Becky Murray investigates the health of breeding in Scotland, and finds there is much to be excited about
While Scotland is known for its beautiful landscapes and as the home of golf and, of course, the Shetland pony, should we be adding sport horse breeding hotspot to its accolades? With several studs having grown from small family farms in the heart of Scotland to breeders of top international horses, it seems the country has made a significant mark on the breeding map.
Nestled in Aberdeenshire on the north-east coast is Caroline and Gordon Ironside’s Moray Firth Stud (MFS), breeders of eventers, showjumpers and dressage horses. Caroline says they launched the stud, which was established in 1996, as “hobby breeders”.
“We had just a couple of horses back in the day, and — knowing what I do now — the quality we had then was really riding club types,” says Caroline. “In 1999 we went to the VDL Stud in the Netherlands and looked at more than 300 colts. We picked one and they told us to take care of him as he was going to be a good one.”
It was that KWPN colt, MFS Royal Geneve (Silvio II x Ahorn Z), who became the foundation of the stud’s breeding programme. The stallion achieved grading with the British Bavarian and Scottish Sport Horse studbooks, showing a promising future in dressage with rider Jo Barry, but sadly died in 2006 following colic surgery.
Over time Caroline grew the stud, seeking quality mares in the likes of Elegan-Zitchy (Jazz x Ferro), Willisa Rosa (Emillion x Damiro B) and full sister to KWPN stallion Vivaldi, Chirana-Utopia (Krack C x Jazz). As Caroline retained fillies along the way, the stud has an established herd of 18 mares, alongside Hanoverian stallion MFS Don Aqui by Don Bosco x Gardeulan II, and Holstein stallion MFS Cayden HH by Contender x Caretino.
“We’re at the stage of breeding and keeping our own young mares because they are, we hope, of good enough quality,” says Caroline.
“Every year I have the Oldenburg studbook evaluate our foals, and this year we had a 100% strike rate. It’s nice to get an independent view on what you’re breeding from the judges in Germany because they’re assessing your foals with the same high standards that they’re looking at there.
“People have asked why we don’t go with British studbooks but we have used British Hanoverian and the Anglo-European studbook; we do things based on what the client wants — and some will want a Dutch or Oldenburg passport.”
The farm spans 70 acres of good-quality ground, allowing the stud to grow its own haylage.
“We have lots of arable farmers based here because the ground is so good,” says Caroline. “We analyse what we grow and use local feed firms to make up feed to complement that, so we know our mares and youngsters are getting the right nutrients.”
This careful production and nurturing has served MFS well as they count US grand prix dressage rider Katherine Bateson Chandler among their clients, as well as returning customers including Al Asayl Showjumping from the United Arab Emirates.
“I think Scotland is being taken more seriously for breeding; there are some really good studs here producing high quality, and clients come back because of that.”
Caroline says the success has been a dream come true. With horses such as W Diva Rosa MFS making her mark in World Cup qualifiers, representing Sweden in the Nations Cup and being crowned the British Hanoverian showjumping horse of the year 2019 at the British Horse Foundation Awards, the goal is to see one of their own at the Olympics — but she adds finding the right rider is just as important.
“You can breed the next Valegro, but if you don’t get Charlotte Dujardin to ride it then that horse could be a happy hacker or do riding club. It’s down to the riders and getting horses into those homes,” says Caroline.
Finding the right rider
Mary Turnbull, who established Ashton Stud in Fife with husband John in 1989 at the third-generation 120-acre family farm, agrees finding the right rider is part of the success.
The stud counts showjumpers Hello Whisky Mac IV, Uptown Girl and former advanced eventer Argosy among their top achievements. But there is no overlooking the 2014 world number one mare Ursula XII who, after being produced by Mary’s son Mark, was campaigned by Tina Fletcher before Scott Brash took on the ride in 2012 for owners Lady Harris and Lady Kirkham.
“I knew Ursula was going to be special,” says Mary. “But she had Scott, so that helped.
“Some people do think we’re very far away in Scotland, and have thought if it’s bred here, ‘Can it be that good?’ We’ve built up a reputation now but we do need to have horses out competing to show what they can do.”
Mary says Mark and daughter Katie are key to producing their youngstock up the ranks. With that in mind, and with no staff, the stud breeds five to six foals every year.
“We never had a lot of horses; we looked at the mares and improved them over time,” she says. “Our growth is down to the research we’ve put in; all our broodmares are broken to ride and we get a feel of what they’re like. It is hard work; we’re handling the foals, backing them, taking them out — it’s a long process. Ursula was 10 years in the making.”
With Katie favouring dressage, and campaigning Ashton Solitair at advanced medium, one of the six foals expected this year is by the dressage stallion Fidertanz.
“We get some nice movers but Mark usually snaffles them up for showjumping,” Mary laughs. “We have some young horses in the pipeline who we are excited about but I don’t want to jinx them!”
A one-way ticket
New Zealander Reay Campbell, who booked a one-way ticket and settled in Scotland, launched Caledonia Dressage Horses 20 years ago. Tucked away in Bonar Bridge, an hour north of Inverness, the stud sits on her husband Pete’s family farm.
“Where we’re based is not the ideal place you would think to breed horses, but that’s where we live and I thought, ‘That’s where I’m going to do it,’” says Reay. “It has lots of advantages, it’s very good free draining land with shelter — the horses do very well here.”
The stud began breeding two foals a year, with a mixture of showjumping and dressage bloodlines, but Reay says she found dressage foals “more interesting”, and success came early by way of Don Caledonia, currently competing at inter II with Hannah Biggs.
“Of the first foals we bred we kept the only filly, and then her first foal was by Don Schufro — that was Don Caledonia. I spotted Don Schufro early in his career and we’ve used him a lot in our programme,” says Reay.
“It’s been challenging to find mares of top quality but I’m very proud of our collection. One of them, U-Dancing Caledonia, is by Uthopia, out of Valegro’s full sister Weidyfleur II. I also have Loretta Live, who is the half-sister of Diamond Hit and Sandro Hit.”
Despite early success, Reay says it was a visit from a famous face in 2015 that made her realise she was really on to something.
“Olympic trainer Conrad Schumacher visited and was hugely complimentary — he was pivotal to me thinking I can do this,” she says.
Reay explains that although Caledonia Dressage is geographically isolated in the Highlands, distance hasn’t put buyers off making the journey to Scotland.
“The biggest challenge was marketing, because we are so far out of the mainstream and don’t have the opportunity to take foals to shows. However, as the stud gained reputation, that became less of an issue,” says Reay.
“We export around 50% to Europe and the majority do come and meet the foals here. People think we must be difficult to visit but you can fly to Inverness and then buyers usually stay with us. It helps them get a feeling for what the Scottish Highlands and our horses are about.”
Stallions at stud in Scotland
- Moray Firth Stud: MFS Don Aqui (Don Bosco x Gardeulan II)
- Romanno Stud: L’Espoir (Lord Loxley x Warkant)
- Ladykirk Equitation and Stud: AC Activate (Cornet Obolensky x Grandilot)
- Balcormo Stud: Jumped Up Z (Jos Van D’Abdijhoeve x Voltaire)
- Hollrock Sport Horses: Jannan S (Kannan x Numero Uno)
- Milnfield Park Stud: Shamazing (Serano Gold x Omni Star)￼ MFS Don Junior: the 10-year-old by MFS Don Aqui is competing at 1.45m in the United Arab Emirates.
- Ashton Dakota: the Turnbulls’ 12-year-old by Lupicor is campaigning 1.40m in the UK.
- Graffite: eventer Eilidh Costelloe’s home-bred seven-year-old by Grafenstolz is aiming to step up to three-star this season.
- EV Amore Mia: Lindsay Moffat’s home-bred eight-year-old by Amour G is doing medium dressage with new rider Claire Moore.
- Happy Talk: the Balcormo Stud-bred eight-year-old by Talan was sold to Australia as a showjumping World Cup prospect.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020