Why Are So Many American-Owned Young Horses Growing Up Abroad?

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By Nina Fedrizzi

Take 100, well-bred, well-raised young horses and line them up, side by side. One of them is probably destined to be a future champion in the hunter or jumper ring, but which one? Which factors should you use to determine talent, and what’s the best way, and place, to guide and nurture them? 

“The young horse, in my opinion, isn’t any different than a young child,” says auctioneer and commentator for the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT), Frederik De Backer, who’s spent many years considering these very questions. “Just like in school, the standard program doesn’t fit every child. Some thrive [in the classroom] and are excellent students, others have a terrible time—me being one of them! 

“I’ve been fortunate to commentate for the LGCT for the last decade, and one thing stands out talking about the winners: None are the same.”

Frederik De Backer. Photo by Mario Grassia/LGCT

Whether competing professionally, training, or selling to make a living, almost everyone would agree that the cost of buying an established, top-quality horse is only going up. “Top riders have started to invest in young horses earlier,” De Backer says, noting that the price to purchase an eight-year-old show jumper with international potential in Europe can easily range into the millions of dollars. One practical solution is to breed or buy very young horses (age five or younger), then invest in developing them yourself over time.

But for those looking to produce or sell young horses in any real way, is it reasonable—or even possible—to do so in the U.S.? 

More and more these days, the answer to that question seems to be no. When compared to other countries around the world, carrying costs for young horses are far higher in the U.S., where board, training, vet and farrier care, and horse show fees price out many in the industry from the young horse game before they even begin. 

In De Backer’s native Belgium, by comparison, a number of cost-effective young horse circuits at various levels are helping professionals to bridge the gap. “The national young horse circuit is one of the secrets behind Belgian successes, both in sport and in breeding,” he says. “Young horses compete under the same circumstances, in classes built specifically for them. It creates a climate where young horse producers can make a living, bringing a full truck of horses to the same event.” 

According to De Backer, the shows are also a great place to spot talent. “So many scouts and dealers are ringside at 8 a.m., and for the riders, it’s a cheap way to give their horses experience.” 

Compared to American classes, prize money at young horse events in Belgium is low, a fact that enables organizers to keep entry fees down. The average cost to show a 4-year-old at a national-level event in Belgium? As little as 20 € (about $24) De Backer says, or around 40 € (about $48) for a 7-year-old. 

But carrying costs are just one of several reasons that many members of the U.S. equestrian community are electing to keep their youngest horses aboard. 

Whether producing talent for their own strings, buying and selling, or investing in new markets, some of the country’s top names are saying ‘adieu for now’ to America. We sat down with three of them to find out why. 

Capt. Brian Cournane and Castlewood Dream. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.

Case Study 1

The Rider: Capt. Brian Cournane
You Know Him As: Top international showjumper for Ireland 
Base of Operations: Glenbeigh Farm in Wellington, FL
Keeps Young Horses In: Waterford, Ireland; Swindon, U.K.

In a world where instant gratification is par for the course, Captain Brian Cournane knows how to play the long game. For proof, look no further than Cournane’s current, five-star-level partnership with the 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding, Castlefield  Dream—a horse he purchased in Europe at age three and imported to America at six. “He’s a good example of a horse we’ve produced,” says Cournane, who’s successfully competed the gelding at events around the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Ireland. 

Across the pond in Waterford, less than two hours from Dublin, Cournane is breeding what he hopes will become Castlefield Dreams for the future. There, the showjumper works with Irish breeder/trainer Richie O’Hara to produce up to three foals a year from his own Glenbeigh Farm broodmares. When the young horses are turning four, they are sent to Swindon, England, and American eventer Tiana Coudray, a friend of Cournane’s eventer-wife, Jules. Coudray breaks and trains them, then sends the horses back to Ireland to enjoy their four-year-old year off. At five, they return to England once again to be re-started and get their feet wet at local shows.

“Tiana is quite good at producing young horses,” says Cournane, noting that all Coudray’s horses begin with strong foundational work in dressage. “She has a nice farm and brings them out around the forest and the roads—it’s just a good environment.” 

According to Cournane, there are three main reasons for basing his operation across the pond. 

“If you’re talking about breeding horses, it’s much easier in Europe and in Ireland. You’ve got access to all the best stallions in the world through frozen and chilled semen; you can’t get that in the States. [Plus], it’s a nice, temperate climate in Ireland. You don’t get the extreme hot and cold like you do on the East Coast in America. 

“Third, it’s cheaper, in so much that there are so many [knowledgeable] people, good vets, etc., that are [involved with breeding] horses in Ireland. Whereas here, you’re usually talking about [having to base your operations] in Kentucky, and that’s incredibly expensive.” In fact, for a time, Cournane says, he and Jules considered importing their broodmares to the United States so they could move their operations closer to home. Until they did the math. 

“It actually costs us 10 percent a year to have our breeding operations [in Ireland] to what it would cost us in the States,” he says. “It doesn’t really make any sense, from a breeding perspective, to base over here.”

The first of Cournane’s homebred prospects, a six-year-old mare, finally arrived to Glenbeigh Farms in Wellington this season and will be competing in her first U.S. classes post-circuit. So far, Cournane says, some of Glenbeigh’s progeny have been sold in Europe, while others have used their early training with Coudray to springboard careers in eventing. But for those that demonstrate talent in the show jumping arena, Cournane gives them all the time they need to grow, learn, and mature—his way. 

“When you have a horse from an early age, you know that horse inside and out. You know their strengths and their weaknesses. When you buy a horse at eight or nine, a lot of the time, they aren’t produced like you would produce them,” he says. 

For a rider looking to breed and train horses with the ability to compete at the highest international level, every detail—from the vet care a horse receives in its infancy, to the types of obstacles and footing he’s exposed to, to the quality of his experiences at his first shows—can have a lasting impact on the kind of horse he grows up to be. For these reasons and more, Cournane believes that giving his homebreds the time they need to mature the right way, affordably, and with colleagues abroad whose methods he trusts will eventually pay dividends. 

“We’re thinking about it more in the long-term,” he says. “We’re in it for the sport.”

 

Case Study 2

The broker: Katha Gatto
You Know Her As: Owner of Shadow Creek, a boutique sales operation 
Base of Operations: Rhinebeck, NY and Wellington, FL
Keeps Young Horses In: Lier, Belgium

Anyone who’s ever tried something new for the first time knows there’s a learning curve. Alas, when it comes to horse sales, that isn’t strictly true.

“Here in Florida, rated horse showing is very expensive, every class is on video, and young horses aren’t really granted the opportunities to make mistakes,” says Katha Gatto. Gatto is the owner of Shadow Creek, a boutique sales operation she runs with her partner, Garrett Warner, in Rhinebeck, New York; Wellington, Florida; and Northern Belgium, near the city of Lier. Specializing in top-quality hunter, jumper, and equitation horses with the temperaments to excel in the U.S. amateur market, Gatto has learned to be thoughtful—not just about the horses she purchases for her program, but in how and when she introduces them in America. 


“A lot of the time, I’ll buy horses in Europe as four- and five-year-olds, and I’ll leave them there for up to a year in order to get them going how we want them to go as hunters or equitation horses,” she says.

During a typical, non-pandemic year, Gatto travels between Shadow Creek’s U.S. bases and Belgium every other month, checking in on her prospects-in-training and conducting buying trips around Europe. Of course, logging those kinds of miles can come with a hefty price tag, but even with travel included, Gatto says, the numbers are on her side. 

One horse stationed at her partner Don Leys’s farm in Belgium costs just 650 € (about $770) per month. “That’s for everything,” she says, “board, riding, shoes, training, local [schooling] shows—all of it. We are also very fortunate that my partner often has American riders at his stable who know how a hunter or equitation horse should feel, both when they are looking at potential prospects to purchase, or developing them for me to eventually import. That’s a huge advantage that we have with our program.”

Like most sales operations, Shadow Creek does the majority of its business during the winter circuit in Florida. To that end, the horses Gatto and Warner select for travel to the Sunshine State—either importing directly from Europe or shipping down from their base in New York—are each on an individualized timeline for sale. “Between the cost of shipping them, the stall and care, the vet work, the farrier, the show fees, themselves, all of it starts to add up,” Gatto says.

Equally important is the fact that young sale horses require frequent, quality miles in the show ring in order to learn and improve. In Florida, those miles can come with a literal and figurative price tag. “I have a really beautiful hunter that I bought two months ago, and I’m not bringing it over [to the U.S.] until it’s 100 percent ready to go step into the hunter ring, especially in Florida. Green horses just need miles, and experience being at different venues, and seeing new things; it’s much easier to have them go and do that in Europe for a fraction of the cost,” she says.

In addition to high entry and nominating fees at venues such as the Winter Equestrian Festival, there’s not much leeway offered to a young new import stepping off the farm for the first time, and especially in the hunter ring. Every missed lead change, head shake, or spook can have long-term consequences for a horse’s sale potential. And, according to Gatto, the U.S. market can be as demanding as it is unforgiving. 

“Often times, people want to see a long and successful record in the ring in the U.S., normally for the exact job they are looking for the horse to do for them, and that can be difficult,” she says, noting that the sheer number of videos and consistent horse show results potential buyers expect can be staggering. If a horse isn’t showing, Gatto says, clients will notice—and they’ll want to know why. “For us, we often have to make decisions on which horses we show, based on both our time and our finances. That can be a hard thing to explain to potential buyers.” 

For the better part of the winter season, Shadow Creek’s young horses have spent nearly every Tuesday in Wellington campaigning at M&R Equestrian’s Training Days at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center. A creation of Alberto Michan (ISR) and Juan Andrés Rodri-guez (GUA), the show offers the perfect environment for young hunters and jumpers that need miles in the show ring, jumping on quality courses created by FEI designers. There, sellers like Gatto can get the video footage they need to market their horses, while also giving them the freedom to learn and make mistakes.

“M&R Training Days are amazing—and affordable! It’s $60 a round, which is unheard of here in Wellington, but it doesn’t go on the [horses’] records,” Gatto says. “That’s a difficult thing, because I can tell people, ‘I’ve been here in Florida since November, and I’ve gone every single week on Tuesday to these training shows,’ but they’re not in their USEF history.”

Not so for Shadow Creek’s base in Belgium, where there are a greater number of local horse show options available, recorded and otherwise, and all within a day’s drive of the farm. “In Europe, they have different levels of shows; a local circuit, a national circuit, and then an international circuit,” Gatto says. “It’s a totally different thing.”

More events like M&R Training Days at additional locations around the U.S. would hugely facilitate Shadow Creek’s business, Gatto adds, but she can’t see things changing here any time soon. “I think, for me, it would take a lot to want to fully base my young horse operations in the U.S., because we don’t have the same horse show infrastructure here that they do in Europe,” she continues. “I think we’re a product of the environment that we’re in.”  

Meredith Herman. Photo by Grand Prix Photography

Case Study 3

The Entrepreneur: Meredith Herman
You Know Her As: Rider/trainer for Burgundy Farms; owner of the Sonoma Horse Park 
Base of Operations: Petaluma, CA
Keeps Young Horses In: Monterrey, Mexico

You’ve probably heard the name La Silla stud (or LS) associated with top show jumping partnerships such as Ashlee Bond and her World Equestrian Games mount, Chela LS; Daniel Bluman’s 2012 London Olympics horse, Sancha LS; and Beezie Madden and Longines FEI World Cup™ Finals Champion, Breitling LS. A La Silla hunter dynamo, though? Probably not. 

That’s just the idea behind Burgundy Farms trainer Meredith Herman’s recent sales venture. Together with David (“Sparky”) Esparza Perez, the Sonoma Horse Park Owner is bringing La Silla’s top-quality show jumping bloodlines from Mexico direct to America—just in slightly different packaging. “I typically fly down when the horses are good enough to get a lead change and start showing in the hunters. Then, we’ll bring them [to California] to sell them,” Herman says. 

Based in a niche facility near La Silla in Monterrey, Herman keeps three to five La Silla-bred young horses in Mexico at any given time. Managed on the ground by Perez (a cousin of showjumper Eugenio Garza Perez), the four- to five-year-olds receive care, training, and miles at local jumper shows. They also get frequent visits from Herman, who travels to Mexico as many as nine times a year to monitor their development and shop for horses at La Silla and at various farms around Mexico City.  

Once the horses are ready, they’re imported to the U.S., and then the race is on. On the to-do list for each one: annual vaccinations and visits to the vet, dentist, and farrier; a body clip; and a new supplement regimen for their coats. Horses in Herman’s program have two shots to get sold; one at Thermal and the second during the Sonoma Horse Park season (May through September). Because of the cost of keeping horses in the U.S., she says, “we’re pretty calculated.”

In order to break even on her investment, Herman explains, most of her horses will need to be sold within three or four horse shows. “The second these horses arrive, even having this location [at the Sonoma Horse Park], and the discounted rate, there’s no way they don’t cost us a significant amount of money every single month.”

Like Katha Gatto, Herman understands that appearances in the hunter ring are everything. Before her prospects make their U.S. debut, they need to have both a solid lead change and marketing materials at the ready. “To sell these young horses as a hunter to your typical American buyer, [you need a good video] of the horse cantering around in an actual, recognized horse show, swapping its lead in the corner, and looking quiet—not like it’s taking a lap on the racetrack,” she says.

Basing her young horses out of one of America’s largest show parks is a distinct advantage, Herman adds, not only because it sets them up to produce solid results at a venue where they live and train, but also because it helps keep her horse show bills down. “I don’t know if anyone else could replicate the kind of cost efficiency that we do.”

The team already boasts a number of success stories among its La Silla graduates, including one quickly snapped-up young horse named Watermelon they feel is destined for a brilliant career as a Small Junior hunter. Last year, the horse arrived and went to two shows in the Green division, Herman says. “I got on it, got the strides, it earned some 80s, won some blues, and away it [went]!”

In addition to her young hunters, Herman also owns some horses in partnership with La Silla, and imports as many as 30-40 more experienced show horses—typically ex-grand prix and higher-level jumpers—from the Mexico City area every year. After a month or two of retraining, many of these go on to new careers as hunters, amateur jumpers, and equitation horses in California and beyond.

“This [business] isn’t ‘Jack and the Magic Beanstalk.’ You’ve got to go through lots of highs and lows,” says Herman, adding that one of the most gratifying parts of her job is watching her “raw” La Silla young horses blossom into top hunter prospects. 

“Mexico is a really good source [for us],” she says. “Overall, we’re for sure winning.” 

*This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!