‘We want our horses to be the nicest at an event’: how business is booming for these young horse producers *H&H Plus*

  • The future looks bright for Vicky Tu s and Andrew Williams, as their business producing young event horses goes from strength to strength. Catherine Austen meets them

    “Despite the virus, we’ve had our best year,” says Vicky Tuffs. She and her business partner Andrew Williams are sitting in the kitchen at Great House Farm, in mid-December. It is the physical centrepoint of GHF Equestrian, the event horse sales and production business that they run together.

    Perched on the side of an emerald-green Welsh valley just outside of Usk, it is possibly the closest thing to the Sheanes’ Cooley Farm that Britain offers. At the top of the complex is Andrew’s newly built house, then Vicky and her husband Craig Pritchard’s, where they live with their two small boys. Vicky’s parents, whose free-range chicken and egg business this site originally housed, live next door.

    The site slopes down to three interlinking yards that have capacity for 27 horses. At the bottom of the hill is a huge outdoor school, naturally protected from the Welsh weather.

    One of the striking features of 2020 was the buoyant nature of the horse sales markets.

    “Perhaps, for some people, Covid-19 put life into perspective; if you want something, go and get it,” says Andrew.

    GHF Equestrian turned over more than £500,000 in 2020; a 25% increase on the year before.

    “At the end of the season, we went from 30 horses to 12 in two weeks; it was extraordinary,” says Andrew. “The difficulty is in trying to replace them.”

    Andrew and Vicky’s business was born in 2012. Vicky, who had taken her mare Tudor Romance to CCI5* level, had been based in Chippenham in Wiltshire for a couple of years but decided to move back home to Usk.

    Andrew, who is from Pontispool, was renting a yard nearby. He had done some showjumping, then got into showing through Robert and Claire Oliver, and then looked after the German eventing team horses for a while.

    “Until then I knew nothing about eventing. I loved being involved with it over there, but I had no aspirations to do it,” says Andrew.

    Vicky found herself at a crossroads in life, and asked Andrew if she could keep a couple of horses with him. He came with her to a few events.

    “She only had two horses and talked about giving up,” he says.

    Vicky chips in: “I didn’t even have a trailer. I kept thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing, borrowing my mum’s trailer and taking these two really expensive horses – Tudor Romance and Silver Lining – eventing?’ So I sold them both [Tudor Romance to Italy and Silver Lining to Zara Tindall], had all this money in the bank, owned nothing and was going to train as a lawyer.”

    Vicky Tuffs riding Kojak (Black gelding) in the large all-weather areas nestled in the valley below GHF Equestrian yard at Great House Farm near Usk in Monmouthshire in Wales on the 10th January 2021

    Vicky riding Kojak

    Law school didn’t happen; instead Vicky bought a lorry and three horses, and kept them at the yard Andrew was renting.

    “She would do her three in the morning and work for her dad in the afternoon,” says Andrew. “I had 12 to 14 horses in and used to try to sell one a month just to pay the rent.”

    Gradually, they started working together.

    “I didn’t really want to be out competing – I would rather find horses to produce and sell,” says Andrew. “Vicky likes to ride horse after horse after horse, but she takes so long to muck out – like, four hours! So I would say, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll muck out yours while you ride some of mine,’ and it went on from there.”

    In the early days, Vicky says, they would “take on anything – nothing was a no. We would try to buy them for £1,000 and sell them for £2,500”.

    In 2012, Vicky’s parents sold the business and said she and Andrew could have Great House Farm as their base. They had 16 stables at that stage, started making some good sales and attracting better clients. One of their first successes was with a horse called Alonzo III, whom they bought in the spring of 2012 as a seven-year-old. He zoomed up the levels from BE100 to a fifth-place finish in the young horse CCI3*-L at Osberton that autumn, and was sold to America for Hannah Sue Burnett.

    “I have always been obsessed with conformation, while Vicky looks at their outlook and expression, and the way horses feel,” explains Andrew. “We meet in the middle. I know what Vicky will like riding and what she won’t, so I have to be slightly more forgiving of the conformation of those I know she will like.”

    Vicky says: “Good horses are hard to find; you can’t just write them off if they aren’t perfectly straight-moving.”

    “No horse is perfect,” adds Andrew, “and people go through fads as to what they will accept and what they won’t consider.”

    Emilia John's Powell with Kogola (Bay mare) at GHF Equestrian yard at Great House Farm near Usk in Monmouthshire in Wales on the 10th January 2021

    Andrew has a thorough knowledge and understanding of sport horse pedigrees, and an innate ability to know what a horse will be able to achieve – whether it might be a potential CCI5* winner, a junior or young rider medallist, a top-class amateur’s horse.

    He says: “We are very honest and try really hard to sell to the right people. I think the proof of that is that we have so many repeat customers. For example, when we had Dargun, we sold him [for Emily King to ride] as an under-21 medal prospect. Then he went and won the under-25 CCI4*-L at Bramham, and now Piggy French is riding him and will probably do another CCI5* with him.

    “It’s better that way round – as a nice surprise for people – than to overestimate what a horse could probably do. Over the years we have really learnt what suits people and what they want, and now people say to me in the lorry park, ‘Find me a horse, Andrew – you know what I like.’”

    Vicky says: “We went to see Dynasty, who has been to CCI5* with Hector Payne, and I said, ‘This is the horse for William Fox-Pitt.’ He had been interested in Dargun, but I said, ‘No, no he isn’t for you, but I’ll let you know when I have one for you.’

    “I didn’t say anything to William at the time as Dynasty was green and rough, but at West Wilts I was riding around on him and William commented on him, and I said, ‘I bought this horse for you!’ He didn’t believe me!

    “William started riding him, but Hector took over after William had his accident at Le Lion. Dynasty was one that was obviously a CCI5* horse from the word go.”

    Cola III, winner of two young rider medals with Bubby Upton and now competing at CCI4*-L, is another GHF Equestrian graduate, as is Tom McEwen’s 2019 British intermediate champion Dreamaway II; Cooley Showtime, third at Le Lion d’Angers with Jonelle Price and successful at CCI4* level with both Jonelle and husband Tim; and Mr Hiho, a junior medallist with Emily King, a CCI4*-S winner with Oliver Townend and now consistently placed at four-star with David Doel.

    Vicky Tuffs riding Kogola (Bay mare) at GHF Equestrian yard at Great House Farm near Usk in Monmouthshire in Wales on the 10th January 2021

    Vicky riding Kogola

    So where do Andrew and Vicky source their horses from?

    “I spend forever looking for them – there isn’t a shop,” says Andrew. “We’d be lucky if we had bought two horses from the same person over the years.”

    They have good contacts in the Netherlands and in Ireland.

    “We don’t generally buy them in the UK – we have just bought one from Devon, but that’s rare,” says Vicky. “In Ireland and the Netherlands you can go to one yard and look at a load of horses which have already been X-rayed. It is a way of life there. Brits look at it differently – look at their attitude to sales. Brits think sales are where horses are sent to be got rid of, whereas on the Continent and now in Ireland the best horses are sent to the sales.”

    Vicky does most of the riding, although they do have other riders at GHF Equestrian, such as Fred Powell, and Andrew does the majority of the finding, the marketing and the dealing with the clients.

    “We do most things together, but essentially her job is to produce them and mine to sell them,” says Andrew. “Over the past eight years, I have changed my training,” Vicky explains. “I have to be very disciplined with my riding; the horses must be very well-established in the basics, must go on the aids and must be rideable.

    “They are all well-behaved; they must stand still when the staff here get on them and must be hackable on the busy road that we are on. You see people at events being dictated to by their horses, and that is not how we want our horses to be. They are schooled properly and behave properly.”

    Two years ago Vicky started training with Caroline Moore, who has “changed her life.” “Caroline has given me more confidence and purpose to get on, get out there and do it; she has changed my outlook and my position, and the training that I now do prepares me much better for competition,” says Vicky. “We go above and beyond with our preparation.”

    Andrew says: “That’s probably why we are so good at what we do; we both have such a high level of attention to detail, in different ways. I’m hysterical about how they are turned out – if we go to an unaffiliated dressage show down the road with 12 horses, they are immaculate to the point that they look as though they are going to Badminton.”

    The pair have excelled in Britain’s young horse classes in recent years, winning the five-year-old final at Osberton in 2015 with Its Cooley and 2018 with Max McInerney, and the four-year-old class in 2019 with Kadans, as well as multiple placings in both.

    Heartbeat, winner at intermediate level in 2019 and third in the CCI2*-L at Hartpury in 2018, was selected for the world young horse championships at Le Lion d’Angers in 2019.

    “He was sold two weeks before, which was sad because we haven’t been to Le Lion and really want to go, but he went to America for a lot of money,” says Vicky. “Le Lion is a box I really want to tick, though.”

    Vicky admits she still has ambitions to ride at the top level again: “It is impossible for me to turn down the money for a horse, but I do always have one horse that Andrew can’t touch. I would like to ride at advanced again on the right horse.”

    Castle Howard Casanova might be that horse; a Womanizer eight-year-old who only started eventing last year but who was placed in all three of his intermediates. Vicky has an eye on Blenheim’s eight-and-nine-year-old CCI4*-S for him. And Sarah Lucas came on board as an owner with Vicky last year and part-owns two horses in the yard.

    “Sarah’s lovely and it is so nice to think about a future,” says Vicky. “But what I really strive to be is the best rider with the best hands, training the best horses. If I can do that while going up the levels, then…”

    Andrew says: “As you can imagine, it takes me a week or two to drop into conversation carefully that a horse is possibly sold. Vicky then wails, ‘I’m not selling it yet!’ but when she thinks about it logically, she knows it is right.

    “Sometimes we have differing views, but at the end of the day we want the same thing. We will never compromise on quality, we want to go to an event and for our horses to be the nicest ones there, and we try to do everything as professionally and as transparently as possible.”

    Ref: 18 February 2021

    You might also be interested in…