Breeding News Breeding News

I am all about the mares

We have spoken to Emma Blundell, a 32-year old Brit who owns on runs Mount St John Equestrian, a studfarm in North Yorkshire expecting 65 foals in 2020

d. 30-07-2019 - 13:55

Mount St John is situated in Thirsk, North Yorkshire which is well known as James Herriot’s hometown and a region best known for many racehorse trainers, not dressage. Mount St. John border the North Yorkshire Moors National Park so they have a lot of open space and rolling hills around which stud manager Emma Blundell believes make a super location for the stud and for the young horses to grow up. 


– The business launched at the end of 2012 ahead of our first main Foaling season in 2013 when we produced 8 foals, with plans to expand to produce around 20-25 foals a year within the next 5 years. All the numbers and strategy were carefully planned out during 4 years at Manchester Business School studying Business Management with a Masters in Entrepreneurship which required a business concept to be accepted into the course which was refined and developed over the next 12 months intense course. At the time it felt very frustrating to spend so long planning the business and all the details to non-horse business advisors but looking back it helped enormously in the strategising and branding of Mount St. John, which was all conceived at that time, says Emma Blundell. 


– My undergraduate dissertation in 2010 for example was spent learning as much as possible about the modern reproductive technologies and the pros and cons and impact they may have on the sport horse market to include AI, ET, ICSI & even Cloning. This was a fascinating project and helped me understand and imagine how the market may evolve for the future. 


– My summary in short was that I believed the future was in the trading of frozen embryos from elite mares worldwide, just like that of frozen semen from the best stallions of the world. This would allow mares the chance to prove themselves in sport while also adding to the future gene pool as stallions have always been available to and that the market would see a big rise in the number of mares competing and excelling in the sport. After summarising this my last 8 years has been spent pursuing that belief and understanding, and I am personally thrilled to see a number of mares now holding top spots in the FEI world rankings for dressage and jumping, many of whom have also combined breeding via ET throughout their careers and have prior to their retirement offspring competing successfully in sport or becoming licensed stallions etc. 


Due to rapidly increasing demand from the market Emma Blundell increased the number of foals due with the help of additional embryo transfers to 36 foals born in 2018 at Mount St John and increased again to 45 born this year.


– For 2020 we expect our biggest increase yet to 65 foals after having a super season with our vets this year, producing multiple embryos from some sport mares in the same season and starting to breed from some of our younger stock who are every year growing up and joining the breeding herd. 




So how did you actually get started as a breeder?


– Coming from a non-horse family, horses and horse breeding wasn’t something I grew up with. I was a horse crazy child from the start and finally was allowed my first riding lessons at 7 years of age and from the start I was hooked with riding and all things related to caring for the ponies, spending all my weekends and holidays helping at the riding school in exchange for lessons and proving to my parents the commitment needed to have my own pony. Finally aged 8.5 years I got my first pony a grey Welsh Section B called William who was my best friend and even shared my packed lunch every day. The owners of the riding school also enjoyed showing which is popular in England for presenting different breeds in shows from local village events up to county and national level. 


– Over the coming years I rode William and many other ponies including for other families in the show arena with success always placing in the national finals. It was at this time aged 10-17 years old I first met Charlotte Dujardin who being one year older than me was often in my same pony age class and also competing on the national circuit. Even back then, in the early years Charlotte was the one to beat and managed a never before achieved five times Horse of the Year Show champion status with stunning performances every time! 


– Showing is a great grounding for attention to detail, learning to be competitive but sporting and to cope with and train your horse or pony to perform in the big atmosphere of crowds of up to 10,000 general public who are present at some of the biggest British county shows & events such as HOYS (Horse of the Year Show). 


– I started out as a breeder when I was 16 years old and had the chance to buy back my former champion 12.2h show pony Willowdene Cameo who had retired to a pony breeding stud which then was closing down. I bought her for £250 to cover the stallions stud fee at the time and then continued to breed ponies from her for a couple of years, later deciding to breed from other mares I was riding to try produce my next horses, because the pony wasn’t producing offspring big enough for me to ride. 


– When I was 18 years old and left school I planned to travel prior to starting my University studies and went to Australia for 6 months where I spent the majority of my time with Heath and Rozzie Ryan who taught me the meaning of hard work and how to squeeze more hours out of each day. As well as an attitude that anything can be achieved with enough passion and drive. At the time they were having around 150 foals a year which I found fascinating and loved my time there and learned a huge amount. I was so proud in the first years of starting MSJ business some years later to sell MSJ Nemo, one of our first colts back to them, who has been used as one of their breeding stallions and produced some lovely offspring. 


– At this time, they prompted my keener interest in dressage and dressage breeding which I chose to focus on researching after my return to the UK. I sought my first real dressage horse at that time and with my parents support purchased Fabiola, a gorgeous Argentinus mare who took me straight onto the GB young rider squad in my first year of dressage competition. Unfortunately, she sustained an injury before we had a chance to compete in our first nominated international, but fortunately being a mare I decided to breed from her as she had lot of talent and was a very special character. 


– Later we acquired Deja’vu with the aim for her to be my U25 horse, however it was not to be but following on from her early career success of being a Bundeschampion and Young Horse World Medalist it made sense to start breeding from such a talented mare. Without Deja’vu the whole of MSJ stud would not be what it is today. So far, she has produced us 10 offspring including 9 amazing daughters and 1 colt which became a licensed Hannoverian stallion after being sold as a foal. Her oldest offspring under saddle are 9-year old MSJ Fascination by Furstenball and 8-year old MSJ Top Secret by Totilas, both of whom have +70% Prix St Georges results. 


– Deja’vu was absolutely instrumental in the decision to become a breeder and never as a rider be left without horsepower. My original aim was purely to breed my own next generation of horses for myself to ride with a flow of horses coming every year so there would always be some to ride and for sale. In the meantime, as I was only producing one foal per year as Fabiola had proved infertile then I purchased foals from Germany to grow up with my Deja’vu offspring which for many years were all fillies hence the almost accidental focus on mares from before my studies even started. 


– Now I love mares and we only have mares in the sport stables and they all also breed by embryo transfer. This is a key part of the business strategy and essential for continuing the key mare lines and getting to know each one’s strengths and weaknesses while breeding with them to help hopefully produce better sport horses for the future when selecting the stallions best suited to each mare. 


– We really focus on sport success so the more ridden a mare or her family is the more honest assessments we can make of her strengths & weaknesses for the big dressage arena. I’m not so much interested in mare or foal shows as I don’t believe that helps us identify the best riding horses for the future as they are often the special individuals who aren’t normally the biggest movers but often have the most trainable characters and are eager to please their rider. I describe most of my bloodlines as aiming to be the Labrador’s of the horse world, which are well-known as being one of the most uncomplicated, easy to train, loving and loyal dog breeds who are commonly used as rescue and work dogs due to their will to please and intelligent natures. 




How have you acquired your fundamental knowledge about breeding?


– After the Ryan’s my main horse mentor was German Simon Kohlenbrenner, the former owner of Deja’vu, who took me under his wing to many stallion licensing events and mare or foal shows throughout Germany where he patiently shared his knowledge on what to look for in a good horse and I made notes on his every comment and analysed every horse in the arena with him. Looking back, I have no idea how he had the patience to answer all my eager questions, but I was like a sponge and could not learn enough. Together with Simon I bought many of the foals in the early years, Freestyle included. 


– Over the years then I got back in touch with Charlotte and of course together we discussed what she looks for in a horse & I started to adapt the breeding programme away from just what I would like to ride & looking more into different bloodlines & some of the traits Charlotte would look for more in a horse. 


– Now whenever I meet a good rider, trainer or breeder I love to discuss with them what they look for in a good horse and what are their personal likes & dislikes which I find fascinating to hear about. I feel incredibly privileged to have met & discussed with so many talented horsemen and women all over the world which have all helped shape my beliefs & thoughts when selecting horses today. 




What are your criterias when you acquire broodmares?


– The MSJ concept focuses on famous mares who either ideally become more successful and better known than their stallion counterparts in the competition arena, or have descended from a very successful family of sport horses either as the mother or close sister or daughter to special sport horses who I believe have world class talent and the traits of bloodline I look to add to our breeding programme. 


– We have been incredibly lucky over the years to acquire some of the mares we now have in the breeding programme, which I still have to pinch myself for. Some well-known lines include the maternal half-sister to Totilas by For romance, the full sister to Vivaldi, daughter of Olympic horse Orthilia, a half-sister to For Romance, the mother of Dream Boy, the mother of Rosamunde, the sister to Victorias Secret, Jameson RS2's half-sister by Vitalis, a sister to Dublet, Toto Jr, and many other special sporting families and stallion producing Lines. 


– We only breed with mares who have achieved high sport success themselves or are from a top family with big sporting success. 



Do most of your mares carry their own foals or do you use ET and ICSI?


– We use a high proportion of ET, currently around 60% of the total number of foals born each year.  We find this technology a great way to breed from the sport mares during their careers, and also to continue breeding from the older mares from key families after they may struggle to conceive or carry a foal to full term and give it the best start in life as an older mother.  This has been very successful for us, often breeding with mares who couldn't maintain a pregnancy for many years previous to joining us, who are able to go on and produce healthy foals by embryo transfer for many years with us, without the strain of carrying a foal or the risk of the delivery in older age.


– Embyro transfer also has the benefit of being able to produce more than one offspring in any given season from some of the best mares, often by different stallions, this allows the best lines chance to add more offspring to the stud and the opportunity to learn quicker which stallions fit best with the mare to produce the best offspring. 


– We have had a lot of success with all these aspects of embryo transfer and have seen little or no side effects, but we are fortunate to work with an excellent team of vets from Equine Reproductive Services in Malton who during the season are with us every day, so the mares are scanned in their home environment and we also do the flushing of the embryos on site at the stud.  We currently run a recipient herd of around 65 mares which also allows us to carefully synchronise the recipient mares with the embryo donors to maximise our transfer results, which have been at an all-time high of 96% this season, based on our careful attention to the care and wellbeing of our recipient mares on site and the skill of our veterinary team.



Do you breed the sport mares at Mount St John or also at their riders?


– We mainly breed the sport mares at MSJ, but we have also had success breeding them at their riders with the help of local vets.  Freestyle is currently focused on the sport so not in the breeding programme, but fortunately we have two daughters from her, A la Freestyle by Ampere and Dancefloor by De Niro who are both in the breeding programme, as well as Josephine her maternal half-sister by Johnson. Between the three Freestyle mares we are expecting seven foals for next year.


What are your main focal points when selecting a stallion?


– I really pay attention to the character and rideability and performance of the stallions when choosing who to breed from. Of course it can be difficult to compare purely on performance results a top ridden good stallion with an excellent stallion who may not be in the best hands for his ridden career and therefore does not come to the biggest shows or win the finals, but from the breeding perspective of course we would like the best horse not just the winner to pass on his natural qualities to his offspring.  For this reason I believe it is even more important to review the success of the offspring across many different riders and ages to get the best feedback on the quality of what a stallion is producing and to see what traits he consistently passes on, both good and bad to choose what fits best to your mare. 


Do you ever breed to stallions that are not the obvious choice?


– We use a lot of the main established stallions such as De Niro, Negro, Totilas and Vivaldi, however we also enjoy using the occasional new exceptional young stallion such as Le Formidable this year.  Breeding is always exciting to see what you get born each year and I also enjoy trying some totally different stallions especially with jumping blood, for example taking Contendro, Van Gogh and Lissaro Van de Helle last year with some super offspring born this year. 



In the UK do you easily get chilled semen from Europe?


– Sometimes it can be a challenge to be based in the UK and to organise semen to come from Europe, of course we always get the chilled semen a day later than it has been collected so it is already often much less quality than if it had been used to inseminate the mare the previous day.  But we are very lucky to work with the excellent veterinary team from ERS and to work with some of the best stallion stations who manage the semen very well, but we do see a big difference in some of the suppliers in their quality or consistency of semen delivered.  


– Generally as a result and as we cannot always rely on deliveries of chilled semen especially on a weekend, we use a high proportion of frozen semen and we always have a back-up of frozen semen here on site for the main stallions who we are using in the breeding season.  Due to having great vets and high success with the frozen semen we are also able to choose some older stallions who are active in competition and not collecting during the season or some who already died to achieve pregnancies, which are then more rare that season than if the same stallions were available with chilled semen.  For example, we have bred many times with Fürst Heinrich, Ferro and also Florestan I using frozen semen years after their deaths with lots of success.  I think it's important to also go back to some of the classic well proven lines to try produce more solid foundation mares to continue breeding with proven success from, as their counterparts are nearing the end of their lives. 



How do you decide which foals to retain for your breeding programme?


– We sell all the colts every year without selection, and now that we have bigger numbers we also sell a lot of the fillies, only retaining ones where we do not have a daughter yet to continue the line for our breeding.  Even so, in the last couple of years we have also sold some of our best fillies when top riders or studs come and make the right offer and we know they will have good possibilities for success in the future, for example Best of Mount St John owned by HP Horses in Denmark, who was placed in the finals of the Bundeschampionat last year in Germany is the only daughter of our mare Best of All, the half-sister to licensing champion stallion For Romance. 


Has WFFS effected your breeding in any way?


– When WFFS news came out last year there seemed a lot of hysteria in the breeding world, however vets stated it was not a new disease or genetic default.  The only way to detect if your mare is a carrier is to do a simple DNA test from a hair sample costing around £30 per horse, we did this for all our mares and interestingly found that all three of our directly Donnerhall mares were carriers.  I am a huge Donnerhall fan and feel honored to have 3 special daughters from him in our breeding programme as well as many of our main sport horses also having Donnerhall mothers, such as Freestyle and VIP.  For sure I do not think any serious dressage breeder would say they would prefer that Donnerhall as a WFFS carrier should never have been in the breeding.  I think now that we are informed about this genetic issue, we as breeders should take care to test our mares and then to match with stallions who are not carriers, but I do not think it is more complicated than that.  I have used many WFFS positive stallions on mares who are clear and when they are a good stallion with other great traits, I have no problem with that at all. 



Do you ever compete at foal shows and mare gradings at all?


– Our focus is on breeding sport horses, so we do not put much attention on mare and foal shows.  We are really looking to produce riding horses who are functional and fit for their purpose so our test for them is mainly under saddle. 

– I cooperate with various studbooks and I actually attended the breeder courses a couple of times for both the Oldenburg and Hannoveraner Verband and also the KWPN studbook and found them very informative and supportive. Key personnel in each of the stud books have been ongoing support and advice to me over the years from starting out to still discussing stallions and bloodlines today.


How do you market your sales horses and foals?


– As well as being active on social media, we also do the open days every year and travel a lot worldwide to visit the main shows and meet with breeders and riders all over the world. Also keeping in touch with the owners who bought horses from us to follow their development and learn as much as possible about each line and to go on.  Many of our clients come back year after year to purchase another horse or youngster. 


Do you travel many shows and which are your preferred?


– I go to all the major young horse championships, licensings and national finals in mainland Europe and also try to cover USA and Australia when possible, as that's where most of our clients are.  I always travel to the Young Horse World Championships and Olympics or World Championships or Europeans whichever is happening for the last 8 years.  I learned a lot from visiting these shows and had the opportunity especially through the connections with Charlotte Dujardin to meet many top riders and breeders worldwide at these events, as well as visiting some amazing countries and places I would otherwise have never imagined visiting, such as Rio de Janiero for the last Olympics.

– However, the Young Horse World Championships is absolutely one of my favourite events of the year.   



Do you have any favourites this year in Ermelo?


– For sure the stallions we have taken such as Jameson RS2, Springbank II VH, D'Avie and Valverde we have used for next year we are hoping to have high success, but my personal favourites are the 5-year old mares Espe with Eva Müller and Jatilinda with Vai Bruntink, because ultimately I am still all about the mares!