By Catie Staszak
Read this article in the May/June full issue here.
When Diana Sturges joined forces with accomplished hunter rider Christopher Payne to breed a few of Diana’s retired mares, the endeavor was meant to be “small and fun,” but more than seven years later, the Columbus, OH, based Shadowlake Farm has established its roots as a successful, hands-on breeding operation.
Bradley (Emilion—Warone), who was bred in the early years of the program, is quickly becoming its poster child. The bay gelding is successfully navigating the 6-year-old young jumper divisions and showing promise for more with Diana’s daughter Sarah Sturges, who rides for Payne and David Belford’s New Hope operation in Batavia, OH, and Wellington, FL.
The group has worked together to bring Bradley up from the very beginning—an endeavor that has not only repeatedly reaffirmed their belief in their horse, but also in their program.
“I see [Bradley’s] success as a confirmation of the breeding and development program that we have put together here,” Diana said. “It is so wonderful to see him go on to become a successful partner for Sarah as they make their way through the young jumper ranks. I love the foals and caring for them no matter what, but to see them grow into successful show horses makes it all the more rewarding.”
Bradley is the first foal out of Sarah’s former mount Warone and the group’s first try at breeding a jumper, having begun their foray into the industry with a focus on producing hunters. The group took the advice of Canadian showjumper Chris Sorensen, from whom they originally acquired Warone, on a stallion. Sorensen recommended Emilion for the KWPN stallion’s proven record both in the ring and the breeding shed.
Bradley was foaled out of a surrogate mare and raised at Shadowlake, and from the very beginning, the bay showed that his greatest asset was his brain. Never rattled by a new task, he rose to every occasion, despite developing more slowly in his body.
“He was easy,” Sarah recalled. “He was big and gangly for a while, but he has always had such a good brain. He aims to please and has always wanted to try hard.”
“He was big, slow, and casual!” Diana added.
Dey Goodman broke Bradley and worked with him at Shadowlake until Diana determined he was ready to move into training with Sarah and Payne. Bradley began periodic training with the New Hope team in his 4-year-old year, and although he still had a somewhat gangly appearance, with a long back, his intelligence and attitude immediately left an impact on Belford.
“He was always a horse that just went out of his way to do what Sarah asked, even if it was the first day of working on something new,” he said. “Bradley very rarely has days of acting immature or overcomplicated. He is straightforward; what you see is what you get.”
Bradley made his show debut in the training jumpers during the 2019 Winter Equestrian Festival, and as he became physically stronger, he turned a corner. His already evident bravery, when coupled with muscle and stamina, quickly translated into big results. The gelding took home his first win in the 1.10m 5-year-old Young Jumper division at the 2019 Deeridge International and went on to top Developing Jumper Tour 5-year-old classes at the Kentucky Spring Classic, Country Heir, Bluegrass Festival, and the Kentucky National.
“It’s amazing how cool it feels when we’ve had a great round or won a big ribbon to know that [Bradley] has grown up with us,” Sarah said. “The fact that I’ve had people who I really look up to in this industry come up to me and say what a nice horse he is, that’s just icing on the cake. I’m really proud of that.”~ Sarah Sturges
“He is so brave to the jumps. I never question him about that,” Sarah explained. “It has made this whole process really fun for me to know that even though he may make a mistake, he’s going to jump and he’s going to try.
“I think the biggest change I’ve seen has been overall strength,” she added. “When he first started in the show program, he was very long bodied and weak. He’s gained so much muscle and stamina over the last couple years and looks like a totally new horse.”
That made stepping up to the 1.20m 6-year-old division a seamless transition. Returning to WEF in 2020, the duo consistently produced clear rounds and podium placings at the more challenging height, leaving Sarah encouraged about her partner’s future.
“I think he shows a lot of promise, and I’m having so much fun with him, but my goal for him is to be successful at his job, whatever that may end up being,” she explained. “If he’s a horse for me to keep awhile and help advance my career, great. If down the road, he’s moving a kid up from the children’s jumpers to the junior jumpers, that’s great, too, as long as he’s doing a good job and he is loved by the people around him.”
It’s that focus on hands-on care and development that has allowed Bradley to reach his potential and made an increasing number of professionals in the sport take notice of the Sturges family’s small Ohio breeding operation. Shadowlake Farm is now operating with a strong group of select hunter and jumper broodmares, who, in a collaborative effort between the Sturges, Payne and other industry professionals, are matched with stallions that will produce “the best young horses possible.” All of the foals are born on the farm, and Diana and her team handle them from the day they are born, developing them until they are ready to move into training for the show ring.
Diana also offers her developmental services to others, and she and her team regularly work with other mares and foals and young horses through the early stages of their lives. With up to four foals on the ground each year at Shadowlake, the goal is to develop successful hunters and jumpers and to sell them to great homes. Along the way, the group would be happy to have another like Bradley.