-year-old mare, named Flora May. We bred from her when she was three, before we broke her in, and it all really started from there. After her first foal we jumped her for a little while before she had her second foal – which ended up being Argento.”

    Keeley has carried on breeding with Flora May’s progeny.

    “She had everything I look for and all of the horses that she has bred have been very correct and that is very important to me,” says Keeley. “For a mare, I think that it is very important to have a good, correct stamp, a good temperament and to be a ‘nice person’. Of course, you also want them to move nicely and jump well.

    “For the stallion, I try to match them up to the mare, for example if they need more scope, then I would choose a scopey stallion. They also need good conformation and temperament.”

    Arko: ‘Cheeky, but a nice person with a huge amount of jump’

    However, Keeley was surprised at how successful her pairing of Flora May was with Arko III, producing the mighty Argento (pictured below).

    “Arko, at the time, was a young stallion and Argento was one of his first foals bred in England,” says Keeley. “I chose Arko because I saw him jumping with Nick Skelton when I was travelling around the shows with John and Welham, and I really liked him. Even though he was cheeky, he was a nice person and had a huge amount of jump.”

    John Whitaker riding Argento to win the Santa Stakes at Olympia Horse Show

    Keeley went on to sell Argento to John Whitaker.

    “Malcom Pyrah would say ‘I nearly vet the person buying my horse as much as they would want to vet the horse’ and I do not sell many of my horses, but when I sold Argento to John, I already had a very good relationship with him and trusted him a lot,” reveals Keeley. “More recently I sold a horse called Arakan to the United States of America, and if I didn’t like the people, I probably would not have sold him.

    “I have never sold any foals; I always produce them up to competition level,” she adds. “As well as showjumpers, I have bred one horse that went up to intermediate eventing and others that have not been superstars, but they have been nice horses.”

    ‘It only takes 10 minutes for something to go wrong’

    The nurturing of her youngstock is key to Keeley’s success.

    “It is very important that you have access to enough land – so that [the youngsters] can live out and be horses,” she says. “The foals should grow in a natural environment for as long as possible until you start breaking them in. I also think that it is very important to handle the foals correctly from when they are born. We start leading our foals from day one – they will have a headcollar on and are taught to lead in-hand from the very first day.

    “I don’t breed many foals, so I can spend time with them and give them more attention than you could do in a big breeding yard and that is what I enjoy. I love the foals and looking after them. I think if you are foaling them at them at home you must be committed to being there and watching them through the night – it only takes 10 minutes for something to go wrong. Everything can be alright one minute and then the next you need to be there for the mare and foal.”

    Keeley is particularly excited about a three-year-old she has bred out of Betty May – a daughter of Flora May and a full-sister to Argento. The filly is by Big Star.

    “She is called Stellar; we have not loose jumped her but from seeing her around the field, I think she is one to watch,” says Keeley.

    From humble beginnings: ‘I kept falling off!’

    In the saddle, Keeley says her proudest moments came when winning the young riders class at Horse of the Year Show in 1991 and being part of the gold medal-winning young rider team at the 1992 European Championships riding the great Welham.

    “My earliest equestrian memory comes from when I was 10 years old, and I went to my first show at the Parklands Equestrian Centre,” says Keeley. “I was competing in a clear round class, and each round cost my father 50p – I think he ended up spending £20 for me to finally get a clear round rosette because my pony kept stopping and I kept on falling off!”

    She enjoys going to some of the sport’s great shows, such as the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping venues Aachen and Spruce Meadows.

    “I think the Rolex Grand Slam has been very positive for the sport – it is something for the top showjumpers as well as the next generations to aim for,” she says. “The prize-money is incredible and to be able to aim for the bonuses gives the riders a real drive to succeed.

    “I have been incredibly fortunate, and I have been to all of the Majors. I think that they are all amazing shows, but I think that my favourite is Aachen. It has very special memories for me, with John and Welham (pictured below) winning the grand prix there in 1997 – it is like winning Wimbledon for tennis. I also love Spruce Meadows, it is such a unique show, especially where it is situated. The Southern Family are so welcoming, they make you feel like part of the family and they will go any lengths to help you out. They have improved it so much and the atmosphere is incredible.”

    While Keeley can proudly say that she’s already bred a superstar, she still has plenty of goals she hopes to achieve.

    “It would be lovely to breed another horse like Argento,” she enthuses. “They say that you only have one good horse in a lifetime, but I have been so lucky to have had Welham and Argento. I achieved every Pony Club girl’s dream when I bred Argento. I would, however, love to breed a coloured horse out of Betty May if I found the right coloured stallion.

    “Recently I have started taking on a few clients on my yard that have competition horses,” she adds. “I coach and mentor them. I love being on their journeys and helping them achieve their goals and guiding the management of their horses. I have three main clients, one of which is Evie Toombes, the para-rider – she is such an inspiration and I love being part of her journey. My other two clients are Evie’s mother Caroline and Andrea Lloyd.

    “I think that you have to go into the industry with a good attitude and be willing to work hard and listen. I think that listening is so important, I lot of people come to me and they don’t listen – I find this very frustrating when you have to constantly tell people what to do. In addition, you have to be ambitious and be willing to work hard for your goals.”

    With thanks to Rolex Grand Slam.

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