Leslie Butzer has long strived to breed the best hunter ponies. Thanks to cloning, her beloved gelding, Rico Suave, can help her achieve that dream.
BY KRISTIN PITZER
PHOTOS BY DAVID ERDEK & SHAWN MCMILLEN
Whether you’re a horse person, a dog lover, or an aficionado of another species, it’s likely a special individual has come along at some point in your life that made you think, “I wish they made another one just like him or her.” It’s a thought many animal lovers have had, including Leslie Butzer, owner of Ponies and Palms Show Stables in Boca Raton, Florida.
Leslie was at Petcon a few years back with daughter Lindsay, a veterinarian and Instagram influencer, when she met Lauren Aston of ViaGen, a leader in animal cloning. After seeing the cloning successes presented by ViaGen, Leslie became enamored with the idea of cloning her top ponies. Now, with her first clone on the ground, Leslie’s dream of breeding the best hunter stock is well underway.
Growing up, Leslie rode at a top hunter/jumper barn in upstate Minnesota that owned a number of Welsh ponies. That environment fueled her passion for breeding top hunter ponies for children.
“I wanted to start a breeding program to develop the top hunter ponies in the country,” Leslie said. “We’ve just been very passionate about the journey of a foal to a seasoned hunter pony.”
Shortly after marrying her husband, Brian, one of the first veterinarians to clone a dog in the U.S., Leslie purchased a Welsh pony stallion named Bristols Houdini. She imported several mares from Wales to breed to him, aiming to raise successful competitors for the show ring. Gary Duffy, an R judge who is also passionate about ponies, was influential in finding stock to continue famous mare lines, and a couple of those mares, including Won To Know and Rockette, both have offspring that will soon make an appearance in the show ring.
As time went on, Leslie directed her focus toward the practice of breeding hunter mares that had proven themselves in the show ring to top pony stallions. She then ran into a problem when looking for stallions to breed to her show mares—since ponies only show with juniors, and juniors are not allowed to show stallions, no pony stallions had truly been proven.
“It’s hard to breed to these pony stallions that are not proven whatsoever and have no show records,” said Leslie’s daughter Lisa, who, along with her five siblings, helps out at Ponies and Palms. “You don’t really have an idea of what is going to be produced unless that stallion has been around for a while and has already produced proven hunter ponies.”
Leslie turned to some of her top gelding show horses, looking for ideas. Among them were Rico Suave and Spellbound, two of the most famous ponies in the hunter world.
“Rico,” who was imported from Holland, has brought along many top children in the hunter ring. He carried Sophie Gochman to a medal at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Pony Medal Finals and has achieved numerous wins with his current rider, Ava Barnes. Rico’s barnmate Spellbound has been Horse of the Year for three years in a row.
Leslie began to picture a future in which Rico Suave and Spellbound offspring filled her fields. It sounded impossible—the ponies had both been gelded without any semen being collected—but through cloning, she’s been able to secure a chance for their genetics to pass on to the next generation.
Becoming a Pioneer
Clones are born intact, even if the original animal was spayed or gelded. This allows a breeder to use the original animal’s genetics in their program because the clone carries a replica of its DNA.
“The sperm is 100% the DNA from the original animal that you cloned, so when you’re breeding to the clones, you’re essentially breeding back to the original through the clones,” Lisa said.
Rico’s clone would provide an intact, exact replica Leslie could breed to her mares. Since Rico had already demonstrated his athleticism and shown aptitude in the hunter ring, it seemed like the perfect solution to her problem of not being able to find proven stallions.
Leslie’s quest to clone Rico began in 2019, and in September 2020, Rico Suave II was born at Zerlotti Genetics in Pleasanton, Texas. The foal was shipped to Boca Raton in mid-December, and Leslie has been thrilled with the results.
“It’s crazy how similar they are,” Lisa said. “I’ve never seen a foal so filled out, but if you see his original, he looks exactly like that. Rico has beautiful conformation, and the clone is the same way. They also do the same head toss thing, so it’s kind of surreal.”
In addition to his build and his antics, the clone, whose barn name is “Blake” after ViaGen’s president, Blake Russell, sports the same liver chestnut color as Rico. Each pony has socks on their hind legs and a blaze, though Rico Suave II also has a sock on one of his front legs. It’s common for markings to shift in utero, Lisa explained, since the genes for certain physical traits can express differently.
Leslie’s plans for Rico Suave II don’t just involve breeding him one day, as she intends for him to go into training while still a stallion to prove he can jump around a hunter course. Since experiences help shape how a horse develops as an adult, she hopes to replicate Rico’s training as much as possible.
“It gets kind of saturated in the show ring when you only have those few really competitive ponies. It would be good for the industry to have more really good competition, and doing this cloning, you’re just bringing out better stock that can compete.” —Leslie Butzer
“We thought if we did have the opportunity to raise him and train him in [Rico’s original] program, then it would be like he’s experiencing it all over again,” Lisa said. “They say if they don’t have all those same experiences they go through, it might not be the same animal, so we are going to try our best to keep his journey similar to the original Rico Suave.”
Part of that journey involves sending the colt to Chris Payne and David Belford at New Hope Farm, as they leased Rico for several years and know the gelding well.
“They have done an exceptional job with Rico, and they are just elated to see the clone and be involved with him,” Leslie said. “They want to train the clone, and I would be honored to have him under their care at some point in his life.”
She is also grateful to have the help of Donald Cheska and his wife, Cara, along with their daughter, Chapin, as she works toward making Rico Suave II a leading USEF hunter pony stallion. Donald enjoys the pony hunter breeding in-hand classes, and Leslie said it’s an honor to work with him.
A Bright Future
Leslie has become such a firm believer in cloning through her experiences with Rico Suave II, ViaGen and Zerlotti that she intends to clone Spellbound next. She’s got a handful of other ponies in her barn that she thinks will be good candidates, too.
At $85,000 a pop, cloning is still not cheap. But, Leslie said, buying a clone of Rico Suave for that amount is much cheaper than what she’s been offered for the gelding on multiple occasions.
“For $85,000, you couldn’t buy a Rico Suave, but if you can clone one of these animals for $85,000, and you only put half down and pay the rest when the animal’s born, it’s worth the investment,” Leslie said. “You go through so many trials and errors when looking for horses, but with clones, you know the original animal’s characteristics and capabilities.”
With her new clone at home, and having recently purchased a second farm in Wellington, Florida, Leslie is looking forward to the future of Ponies and Palms. In addition to her top-notch ponies, she’s also brought on a new trainer, Hannah Stevens, who, like Leslie, is also from the Midwest. With Stevens’ assistance, Leslie is looking to open her lesson program to new students.
“I’m just really happy with Hannah and our current team. She is honest and hardworking, and her knowledge and professionalism in this industry are extremely respected,” Leslie said. “She has already brought a lot of success to my show stable and has done a great job with the kids. We’re just in the infancy stage, so we can definitely grow, and we currently have a barn full of sale ponies to help kids achieve their goals.”
Rico Suave II, with his superior genetics, could be the start of that dream, and Leslie and Lisa anticipate cloning will bring other benefits even beyond their business.
“It gets kind of saturated in the show ring when you only have those few really competitive ponies,” Lisa said. “It would be good for the industry to have more really good competition, and doing this cloning, you’re just bringing out better stock that can compete.”
*This story was originally published as the cover story in the February 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now, and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!