‘She remains one of the most beautiful stories of my life’: meet the breeder behind this global superstar mare

  • After winning back-to-back Rolex grands prix at CHI Geneva and then at The Dutch Masters with his “Queen”, the brilliant mare HH Azur, US rider McLain Ward is the current live contender for the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping.

    Their Grand Slam journey will continue at CHIO Aachen next month, but how did all begin for this much-loved 17-year-old mare? Adriana Van Tilburg met HH Azur’s Belgian breeder Nathalie Beaufort to find out.

    Nathalie Beaufort started to dream 18 years ago about breeding a foal. However, it did not go entirely without a hitch.

    “My husband Pedro was competing HH Azur’s dam, Sion VD Zuuthoeve,” she says. “I asked Pedro if he could ask Sion VD Zuuthoeve’s owner if I could flush an embryo from the mare. Sion VD Zuuthoeve was actually meant to become a dressage horse, but Pedro was very successful with her in show jumping. It was agreed, so we took the mare to the vet to have her inseminated.

    “I had already looked at possible suitable stallions and Pedro thought Argentinus would be a good choice,” she continues. “We tried three times and it just didn’t work. The vet said a son of Argentinus, Thunder Van De Zuuthoeve, was available. He was a young stallion and nobody knew of him, but when I saw him in the stable I instantly fell in love – he was fantastic to look at. He cost half the stud fee of Argentinus and we had fresh semen.

    “She [Sion VD Zuuthoeve] became pregnant in one attempt and the embryo transfer went very well. The following year HH Azur was born, her birth name is Azur Garden’s Horses. She was a beautiful filly with long legs, and it was such a special feeling for me when she was born. She stayed with us as a yearling and two-year-old – I don’t like my young horses being reared in a big group of young horses as I am afraid of accidents. I have bred other foals and sometimes when they are weaned from their mothers, I let an older horse raise them. I have not bred another foal like HH Azur. When you breed a foal like HH Azur it is difficult to have a real eye to judge the other foals as she was just so special.”

    HH Azur's breeder Nathalie Beaufort and her home-bred horse Thor de Beaufort

    Nathalie Beaufort and her home-bred horse Thor de Beaufort.

    ‘It is very important for horses to be able to breathe in the field’

    The next important chapter for HH Azur began when she turned three-years-old. She was broken-in and step-by-step she was prepared for a career in the sport. Nathalie recalls: “At three-years-old, we started her under saddle. It was incredible, every time you did an exercise that she hadn’t done before she made you feel like she knew that exercise. It was so easy for her to understand what we wanted from her.

    “After a couple of months, I told Pedro we were going to stop her training and let her go back into the pasture, and when she was four-years-old we would pick it up again a bit. We took her to a competition maybe three times as a four-year-old, just as a learning experience. Then she went back in the pasture until she was five.

    “As a five-year-old, we did the same again, and then as a six-year-old, she did a few international young horse competitions – not to win or place, but again for her experience,” explains Nathalie. “The most important thing for us was that she understood what we were asking of her and that she enjoyed it. We then built up to three-day shows. Even as a six-year-old, she was allowed to go out to pasture again after the season – it is very important for horses to be able to breathe and come into themselves in the field. HH Azur was fine with it all.

    “As a seven-year-old, when we began again people started to recognise her and wondered why she was so good. We didn’t really want to show her to the outside world when she was five and six-years-old, we wanted to show her quality when she was seven. By then we were already getting offers from people who wanted to buy her. Pedro turned everything down because he thought she would be an Olympic mare – he had all this belief in her since she was three, but he realised he was not a good enough rider for her. He was a good rider for two-star level and we also didn’t have a sponsor or much money to ride at top level. Just riding well doesn’t get you there, everything around it has to be good too.”

    HH Azur: ‘My heart is in my throat’

    The success of HH Azur did not go unnoticed and the interest in her began to grow.

    “At the end of her seventh year, François Mathy Sr came by and was very fond of her,” Nathalie recalls. “He thought we were asking a lot of money for her, but one day he came by with McLain Ward, who was very surprised by HH Azur’s quality. Pénélope Leprévost had also been to try HH Azur, no one really knows this, but François Mathy Sr also worked with Pénélope at the time. Initially, HH Azur was ridden in the international classes by François’s rider, Spaniard Diego Perez Bilbao. A few months after that, HH Azur left for America with McLain Ward. There, HH Azur’s next chapter began.”

    It brings a lot of emotions for a breeder to see the horse that they bred and raised compete at the highest level. How does it feel for Nathalie Beaufort to see HH Azur compete at the highest level?

    “I experience HH Azur’s success with two emotions,” she reveals. “The first is a great pride and an intense admiration for her when I see her jumping with McLain. But at the same time my heart is in my throat because she is no longer close to me. These two emotions often mix and bring tears to my eyes.

    “Azur left at the dawn of her eighth birthday. We looked after her for over seven years and selling her was emotionally very hard. It creates a lot of emotional bonds when horses stay with their breeder for so long. I knew she had a great career ahead of her and that the financial means to get to that level are not insignificant. When she left for HH Farm with McLain Ward as her rider, I felt comforted. She was going to be fine in this new structure and today I can only continue to admire this magnificent mare. She remains one of the most beautiful stories of my life with my horses.”

    As well as their magnificent recent success in the Rolex Grand Slam, McLain Ward and HH Azur have won grands prix all over the world, triumphed in the World Cup Final, represented USA in Nations Cups and won team silver at the 2016 Olympics.

    With her brilliant success and fighting spirit, it is no wonder this wonderful mare has become one of the most popular horses of all time, thanks hugely to her wonderful upbringing.

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