Waverley Stud: breeding quality over quantity *H&H Plus*

  • H&H’s Polly Bryan meets Waverley Stud’s Sara Longworth, and finds a shrewd breeder whose modest operation is punching above its weight...

    QUALIFYING a horse for the World Breeding Championships is a huge achievement for any breeder, let alone someone who only breeds a handful of horses per year. So it is especially impressive that not one but two of the British horses who appeared on the selection list last autumn carried the Waverley Stud prefix: Waverley Fellini, selected for the five-year-old championship, and Waverley Dante, reserve in the seven-year-old category.

    Of course, the championships themselves, scheduled for December 2020 in Verden, were cancelled due to the rapidly escalating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but this should not detract from the achievements of Waverley Stud and its savvy owner Sara Longworth, for whom this recognition capped a “phenomenal” year.

    It is the talented young Fürstenball x Sandro Hit son Fellini who has spearheaded the Warwickshire stud’s success over the past 12 months. He was crowned national novice champion under Greg Sims in August, before going on to win the national five-year-old championship as well as his Verden selection trial in October.

    Across the Channel, French Olympian Jessica Michel-Botton partnered Waverley Don Amour to three-year-old glory at the French breeding championships, while the likes of Fairchild, De Caprio, So Cliquot and Night Music have been catching the eye on the British circuit.

    But it was the Dimaggio son Dante who put Waverley on the map back in 2017, when he and Greg won the national four-year-old title at Stoneleigh. Greg, who bought the gelding from Sara as a foal, admits the win came as a surprise, with the diminutive Dante rising above many big names. But the pair have continued to prosper. The now eight-year-old Dante is on the brink of prix st georges, and has only scored below 70% five times in his entire career to date.

    10 years of breeding

    THE achievements of Waverley horses in 2020 aptly mark the 10-year anniversary of Sara’s first foray into breeding – while still working in the high-flying corporate career that had dominated her life to that point.

    “I grew up in Cheshire surrounded by horses. My godfather bred racehorses and I did a lot of Pony Club, Prince Philip Cup games and hunting. But I went straight from Oxford University into international banking,” says Sara, who went on to work in New York, Chicago and Silicon Valley.

    “I was in San Francisco during the dotcom boom and the internet start-up phase and it was a really exciting time. But I remember telling my husband that I wouldn’t feel fully successful until I had a horse in my life again. We moved back to the UK in 2003, and I bought a couple of horses for me to ride, before realising I was fascinated by breeding – maybe because of my godfather. I wanted to own a horse from the very beginning, to know everything that happened to it. You see so many quirky horses and I always wondered what experiences had contributed to that.”

    Although she bought a potential eventer, it was dressage that piqued Sara’s interest, both in terms of breeding and her own riding.

    “I started subscribing to H&H when we arrived back in the UK and I was always drawn to the dressage pages. Those were the stories I loved the most. I find dressage so interesting. It is highly technical and I am detail orientated.”

    Sara’s first foal, Sundance, arrived in 2010, and from that moment she was hooked. With husband Howard and daughter Henrietta, Sara bought Waverley Farm, near Kenilworth, Warwickshire, and acquired two more mares under the guidance of the late Tony Pidgley.

    “I always wanted to buy the best mares I could, and to keep the whole thing small – quality not quantity is my mantra,” explains Sara. “I know I cannot achieve the right level of detail or focus if I have too many horses. As a result, I know each of my mares inside out, and their babies, too.”

    Third generation from six broodmares

    NOW, Sara has six broodmares – four Oldenburg, two Hanoverian – and is breeding the third generation from them. Among these are her foundation mares, both Oldenburg: Lady Sunshine by Sandro Hit out of the De Niro mare Lady Diva – “I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites but she is mine” – and Lady Sun, also Sandro Hit x De Niro but out of Lady’s Nice.

    “I feel strongly about buying the best mare you can afford; she doesn’t have to be famous,” says Sara, earnestly. “I always look at the progeny through the generations and what they have done. I’d rather buy a mare who has a lot of family out competing, rather than a mare who may be the full sister of a famous stallion, but without any progeny competing.

    “It’s also important for them to have the right temperament and conformation for breeding, with as few faults as possible. Carrying a foal is hard work, so broodmares have to be sound and fit. Mine are not ridden but they go on the walker and are kept fit. They all look incredible, like riding horses, not broodmares.”

    The “phenomenal” Waverley Fairchild as a foal. Sara regards the Fürstenball son, now five, as the best she has bred so far.

    Sara has opted not to stand stallions at Waverley, and does not intend this to change.

    “Some people question whether you can call yourself a stud without a licensed stallion, but I don’t agree,” she says firmly. “I want to breed top-notch competition horses. I think Fellini and Fairchild would have licensed but keeping stallions is not my focus. It’s a different game and I think it would be a huge financial risk.”

    So, how does Sara go about choosing the best stallion to complement her mares? Knowing them as well as she does is half the battle, but with so many stallions available nowadays thanks to artificial insemination, the options are almost endless.

    “Temperament and longevity are hugely important to me and I feel you can’t really gauge that until a stallion is in work and competing, so I don’t usually take a punt on young stallions,” she explains. “I tend to go for established, competing stallions who have proven inheritable traits. It’s another reason to stick to a small mare pool, too, as it means I can match more reliably.”

    There have been a few exceptions, though.

    “I used Morricone in the first year he bred. I saw him and thought, ‘Wow, he is just outstanding’. I also used Kjento last year as I think he is incredible. I’ve actually been leaning towards Dutch breeding recently. This year all the stallions I have used are Dutch.”

    Realising a dream: life on Waverley Farm

    “WE came to see the farm because I love the Waverley Novels by Walter Scott,” laughs Sara. “We have a traditional stable yard we call the ‘boys’ yard’ and more open, barn-style stabling for the mares. It’s beautiful and idyllic, but hard work. I’m so lucky that everyone is involved in helping me realise my dream.”

    Sara’s husband, Howard, is not horsey, but hugely supportive.

    “He thinks dressage is like watching paint dry but he loves the horses – he sings to them,” says Sara, whose daughter Henrietta, now 18 and off to university, does not ride anymore but helps with foaling and “knows all the breeding lines”.

    Charlotte Smith (pictured with Waverley Lady Bordeaux) is Sara’s head girl, who came to Waverley from Redwings in 2010.

    “She is the most loyal, dedicated person and is detail orientated like me; she spots anything,” says Sara. “Charlotte does a lot of the work with the foals, especially after they’re weaned, when they’re feeling at their most insecure. Because we have so few, it means we can keep on top of them and give them all the attention they need.”

    Farrier Mitch Norton and vet Mat Fernandez – “he has inseminated all our mares for years so he has made the vast majority of our horses” – complete the core team that keeps the Waverley cogs turning.

    A retirement career

    WHILE Sara’s savviness and love for breeding have helped her succeed in what she terms her “retirement career” – she finally closed the door on her corporate life in 2014 – she has been both fortunate and considered in the people she has around her. Integral to Waverley Stud and its success has been Greg Sims, former young horse rider for the Eilberg family, whom Sara describes as “an amazing horseman”.

    Greg’s partnership with Waverley came about almost by accident.

    “I met Geri Eilberg after Lynne Crowden invited me to the World Breeding Championships the year Woodlander Farouche won her second title with Michael [Eilberg]. I have always thought the world of Ferdi Eilberg as a horseman, and it was the Eilbergs who suggested their rider at the time, Greg, came to view my horses when he was looking for his own,” says Sara.

    “Greg and Michael visited several studs, and they chose Dante – I was thrilled. Greg then offered to help with some of my other young horses, and would come over to help with the backing and riding after he finished for the day at the Eilbergs.

    “When Greg and his partner Stena [Hoerner] decided to set up on their own, he was my go-to choice to ride more of my horses.”

    Greg Sims riding Waverley Fellini.

    Greg Sims riding his own Waverley Fellini.

    Greg’s gentle approach to training has helped shape Sara’s attitudes towards working with youngsters.

    “I learned through Greg that young horses don’t need to be ridden every day,” she said. “Greg couldn’t ride them more than a couple of times a week but they made huge progress. You don’t need to hammer them into the ground.”

    In addition to Dante and Fellini, both of whom he owns, Greg also rides two Waverley five-year-olds: De Caprio, by De Niro x San Amour, and Fairchild, the Fürstenball x Sandro Hit son Sara regards as the best horse she has bred, and one of the few she is reluctant to sell.

    “He is a full brother to Fellini but a bigger mover and even more elastic. I think he is just phenomenal,” she enthuses.

    Greg agrees: “Fairchild loves to work and, when he has grown into himself a bit more, he has the potential for very high marks.”

    Aztec, another five-year-old by Apache out of Sara’s Desperados FRH mare Dalloway, is due to make his competition debut this year with Mandy Day, and will be one to watch, as is his half brother Valentino. This four-year-old Vivaldi son, currently in training with Greg, is owned by American grand prix rider and long-time supporter of the stud Louisa-Marcelle Eadie, who has three more Waverley horses competing in the USA.

    “It takes so long for horses to come through to compete, but doing well in the arena is the best advert for Waverley,” says Sara, who sells the majority of her horses as foals. “The ultimate test of a horse is its rideability. We all love to see beautiful horses with wonderful movement, but that’s no use if it can’t be delivered submissively under saddle in test conditions.”

    Waverley Stud was born out of Sara’s palpable passion for breeding, a commitment to producing quality over quantity, and her quiet ambition to breed an Olympic horse without compromising this vision. For a small stud, Waverley certainly packs a punch, and there is no reason why Sara will not one day achieve her dream.

    Also published in H&H magazine, on sale 18 March 2021

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