RiverCross: A Breeding Program That Puts Horses First

Sally with hunter stallion RiverCross Restoration. Photo by Tom von Kapherr

By Tyler Bui

As a young girl, Sally Harrington Philippo started out with a dream—to own her own horse. It took 37 years, but she has fulfilled that dream…and so much more. Today, Sally and her husband, Jan, are producing extraordinary young horses at RiverCross Farm, through their carefully crafted breeding program. Her true love for horses sets the foundation for a beautiful project that has grown steadily over the last 25 years, and the program has offspring all over North America who are achieving considerable success in the ring and bringing joy to their owners.

Sally grew up in England, following in the footsteps of her Dutch mother, an accomplished rider who rode in Holland with Prince Bernhard in the early 1930s. As a young girl, she was given many opportunities to ride, given her talent and her care for the animals. 

Sally Harrington Philippo

Throughout her childhood, Sally continued to take every opportunity she was given to ride, and worked hard at her studies. In her early twenties, she found herself in London working in corporate finance. This is where she met her first husband, Conrad Harrington, who came from Canada. In 1979, they married in London and returned to Montreal, Quebec, a city where they led a very happy life and had three children together. 

‘An Absolute Dream Horse’

“Fast forward to me living in Canada, at age 37, I finally bought my first horse,” says Sally. “She was an absolute dream horse. She was so beautiful and talented that all the top trainers in our area wanted to buy her from me almost immediately.” This was, however, the furthest thing from her mind.

“She was the horse I dreamed about when I was a little girl. Why would I ever sell her? I wanted to keep her not only for myself, but for my daughter who was also starting to ride,” she says. Even Nobler, a.k.a. Charisma, was a beautiful Thoroughbred mare born in New York. She was not only Sally’s idea of a perfect horse, but also the one that sparked her dream of developing a breeding program. 

“I showed her myself in the Amateur Owners and we had a lot of success,” says Sally. “One day as I watched her, lost in quiet admiration, I found myself thinking, ‘This is the kind of horse that everyone should have. Everything about her is exactly what we all love; not only her beauty, but her natural jump and extravagant movement, as well as a very kind temperament’. Surely, I thought, this is the type of horse that should be reproduced.” A dream was born to breed her, and Sally began the search for a suitable sire.

Charisma was taken out of the show ring for a year and half, and she had her first foal by Danny Robertshaw’s hunter stallion, Absolut. The dark bay colt, who was named RiverCross Mystic, eventually took Clare, Sally’s daughter, to victory at The Royal Winter Fair’s Canadian indoor finals.  

Shortly after the dream of breeding horses emerged, her husband was diagnosed with ALS. He passed away six months after his diagnosis, the same year Sally had her first foal. She was left a widow with her three children aged 10, 14, and 16. 

The Breeding Program Is Born

“After my husband died, as we all coped with devastating loss, I was wondering what I would do with my life going forward. The horses were kept about an hour away from where we lived in the city, and they were being taken care of by other people,” says Sally. “I knew I wanted to grow my horse project and take care of my horses myself, so I decided to look for a farm. I eventually found a very peaceful property, with undulating hills and meadows and surrounding woodlands. I called this beautiful property RiverCross, a name I had conceived several years before.”

In the Fall of 2003, Sally moved her nascent breeding program with five horses to the Eastern townships in Quebec, and from her new home she continued to build her program.

Seven years after becoming a widow, Sally met her current husband and business partner, Jan Philippo, at a wedding on the East Coast of Canada. Jan lived in Holland at the time, and had lost his first wife to cancer. After meeting, they wrote to each other daily for three years, with the occasional visit, and finally got married in 2006, when Jan joined her on the farm. 

“None of this would have grown without Jan’s support, his full engagement, and his total trust in my judgement,” Sally says. “When he came to Canada to marry me, he left everything he was used to and a career in horticulture. We’ve built up this enterprise together and it has become a deeply satisfying joint project.”

Homebred star RiverCross Cri de Coeur. Photo by Tom von Kapherr

Carefully Selected Bloodlines

After deciding that RiverCross was going to be a true breeding program, the couple began creating a breeding philosophy unique to them that truly focused around the horses’ needs. The Philippos did extensive research to find horses that possessed their ideal qualities, and traveled to and from Holland to visit the breeding shows and study the stallions. 

“I was looking for all-around stallions that moved well, jumped with beautiful technique, and had good temperament,” says Sally. “I knew I wanted to use Dutch horses.” She based her program initially using frozen semen from VDL stallions, choosing Flemmingh, Indoctro, and Orame as foundation sires. She imported stock from Holland very selectively, and together with Jan, they imported two Dutch mares with top predicates in their dam line.

Not only are the Philippos selective about the horses they choose to breed—they also take the extra effort to match their horses with owners who will fully appreciate and love them. With that, they often prefer to sell their horses to motivated juniors and adult amateurs. They fully understand how crucial it is to have them accompanied and trained by sympathetic and talented trainers. Sally says that ideally, there is a team involved where everyone feels excited about the match and is committed to making it a success.

“The reason why I like breeding horses for the juniors and amateurs is that they really love their horses,” says Sally. “They’re the ones who are going to give the horse the attention it needs, they’re the ones who are most likely to relate to the horse with real affection. For the well-being of the individual horse, that is vitally important.”

With the amateur market in mind, one unique trait about RiverCross’s breeding program is that the horses are often sold at an age somewhat older than most breeders, to ensure that the horses are as well-developed as possible. “We very rarely sell them when they’re babies. I believe you need to be able to stand behind your horses as a breeder, and this takes time,” says Sally. “We’re not trying to just sell the horses, we really want to place them in the right home. When horses are sold by us, we can say we’ve known this horse since they’re born—it’s a very special aspect of our enterprise.”

Young Stock Management

Sally and Jan stand by their breeding philosophy, working to create horses that possess intelligence, good temperament, longevity, and athletic ability. She says that ideally, you’ll have a horse that has both intelligence and a good temperament, along with the other important qualities. In order to do so, the horses must be allowed to live in their natural state as much as possible when they are in their earliest years.

“Something I stand for with my horses is longevity,” she says. “I think it’s important to try and raise a horse that uses its intelligence when it’s growing up, so that they know how to make their own choices. The best horse has had a chance when it’s growing up to decide for itself. Then, provided it is trained with sensitivity, you will have a horse in the future that will cooperate, have a partnership with you, and also use its intelligence.”

With a maximum of four per year, each foal has a program specifically tailored to their personality and needs; however, Sally follows a few core principles when developing her young horses. When they are first born, the foals receive what is necessary with respect to care, but given as much natural space as possible. When they are eventually weaned from their mother,  Sally always weans two foals together to make the process as non-traumatic as possible.

“I think it’s really important that this seminal time in the horse’s life is handled with sensitivity. They are raised in a small group so they learn interaction between themselves, but they must also learn respect for a human being,” she says. “When they are handled by a human, they are taught to respect them, and to enjoy the contact. That’s important in those early years.” 

Over the years, the Philippos have worked with various respected trainers around the country to develop their horses in the show ring, including Angela Covert in Canada and later in Wellington, Tori Colvin in Wellington, Jenny and Kost Karazissis in California, Candice King in Ocala, and other trainers who’ve brought their expertise alongside the development and showcasing of RiverCross horses. At home in Canada, there is a small team of young professionals who they trust to help bring horses through their program. 

“I do a lot of handling on the ground and I’m involved in the training process, but the horses at home are ridden by other young riders in our area. Currently, Jacquelynn Neary, who trained alongside Angela Covert, works closely with us and does an excellent job,” says Sally. “She is accompanied by Melissa Weiss who has worked in some of the top farms in the country. Ms. Billie de Rouet, a talented jumper trainer here in Quebec, has also helped us develop some of the jumpers, and we have been grateful for the help of David Arcand with our jumper stallion.  We do feel that part of the purpose of our project is to give opportunities to the younger generations. We love to support young professionals as well as those more seasoned.”  

RiverCross Onyx, The First Homebred Stallion

While the Philippos treasure each horse they develop in their program, one stands out in particular. In 2004, RiverCross Onyx was born, and he may be the horse that has had the most impact on their program up until now.

“Onyx has had a profound influence on our project. He was such an elegant foal, and as he matured, he was successful in every arena into which he was entered,” says Sally. “He won the Inaugural Hunter Derby Finals in Toronto when he was just six years old, and later on in his life, he went down to the States. Tori Colvin showed him for us and enjoyed some spectacular success in the High Performance Hunters and derby rings. Onyx was exactly what I wanted to produce for the  amateur market—he is beautiful, has a wonderful temperament, and he is very athletic. We presented him to both Canadian Breed registries and when he was licensed we used him for breeding with our imported Dutch mares.”

Instead of returning to Europe to purchase stallions for the next phase of her breeding program, Philippo used RiverCross Onyx for breeding. He produced beautiful, athletic offspring. Onyx is now 17 years old, remains in perfect shape, and happily competes in the Adult Amateur Hunters. 

Today, RiverCross horses can be found all over North America, competing in all three rings with great success. From Canada to California, New York, and Florida, RiverCross horses all possess the ideal qualities held closely to their breeding philosophy.

A Win-Win for All

Patrick Lortie purchased one of Sally’s horses, RiverCross Extra, for his wife and two daughters in 2021. He says that the purchasing process with the Philippos is very thoughtful and purposeful. 

“When you first speak with Sally, she looks to understand your needs, your riding environment, and so on. It’s not just a business transaction for her,” says Lortie. “She wants to make sure that it’s a win-win for everyone, including the horse. Once we purchased Extra, we certainly felt like we were part of the RiverCross family. We connect with her on a regular basis, and we appreciate her very much. She has built an extremely nice environment for the horses—she’s very invested in what she does.

“We are very proud of the horses that are currently available and have achieved success in the show ring. We will wait patiently for the ideal situations for them, and we know they will make their future owners happy,” Sally says, adding that she is always available and delighted to speak to those who are interested to know more about her horses. It’s important to her to have excellent relations with her clients and their trusted trainers. 

The sale of RiverCross Nobility brought the Philippos an unexpected friendship with Lisa Poole and her daughter Audrey. Over the years, the Pooles have traveled from their home in Northern California to visit RiverCross Farm in Canada, and have taken many trips down to Wellington to spend time with the Philippos and their horses.

“RiverCross is a farm that is truly about the passion for horses. Along with the horse you purchase, you develop a relationship—Sally is just a great person, she just wants everyone to be happy,” says Poole. “If you want a horse that has a good background, and that has been loved and given the time to properly develop, RiverCross is the right place to look. Her horses are beautiful, and just sweet horses. It’s such a dream for her that she appreciates the horses so much.”

Optimism for the Future

RiverCross Onyx was influential in the program’s early years, and the Philippos have gone on to breed and develop two new stallions for the current phase of their breeding program. 

RiverCoss Cri de Coeur is a beautiful jumper stallion out of a wonderful homebred Numero Uno mare, RiverCross First Take. “It is well known how important the dam line is behind a breeding stallion, and it is heartening and encouraging that First Take continues to demonstrate her quality and has been consistently performing with multiple wins with a junior rider in the jumper ring,” says Sally. Behind Cri de Coeur on his sire’s side (Coeur de Lion) are Mr. Blue, Concorde, and Voltaire, gathering together bloodlines known for their outstanding suitability for amateur riders.  

For the hunter ring, the Philippos are developing a young stallion with Ampere, Krack C, and Flemmingh on his sire’s side, out of an imported Cardento, Lux mare (Bieni) who won everything in the breed ring as a three-year-old and came from a famous small breeder in Holland, Henk Van Gils. Bieni won the coveted Gerd van der Veen award from the KWPN NA when presented to the respected KWPN North American Breed association.

A most recent exciting development: In 2021, the Philippos brought into their exclusive program two new injections of blood. A beautiful Dutch bred Welsh pony stallion, Macario, with a delightful character to match his compelling talent, has now covered three homebred pony mares for the Spring of 2022. From Belgium, specifically Sandra and Thierry Hendrix’s Second Life Z program, the program imported what they hope will be an outstanding colt and stallion prospect for the future, sired by an admired stallion from one of the best breeding programs in Belgium. Kassander van’t Roosakker Z, has a temperament and technique over fences that the Philippos deeply admire and the couple are delighted to bring him to North America. Sally also expects Kreator Second Life Z to influence the program at RiverCross farm for the future. His dam has produced two approved stallions in Europe and the silver medalist for the seven-year-old jumpers at the World Championships. 

RiverCross Farm has created a special project that reflects a true passion for horses. The Philippos hope that with their horses, they can continue to spread their love for the sport and remind riders why they began riding in the first place. A lovely element is the thread through generations, as their 12-year old-granddaughter, Chelsey, has inherited the passion and is as dedicated as any young girl can be, just like Sally herself at this age back in the 1960s.

“I never want to take for granted, for one minute, the abundant blessing of all these beautiful horses and ponies that have come into my life since this breeding program began,” she says. 

“What gives me most joy, truly, is to watch a thriving partnership created between a horse that was born on our farm, and its rider. We never want to lose the reason why we all started in this field of endeavour. May the deep connection with these beautiful creatures remain the essence of our industry.” 

To learn more about RiverCross farm, visit www.rivercrossfarm.com.

*This story was originally published in the February 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!