Hail to the Mares

Great Bri­tain’s Emma Blun­dell, of Mount St. John, reaps the re­wards of a mod­ern ap­proach to sport-horse breed­ing.

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Emma Blun­dell of Mount St. John Eques­trian reaps the re­wards of a mod­ern ap­proach to sporthorse breed­ing.

From a na­tion steeped in tra­di­tion, in a busi­ness con­fined by cen­turies of rules, Bri­tish dres­sage horse breeder Emma Blun­dell stands proudly with one foot in the present and the other in the fu­ture. She en­vi­sions a day when mares best stal­lions in high-per­for­mance ca­reers over most of their life­time and rise to the Olympic podium, at the same time pass­ing along Europe’s best genes, the very ones that made them stars in the arena.

Mount St. John Eques­trian de­fies com­mon prac­tices. The mares on the 1,500-acre Blun­dell fam­ily farm, in lush North York­shire, Eng­land, are des­tined to be com­pet­i­tive dres­sage horses, aim­ing at the top of the sport world­wide. And thanks to the most ad­vanced breed­ing tech­nol­ogy, these mares at the same time prove their worth as the foun­da­tion for the sport through their off­spring. Fur­ther, only the fil­lies born at the farm are kept. Colts are sold. It’s all about the girls.

Mount St. John Eques­trian raises more than 100 horses, breed­ing 25 per year, at what was once an 11th cen­tury pre­cep­tory of the Or­der of St. John of Jerusalem. Five cen­turies later the head­quar­ters of

the monas­tic knights was re­built into a manor house. The near­est vil­lage is Felixkirk, known for its 11th-cen­tury church and clas­sic inn and pub. The Blun­dell fam­ily pur­chased the property in 2000 and have beau­ti­fully mixed the old with the new, in­clud­ing state-of-theart horse­keep­ing and up-to-the-mo­ment tech­nol­ogy for breed­ing. This com­bi­na­tion is the re­sult of a well-stud­ied plan.

About Emma Blun­dell

A York­shire gal all her 31 years, Blun­dell bucked the trend of her non-horse­ori­ented fam­ily by fall­ing in love with horses. Lessons started at 7 and led to the pur­chase of her own pony. At 10 she started com­pet­ing and con­tin­ued on for 15 years, some­times show­ing as many as 10 dif­fer­ent horses in a sea­son. Dres­sage in­trigued her and led to lessons with John Las­set­ter at Good­wood in Sus­sex. As she pro­gressed, her fam­ily pur­chased a po­ten­tial Un­der-25 Grand Prix horse, FBW Déjà Vu (daCaprio x Gluck­spitz).

As life with horses of­ten goes, the mare sus­tained a sus­pen­sory in­jury. Not one to let the grass grow un­der her feet, Blun­dell tried em­bryo trans­fer with the mare, pro­duc­ing a filly, Front Row. Déjà Vu not only pro­duced sev­eral foals for Blun­dell, but also con­firmed the di­rec­tion of her fu­ture as a breeder.

Now in her fourth year of busi­ness, Blun­dell over­sees all as­pects of the breed­ing and com­pe­ti­tion man­age­ment, in­clud­ing the se­lec­tion of stal­lions to com­ple­ment the ge­netic makeup of her em­bryo-pro­duc­ing mares.

Her busi­ness part­ner, horse-trans­port ex­pert, book­keeper, for­mer physio and mother, Jill Blun­dell, fo­cuses on the foals at the farm, where they also grow straw and silage for the cat­tle. Ten full-time em­ploy­ees in­clude Sarah Cook­son, breed man­ager; Aus­tralian Jay­den Brown, res­i­dent head rider and trainer; Lucinda El­liot, res­i­dent rider; and Richard Wright, young-stock man­ager. The horses are also rid­den, and the rid­ers are trained by Bri­tish rider

Emile Fau­rie.

To find stal­lions wor­thy of her girls, Blun­dell seeks the best from any and all sport-horse breeds, ig­nor­ing the com­mon ap­proach of choos­ing in ac­cord with one sin­gle breed registry.

In­stead, this Brit reg­u­larly crosses the Chan­nel to at­tend Europe’s in­spec­tions and cham­pi­onships so she can per­son­ally eval­u­ate the right stal­lion for the res­i­dents of her mares-only breed­ing pro­gram.

About Em­bryo Trans­fer

Em­bryo trans­fer is not new sci­ence, with the first foal born as a re­sult in 1974. In the 1990s the tech­nol­ogy gained com­mer­cial value in South Amer­ica with the pro­duc­tion of polo ponies.

To carry out em­bryo trans­fer, the donor mare is in­sem­i­nated with fresh, chilled or frozen se­men of the stal­lion around the same time of ovu­la­tion to cre­ate an em­bryo as with any usual in­sem­i­na­tion. At 6 to 8 days old, the em­bryo is flushed out of the donor mare’s uterus, with­out surgery, and placed in a suit­able sur­ro­gate or re­cip­i­ent mare, who then car­ries the preg­nancy to full term. This al­lows the donor mare to con­tinue her com­pe­ti­tion sched­ule and/or to undergo fur­ther in­sem­i­na­tions for mul­ti­ple em­bryos, per­haps by dif­fer­ent stal­lions.

How it All Be­gan

This breed­ing busi­ness ad­ven­ture started with Blun­dell’s prom­ise to her non­horse fam­ily that af­ter tak­ing a year to travel and visit horse ranches, she would at­tend univer­sity to com­plete her stud­ies. For that year, the 18-yearold steeped her­self deeper and deeper into horse breed­ing. First she worked for four months at a stal­lion sta­tion in Golega, Por­tu­gal. She then trav­eled for a few months in Aus­tralia and set down to work for Aus­tralian elite rid­ers Heath and Rozzie Ryan who run the coun­try’s largest dres­sage breed­ing pro­gram, pro­duc­ing around 100 foals a year.

“When I was there, Rozzie’s horse was short-listed for the Lon­don Olympics and they were just start­ing the mare’s first em­bryo-trans­fer filly un­der sad­dle. This showed me the pos­si­bil­i­ties

of em­bryo trans­fer.”

Blun­dell then du­ti­fully took her place at Manch­ester Univer­sity to earn a three­year un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in busi­ness stud­ies. Her dis­ser­ta­tion in her fi­nal year fo­cused on all as­pects of equine re­pro­duc­tion, from nat­u­ral cover to frozen se­men to ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion to em­bryo trans­fer. And, as a prom­ise to her su­per­vi­sor, Dr. Paul Dewick, she in­cluded in­for­ma­tion about cloning, as “ul­ti­mately as far as you can go in tech­nol­ogy and as far away from na­ture.” She an­a­lyzed how the tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions have changed the horse in­dus­try and im­pacted sport horses. “I got to meet so many in­ter­est­ing peo­ple. I just loved it.”

Yet af­ter fin­ish­ing, Blun­dell just wanted to go home and ride. Dewick, how­ever, had a dif­fer­ent idea. He per­suaded her to write a busi­ness plan and ap­ply for Manch­ester’s pi­lot mas­ter’s pro­gram in en­trepreneur­ship. She was ac­cepted with a full schol­ar­ship and filled one of only 10 avail­able spots.

The pro­gram was com­pletely fit­ting for Blun­dell’s per­son­al­ity, which seeks a sys­tem­atic and an­a­lyt­i­cal ap­proach to solv­ing most is­sues and prob­lems. As the in­struc­tors were not horsepeo­ple, “you couldn’t just say you’re go­ing to breed this horse be­cause it’s nice. You had to jus­tify ev­ery­thing, cal­cu­late the num­bers and demon­strate how it will work on dif­fer­ent scales,” Blun­dell said.

That mas­ter’s pro­gram helped her to ar­rive at the con­clu­sion that the mare is the more im­por­tant part of the breed­ing equa­tion. While many breed­ers are aware of the mare’s in­flu­ence and mark on the re­sult­ing off­spring, the pro­mo­tion of stal­lions through their con­tin­u­ing com­pet­i­tive ca­reers makes it ap­pear that they have greater im­por­tance than the mares.

“If you used breed­ing tech­nol­ogy, such as em­bryo trans­fer, those mares could pro­duce off­spring and go in sport and pro­mote them­selves like the stal­lions do,” Blun­dell ex­plained. “When you have a win­ner at the stal­lion shows, ev­ery­one wants to breed to that stal­lion. Be­fore em­bryo trans­fer, the mares hadn’t been given that chance. Now they can com­pete in the young-horse cham­pi­onships and beat the fa­mous stal­lions. With mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, we also don’t have to wait un­til the mares are re­ally old and re­tired and less fer­tile and able to have fewer foals.”

Part­ner­ing with the Best

Though ac­tively breed­ing for only five years, she has sold horses to dres­sage no­ta­bles, in­clud­ing Ger­man breeder and PSI Auc­tion or­ga­nizer Paul Schock­emöhle, Dan­ish breeder Lone Boegh Hen­rick­sen, U.S. Grand Prix rider Kim McGrath, mem­ber of the 2014 Bri­tish World Eques­trian Games sil­ver-medal dres­sage team Michael Eil­berg and Olympians Jes­sica Michel, Hilda Gur­ney and fel­low coun­try-woman Charlotte Du­jardin.

Iron­i­cally, when Blun­dell was 10 and Du­jardin 11, the two com­peted against each other in show-horse classes. Since then, their re­la­tion­ship has evolved. “She re­spects me enough as a breeder to have bought three of our off­spring,” Blun­dell said. “She com­petes our horse Freestyle [the first foal Blun­dell bought from the Ver­den Elite Auc­tion]. It’s nice. We trust each other and it goes back a long way.”

In 2016 Du­jardin rode Mount St. John Freestyle in the Bri­tish Dres­sage Cham­pi­onships to win the Ad­vanced Medium Cham­pi­onship with 78.82 per­cent and was Prix St. Ge­orges Re­serve Cham­pion with 74.53 per­cent. The mare also scored 76.58 per­cent at Prix St. Ge­orges at the Hart­pury Fes­ti­val of Dres­sage Premier League. Three of Freestyle’s em­bryo-trans­fer off­spring were also started un­der sad­dle this year.

Two other mares in train­ing with Du­jardin are Mount St. John VIP, a 6-yearold Vi­valdi mare Blun­dell pur­chased as a foal, out of Maradonna, Fursten­ball’s mother, and Mount St. John Kom Fairy­tale, an 11-year-old Fin­nish Warm­blood (Fuerst Hen­rich x Welt­meyer).

Fur­ther in this mix, Blun­dell had leased to breed Vale­gro’s full sis­ter, Wei­dyfleur II, dur­ing the 2015 breed­ing. “The foal was born in 2016. We were hop­ing for a filly, but got a colt who we sold to Ingo Pape in Ger­many,” she said.

Blun­dell’s own per­sonal horse, Key­stone Diaz (DiMag­gio x Galant x Wen­depundt) has, at 15 years old, had six off­spring and com­peted to In­ter­me­di­aire II. “I bought her out of Horse and Hound mag­a­zine. I wanted to com­pete af­ter I fin­ished my stud­ies. We trained up from M level. Un­for­tu­nately, the week be­fore our first Grand Prix, she had an in­jury. But she’s get­ting back on track.”

The Breed­ing Strat­egy

In de­ter­min­ing her breed­ing stock, Blun­dell boldly chooses warm­blood mares and stal­lions from a mix­ture of breeds; Dutch horses are not just bred to Dutch horses and Hanove­ri­ans are not just bred to Hanove­ri­ans.

Com­ing from a non-horse fam­ily in a coun­try not known for breed­ing dres­sage horses, Blun­dell ar­rived with fewer pre­con­ceived no­tions than many oth­ers in the in­dus­try. “I was lucky that I was free to do as I wanted. When I spoke to the older breed­ers, they wouldn’t dream of us­ing any mare or stal­lion out­side their breed. So they have a very re­stricted gene pool com­pared to all the stal­lions in the world who are avail­able. Why keep choos­ing the same pool when there might be a bet­ter choice for your mare who is born in a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try or across the bor­der? Now all the stud books are mod­ern­iz­ing and open­ing. I feel very open to deal­ing with dif­fer­ent stud books. I don’t nar­row my mind­set to one way of think­ing. I’m just look­ing at the in­di­vid­ual.”

Ever a stu­dent, ever thirst­ing to learn more, Blun­dell reached out to many re­sources, asked mil­lions of ques­tions and lis­tened. She sat for hours at the auc­tions and li­cens­ing in Ger­many, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by agent Si­mon Kohlen­bren­ner from whom she bought her first dres­sage horse, FBW Déjà Vu. “I’d fly over prob­a­bly every other month and sit with him at var­i­ous events. He was very pa­tient with me.”

She took breed­ing cour­ses from the Dutch, Olden­burg and Hanove­rian or­ga­ni­za­tions. “I would be the an­noy­ing per­son sit­ting next to the judge, even lin­ger­ing af­ter with more ques­tions. Ev­ery­where I’ve gone in the world peo­ple are more than happy to an­swer ques­tions. I love learn­ing about it all, how it works, from breed­ing to rid­ing con­for­ma­tion to why some­body chooses that stal­lion or that mare.”

To­day, Blun­dell fre­quently trav­els

to Europe to see the stal­lions and their off­spring and sib­lings in young-horse classes, foal shows and auc­tions. She will pick a sport horse she likes and then re­search the fam­ily, find the own­ers or breed­ers and chat. “I might look at many off­spring of a stal­lion. If I like a li­censed stal­lion, I will look at his mother. Most of the horses I buy are not for sale.” With each mare she wants to breed she will an­a­lyze which two main traits she would im­prove and keeps them in mind when look­ing at stal­lions. A stal­lion may or may not have those im­proved traits, but those traits may be more dom­i­nant in the off­spring than in him, which is why it is im­por­tant not only to study stal­lions, but also their prog­eny.

She also trav­els to pro­mote Mount St. John, to sup­port Du­jardin at com­pe­ti­tions and events and to keep track of horses she’s sold. For as se­lec­tive as Blun­dell is about her match­mak­ing, she’s just as se­lec­tive about buy­ers. She has even turned down buy­ers she doesn’t feel are quite se­ri­ous enough.

Af­ter the horses leave her farm, she still makes a point to stay in­volved. “I’m quite a con­trol freak and keep in touch af­ter they’re gone to help with choos­ing stal­lions. I also get feed­back to eval­u­ate the off­spring at all ages. We stay in com­mu­ni­ca­tion via Face­book, calls, emails and vis­its when­ever I’m back in the area. The rid­ers and breed­ers send pic­tures and videos and up­dates when they have news. I love to fol­low their suc­cesses. The more you keep in touch with the rider, the more you find out. It’s bet­ter than if you go watch it at a show once in a while.”

This in­volve­ment and pre­ci­sion are re­flected in Blun­dell’s man­age­ment style at the Mount St. John op­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, one per­son is as­signed to each foal from the time of birth to life un­der sad­dle. “That per­son is the first per­son to put the hal­ter on, the first to lead the foal. This way, the foal has con­sis­tency through­out life. That per­son un­der­stands what the in­di­vid­ual foal needs. We try to be sure he or she is the health­i­est in­di­vid­ual and has no neg­a­tive in­flu­ences on be­hav­ior. He or she grows up as a con­fi­dent but re­spect­ful young horse, not ner­vous or afraid around peo­ple or sur­round­ings. Since the foal is not ner­vous, when it’s time for the back­ing, hav­ing a rider on is a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. There is no stress or drama.”

An Eye To­ward the Fu­ture

Blun­dell is in this busi­ness for the full ride. Her ul­ti­mate goal is se­ri­ous: to have horses bred by Mount St. John on a na­tion’s dres­sage team, par­tic­u­larly on the Bri­tish team, and com­pet­ing in both young-horse and se­nior cham­pi­onships. “I’m com­mit­ted to find­ing the right rid­ers in each coun­try that are at the top of the game or are the rid­ers of the fu­ture, and to pair them ide­ally with a foal. I think the re­la­tion­ship they have with a young horse all the way through is un­beat­able.”

Three good gaits and cor­rect con­for­ma­tion are com­mon goals for most breed­ers. How­ever, as one who breeds for the top of the sport, Blun­dell be­lieves the horse also needs the men­tal ca­pac­ity to go be­fore an au­di­ence.

“If it can only achieve suc­cess at home, it’s not a sport horse,” Blun­dell says. “I be­lieve that ca­pac­ity is in­her­ited and runs in some lines and not oth­ers. Events and cham­pi­onships are get­ting big­ger, and horses have to cope. Like with peo­ple, you can have a per­son who is amaz­ingly tal­ented at some­thing, but can’t be both­ered to get out of bed. I fo­cus on horses who have the will­ing­ness to work. If they are go­ing to be a top ath­lete, they’re go­ing to have to work. Then ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble. Then you need the right rider and trainer. And it’s quite sim­ple.”

That is said by some­one who has that will­ing­ness, bold­ness and men­tal ca­pac­ity to suc­ceed. “I feel so lucky that I’ve found my pas­sion and have been able to do it full-time,” she re­flects. “I get to travel and meet amaz­ing peo­ple and go to amaz­ing places. What else could you ask for? It was a leap of faith at the start, but peo­ple should do what they are re­ally pas­sion­ate about. It’s so much eas­ier. You don’t count the hours. The hard­est thing for some peo­ple is to fig­ure out what that pas­sion is. I was lucky that I dis­cov­ered it quite young. And I got to meet amaz­ing, in­spir­ing peo­ple at a very young age.”

Clearly, Blun­dell has now be­come one of those peo­ple who will in­spire.

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: The mares on the 1,500-acre Blun­dell fam­ily farm, in lush North York­shire, Eng­land, are des­tined to be com­pet­i­tive dres­sage horses, aim­ing at the top of the sport world­wide.

ABOVE: Mount St. John Eques­trian raises more than 100 horses, breed­ing 25 per year, at what was once an 11th cen­tury pre­cep­tory of the Or­der of St. John of Jerusalem.

LEFT: York­shire gal Emma Blun­dell, born to a non-eques­trian fam­ily, dis­cov­ered her love of horses at a young age, be­gin­ning lessons at 7.

go in sport and pro­mote them­selves like the stal­lions do.

In de­ter­min­ing her breed­ing stock, Blun­dell boldly chooses warm­blood mares and stal­lions from a mix­ture of breeds; Dutch horses are not just bred to Dutch horses and Hanove­ri­ans are not just bred to Hanove­ri­ans.

Blun­dell is on a long-term mis­sion to pair top rid­ers with foals. “I think the re­la­tion­ship they have with a young horse all the way through is un­beat­able,” she says.

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