Is sport horse breeding on the cusp of a revolution? Meet the Mares of Macha team promoting ‘access proven breeding’

  • The equine breeding industry is brimming with pioneers and once in a while, a new concept emerges that makes you stop and take note. “Access proven breeding” is the buzz phrase behind Belgium-based Mares Of Macha (MoM), which offers frozen embryos boasting only the finest genes via the best damlines. The name originates from a goddess in Irish mythology, who is often depicted with a foal, and underlines mares as the cornerstone of breeding.

    The enterprise is the brainchild of Belgian entrepreneur Klaas de Coster, alongside Belgian Olympic bronze medal-winning showjumper Pieter Devos and commentator and auctioneer Frederik de Backer – a team bursting with passion and knowledge on their mission to give breeders around the world access to some of the most coveted bloodlines in showjumping.

    “We noticed that it was difficult to access the best bloodlines – the most common way to do this was via auctions where only the highest bidder could get an exclusive foal. To make this easier, we had to do something different,” says Pieter. “We try to find the best mares in the world and offer all the embryos for fixed and accessible prices on our website.”

    The concept has been years in the making, but from day one, the MoM team have been handpicking their mares according to at least one of three strict markers relating to performance, offspring and damlines, which they pinpointed from extensive research into the sport’s top performers. So she either needs to be a proven sport mare – placed at 1.60m five-star level – or to have already produced an extreme sport horse herself or to be directly out of an extraordinary sporting bloodline.

    “‘Extraordinary’ is important there and we don’t think there are too many,” stresses co-founder Klaas, who has been immersed in the showjumping world for 12 years through his sound and lighting company and has already bred grand prix horses himself.

    He struck gold with his first purchase from Stephan Conter, Goya, a quality daughter of renowned broodmare Usha Van’t Roosakker by Kannan and a full-sister to several five-star grand prix horses.

    “For us, Usha was one of the most amazing breeding mares in the world, so to have a direct daughter was important – we paid a lot of money, but we had a plan and we believed in it,” says Klaas.

    MoM now boasts a roster of around 40 black-type mares, boasting some of the world’s most coveted gene pools. Werly Chin De Muze (pictured below), the foundation mare of US stud Spy Coast Farm, meets all three markers – she produced Eric Lamaze’s 2012 Olympic contender Derly Chin De Muze, also the dam of Daniel Deusser’s top mare Killer Queen VDM, she jumped 1.60m herself and came directly out of the outstanding mare Qerly Chin.

    Other mares include Whoopie C, the dam of Daniel Deusser’s Tobago Z, Cascha Della Caccia (by Cassini I), who produced Cian O’Connor’s European partner PSG Final, and “the icing on the cake” Contara, the dam of the world’s leading sire Chacco-Blue.

    Then there is a string of top performers such as Molly Malone, Sancha LS and, grabbing the headlines recently, Toveks Mary Lou, one of a few mares in partnership rather than sold to MoM. When you can combine these with some of the best sires including Chacco-Blue, Emerald and Comme Il Faut, it’s no wonder the team’s client base is global.

    “The three of us tend to pick the stallions together – it’s very subjective though,” says Pieter, who hails from a family steeped in breeding expertise. “Often our clients select the stallion themselves but sometimes they pick their own stallion.”

    ‘In the best hands’

    The magic happens in Italy. The mares reside at the Mares Of Macha farm, Borgo La Caccia, located to the east of Milan and only half an hour away from Avantea, a clinic that specialises in advanced technologies for animal reproduction, led by Dr Cesare Galli, using the ovum pick up (OPU) technique followed by intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). At Borgo La Caccia, which also boasts a vineyard, the MoM herd of broodmares enjoy the region’s lush grass and Mediterranean climate all year round.

    “If one of my top mares retired tomorrow, I wanted to be able to stand 200% behind the fact I would send her to my own breeding farm in Italy,” says Pieter. “So we’ve done everything to make sure they’re in the best hands over there – we have our own team, our own farm and everything is under our control.”

    Klaas explains: “Our vet checks each horse weekly and if they’re ready, they go in and if they’re not, they go back in the field. We don’t use any hormones. You can do OPU every three weeks, but we do a maximum of six OPU sessions per winter – that’s roughly the same as you could with embryo transfer.”

    The successfully fertilised eggs are frozen before being shipped to a reproduction facility in Belgium, where they can begin their journey to their new owners.

    After investing in their mares, the easy way for MoM to recoup their costs would have been to sell their embryos at auction, which has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, leading to skyrocketing prices. But their decision to ensure “access proven breeding” means they sell all the embryos themselves at fixed prices.

    “We had many discussions about how to do this because everyone was doing it through auctions,” explains Klaas. “But access proven breeding is not auctions – that’s highest-bidder proven breeding – so we decided to do it completely differently.”

    The MoM website provides a tantalising shop window for their catalogue of frozen embryos and is brilliant in its simplicity – after selecting your mare and choice of embryo from the stallions they’ve been paired with, it’s yours at the click of a button.

    “Transparency is key, so we divided our mares and their embryos into four fixed-price categories,” explains Klaas. “All embryos are offered for sale directly – none are kept back.”

    ‘Access proven breeding’

    This access-for-all philosophy means their client base stretches from big-money breeders buying multiple embryos to people seeing it as investment, to sell at auction further down the line to local hobby breeders looking for a new bloodline.

    “It’s so easy for breeders – they buy the embryo, we ship it and we can implant it – we can even add a guarantee that you’ll have a pregnant mare,” says Klaas. “The only thing we don’t know is the sex. We’re getting breeders from all over the world. It’s really cool.”

    Looking to the future, the team also invests in future MoM mares. The aim is to integrate them into the programme later on, but to first give them every chance to prove themselves in the sport. They currently have six future MoMs, with three jumping under the MoM prefix – Toupie De La Roque (pictured below), Isaura and Coleraine Des Bergeries – and three youngsters, who are grazing in the fields for the time being.

    “It’s not about creating embryos, it’s about building a community for people with a love for breeding and a love for the sport,” says Pieter.

    Klaas pays tribute to his passionate colleagues, who have proved invaluable on this exciting journey.

    “It hasn’t been easy, but we have an amazing team,” he says. “Frederik de Backer is all over the world, he sees lots and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge and a really clear and brilliant mind. Pieter knows how difficult it is to find good horses – he’s at the top of the sport and knows where it’s going, what type of stallions to look at – and his parents have so much experience in breeding, so he was a great match too.”

    The oldest MoM embryos will be turning three this year and it feels as if sport horse breeding is on the cusp of an exciting revolution.

    “Having better horses all over the world is good for everyone – of course, they have to be produced and that’s the next step, but if it’s not in the horses in the first place you have nothing to develop,” says Pieter.

    Klaas adds: “Of course, we have no guarantee, but having these really good mares to breed from does increase the luck. Then add in a good stallion and the chances of producing a good jumping horse are bigger still.”

    The plan is to stick within the showjumping world, where their enviable expertise lies “although never say never” to dipping their toes into dressage breeding, says Klaas.

    Pieter adds: “The dream would be that in five or 10 years, a breeder will phone me up and say, ‘We have this fantastic horse we bought from you as an embryo, would you like to ride it?’ But we are just a group of young people, a new generation, with new ideas, always looking forward and doing something we really believe in.”

    Taking frozen embryos to USA

    Mares of Macha work closely with Spy Coast Farm in Kentucky, one of the USA’s most highly regarded sport horse breeders, and last year shipped the first batch of Chacco-Blue frozen embryos over the Atlantic. It is hoped this partnership will also help bring US bloodlines to Europe.

    “We decided to partner up because we felt similar aligned interests in regard to breeding, as well as a bunch of mutual trust,” says Spy Coast’s founder Lisa Lourie. “I thought it was a brilliant concept, so much so that I was willing to sell them one of the best bloodlines in the world, the Qerly Chin De Muze/Werly Chin line. It’s the democratic nature of their business that really appeals to me – rather than one person owning a terrific broodmare and deciding who they breed to, what they produce and how they disseminate it; this way, pretty much anyone can buy an embryo from that mare.

    “They’ve put a lot of statistical work into it to figure out which mares are appropriate and which stallion matches are good, and I can benefit from their analysis too.

    “I think it’ll take a little while for the USA to catch up, but it’s exciting.”

    Toveks Mary Lou offspring heads to UK

    Somerset-based British team rider James Wilson runs Hill House Sport Horses alongside girlfriend Heather Larson, but had never bought an embryo before hearing about Mares of Macha.

    “It really was a dream to get hold of some of these bloodlines, so I thought let’s have a go,” says James, who has ended up buying a handful each year.

    His Catoki colt out of Whoopie C sold for £40,000 at the Bolesworth Elite Foals Auction, while he’s kept a full-brother to PSG Final and an Arera C offspring by Chacco-Blue. To acquire the bloodlines of Henrik von Eckermann’s outstanding mare Toveks Mary Lou (pictured above) would have once seemed impossible, but he’s acquired an embryo by stud Zangersheide’s stallion Aganix Du Seigneur Z, which is set to be implanted this spring.

    “I’d originally spoken to Henrik to find out if they might be doing embryos from her and I kept pushing, but nothing came of it until Klaas got in touch to say they had Mary Lou,” says James. “I said yes straight away!”

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