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At home with native pony breeders Julian Walters and David Hodge *H&H Plus*


  • The duo on a mission to breed “proper”, true-to-type natives for the ridden market talk to Rebecca Haywood about their greatest achievements and plans for the future

    A FARMING couple with a passion for promoting the versatility of the British native breeds have not let the global pandemic stand in the way of their ever-growing breeding mission. Despite last year’s showing plans being scuppered by Covid, Julian Walters and David Hodge have carried on at home with as much determination as ever.

    Their breeding programme, which began with the Shetland pony, continues to evolve and the pair have recently turned their focus to the Dartmoor and Exmoor breeds, too. The sheep and cattle farmers, who are panel judges on both the Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society and the Dartmoor Pony Society, can look back on pre-Covid years with a huge sense of pride.

    Not only have Julian and David achieved some enviable successes in the ring – including three Olympia best of breed titles and two wins of the Kellythorpe Stud Shetland sire of the year award with one of their top sires, Newbarn Piran – but they made history in 2016 when their Shetland mare, Sharptor Trinity, became the first of her breed in 30 years to contest the Cuddy in-hand final. Trinity took the reserve spot in the pony section of the final at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) in 2016 and 2017, having also finished second at the Birmingham venue under saddle as a lead-rein in 2013.

    “The Cuddy is the ultimate for breeders and it became our obsession,” admits Julian. “We were determined to qualify a Shetland and we travelled miles and miles, and did years of county shows. To qualify at Pembrokeshire County Show that first time was the greatest achievement for us, showing that if you work hard enough, you reap your rewards.”

    Other ponies propelling the stud into the limelight include Sharptor Bellisima, who won the first ridden final at the Royal International (RIHS) in 2016 and finished second in the open small breeds class at HOYS the year before. In 2019, David and Julian landed three breed accolades at the National Pony Society (NPS) summer championship show, with Sharptor Kittiwake also winning the NPS silver medal final. Kittiwake is a daughter of Schivas Kirsty, who won the NPS gold medal in 2012.

    THE couple’s home is a 1,500-acre farm in the Dartmoor National Park, near Yes Tor, the second highest point on Dartmoor. The yard stands at 1,400 feet.

    “Our ground actually runs higher than that,” says Julian, who met David in 1998. The pair were involved in livestock showing and met through mutual friends. David is the seventh generation to take over the family farm and it was his father, John, who started the Shetland pony stud, breeding under the Halstock prefix.

    “I had already established the Shetlands when I met Julian; my father registered the first one in 1967,” says David, who started to source fresh bloodlines and stallions in the 1990s, many of which were miniature Shetlands. “In the year 2000, we did our first show and came home with a champion and reserve. This first outing kickstarted a new love of showing ponies.”

    The couple continue to farm pedigree Belted Galloway cattle and pedigree sheep, including Valais Blacknose.

    “When you start breeding, you’re constantly looking for ways to make the next generation better than the last,” says Julian, who notes that they regularly travel the country visiting Shetland studs to develop their breeding programme. “We search for both pedigrees we like and breed type. We try out different breeding lines, too. We particularly favour the Southley bloodlines, which are put across some of the established black Shetland lines. This blood has clicked for us.”

    Julian is quick to credit Bob and Dorothy Griffiths – breeders of their prolific stallion Ladbury Rembrant – who gave them the opportunity to acquire more good bloodstock.

    “Rembrant is the sire of Sharptor Trinity and Sharptor Armani, as well as numerous other county show winners,” says Julian, who explained they found late chestnut stallion Newbarn Piran at a stud in Shetland. Piran originates from Southley bloodlines and is the sire of Sharptor Bellisima and Sharptor Silver Skyline, two ponies who qualified for the 2019 HOYS mountain and moorland lead-rein final.

    “We discovered some exceptional mares at the Schivas stud,” says David. “Some of these have been successful in the show ring, but have also bred exceptional offspring for us.”
    Adds Julian: “What makes the UK unique is the variety of ponies. We love to promote the versatility of the breeds, especially the Shetland – their pedigrees go back to one of the oldest UK studbooks.”

    JULIAN and David started to dip their toes into Dartmoor breeding in 2011 with their first Dartmoor foal, Blackertor Moorcroft, being registered in 2014.

    “When we ventured into Dartmoors, we were fortunate to find some super ponies,” says David. “We didn’t realise how small the gene pool is. We brought a stallion over from Switzerland; he had old British lines that had been lost here.”

    Julian – who has taken the in-hand championship at the Dartmoor breed show three times with three different ponies – adds: “The sire who has been the most instrumental here is Shilstone Rocks Rain Man; we bought him as a foal from Elizabeth Newbolt-Young and had great success with him right from the beginning. He’s been supreme champion at the breed show and has been champion at four Dartmoor society star shows.”

    The Exmoor is still relatively new to David and Julian. Their interest was sparked when David saw Blackthorn Poldark for sale as a foal on social media. Now aged five, Poldark will be out under saddle this term after a strong in-hand career.

    “We’ve had to source some wives for Poldark; one notable mare is Bluebarn Nancy who won the Exmoor championship for us at the NPS championships in 2019,” says David.

    The stud set-up consists of a combination of old stone buildings that have been adapted to stables, mainly for the stallions, and two American barns with internal stabling, for the mares and youngstock. David and Julian breed around 45 foals a year. They are a combination of all three breeds, but the majority is made up of standard Shetlands.

    “Our grazing is suited to native ponies, especially the small breeds, as the land is not the best quality,” says Julian. “Our ponies run in small herds all year, aside from covering time. We’re lucky we never have any ponies suffer from laminitis. The fact they have quite large expanses of land to move on is the reason why they have such free movement, too.”

    DAVID and Julian are helped by full-time groom, Stacey Palmer, who has been with them for 15 years. There are two part-time grooms, Conlaed Hooper and Ruby Collyer. The ridden ponies are in production with Jessica Talbot in Somerset.

    “Due to the height of the farm, we produce our show team indoors for the early county shows,” says Julian. “We bring our show prospects in around January or February and start the feeding, rugging and grooming to get them ready for our first major show, which is usually Royal Windsor.

    “We rough the ponies off in the winter; we believe in stripping them back then starting afresh in the new year. We aim to apply fresh condition by recommencing feeding in the new year for a topline. We are pretty old-school; we make our own mix from straights. Last year, due to the pandemic, we ended up turning the show ponies back out in April,” adds Julian.

    “This was really heartbreaking after putting so much effort into them,” says David, who admits they are behind this year due to the uncertainty surrounding the competition season. “It was hard not to have the shows last year and not see everyone, but it was great to be able to catch up with things on the farm.”

    Adds Julian: “It’s been an amazing year for pony sales, too, so it’ll be interesting to see if the trade stays as buoyant this year.”

    Sharptor Trinity – Shetland Champion

    With hopes that we will get some form of showing term in 2021, David and Julian are looking forward to watching ponies they’ve bred out both in-hand and under saddle.

    “We love being involved with these ponies in the show ring,” enthuses Julian. “Our main aim in life is to breed a pony that oozes breed type and quality but can ultimately perform and succeed under saddle.”

    Four to watch

    SHARPTOR TRICOLORE

    Six-year-old bay Shetland stallion
    Sire: Sharptor Laser Red
    Dam: Sharptor Trinity
    Julian says: “Tricolore is being produced by Jessica Talbot under saddle this year. He has the movement of his mother and is a very exciting prospect.”

    BLACKERTOR MAGNETO

    Seven-year-old black Shetland stallion
    Sire: Clivocast Napolean
    Dam: Bayview Maggie May
    David says: “He had great success in 2018 and his foals from last year are making impressive yearlings. He is the one we have high hopes for.”

    BLACKERTOR MERCURY

    Three-year-old bay Dartmoor colt
    Sire: Shilstone Rocks Rain Man
    Dam: Newoak Myth
    David says: “He was champion foal at the breed show in 2018 and we hope he’ll follow in his sire’s footsteps.”

    SHARPTOR DIVINE

    Nine-year-old black Shetland mare
    Sire: Sharptor Predator
    Dam: Danethorpe Delia
    Julian says: “Divine is the broodmare who has been waiting in the wings. She was shown successfully as a junior and was due to come out last year.”

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (8 April, 2021)

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