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Sunday 4 December 2016

Transatlantic journey comes full circle for Irish Draughts

An American-born Irish Draught stallion has been reunited with his breeder Liz Freeman in Mullingar

Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30

Last month Steeped In Luck, ridden by Denielle Gallagher-Legriffon, made history by becoming the first pure-bred Irish Draught to compete at three-star level in dressage in Florida
Last month Steeped In Luck, ridden by Denielle Gallagher-Legriffon, made history by becoming the first pure-bred Irish Draught to compete at three-star level in dressage in Florida

The Irish Draught breed has long been coveted across the seas for its calm temperament combined with athletic and versatile qualities.

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US-based show jumpers such as Flexible and Carling King and eventers Custom Made and Eagle Lion are among hundreds of horses exported from Ireland over the years carrying Irish Draught breeding, a trait which so often gave them the edge when it came to top-class competition.

In the early 1990s, in a bid to try and breed some performers of their own, American enthusiasts decided to join together and purchase a number of broodmares to widen the band of Irish Sport Horses in the US. When crossed with the thoroughbred, the Irish Draught has been creating exceptional jumpers and eventers for decades.

Among the first band of mares to leave these shores in 1993 was a daughter of Lake View Pride. Now, 16 years later, these bloodlines have gone full circle and the mare's stallion son, Lionwood Kinsale's Lad (aka Angus), has returned to his dam's homeland to live with his breeder.

"We are absolutely over the moon to have 'Angus' with us in Ireland," commented US-born Liz Freeman who runs Ainninn House Stud outside Mullingar with her husband Paul Mullen.

A veterinary surgeon by profession, Ms Freeman recalls the day she first set eyes on the broodmare Bonnie Belle Supreme when she was living in Iowa.

"I first became aware of Bonnie's existence when I was shopping for RID stallions for my mares.

"I was viewing one of the stallion videos (which included progeny clips) when this extraordinary mare floated across the screen with her newborn colt. I was smitten, but never dreamed I would ever meet her, much less own her."

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That colt, by Grey Macha and later named Easter Rebellion, was the first pure-bred Irish Draught foal to be born in North America.

Bred in Castletroy, Co Limerick by Kevin Culhane, Bonnie Belle Supreme's dam Dark Glen was by Mountain View, with bloodlines going back to Ginger Dick.

"Sue Holland, herself among the first breeders of pure-bred Irish Draughts in North America, subsequently purchased Bonnie from her previous owner and bred her to O'Leary's Irish Diamond.

"A few months later I discovered through a mutual friend that Sue was offering Bonnie's first pure-bred daughter for sale. I immediately flew to Houston.

"Unbelievably, Sue agreed to sell me Bonnie instead while in-foal, a decision that changed the direction of my life.

"That was in 2000, after which Bonnie became the benevolent queen of my herd of pure-bred Irish Draughts."

Over the years Ms Freeman's former base Flying Harp Farm was home to Bonnie's three pure-bred daughters (one of whom was bred by Sue Holland) and six of her pure-bred grand-daughters (including one bred by Sue's sister Patty).

In 2003 Ms Freeman decided to send her mare Bonnie Belle Supreme back to O'Leary's Irish Diamond, an Irish import by Glidawn Diamond who at the time was competing successfully in dressage and had reached Prix St Georges level under rider Stephany Fisch. That covering resulted in Lionwood Kinsale's Lad.

"Like his dam, from the start Lionwood Kinsale's Lad also displayed a calm, sensible outlook and great movement. His dam was a lovely, substantial mare and her temperament was faultless," the breeder said.

A few months later Lionwood Kinsale's Lad was purchased by Ken Haley, who campaigned the grey with success in the show ring as a yearling and two-year-old.

Under saddle he competed in show jumping up to 1.25 metre level, but it was in the dressage arena where he truly impressed in recent years.

At just seven years old, 'Angus' obtained his United States Dressage Federation third level performance certificate and qualified for the USDF Regional Championships.

A year later, in 2012, he won both the All Breeds 4th Level and FEI Prix St George Championships. This achievement was repeated again in 2013, justifying his gold merit status for his performances in dressage. Class 1 approved here in Ireland, to this day he is still the only gold merit Irish Draught in any discipline to be bred outside of Europe.

Determination

"Ken has been absolutely steadfast in his belief in this horse from the start," Ms Freeman commented. "His devotion to ensuring Angus had every opportunity to succeed and his unwavering determination to prove what the pure-bred Irish Draught horse can do in the dressage arena, have made this horse what he is today."

Liz Freeman was devastated when she lost Bonnie to colic in March of 2007, a year after she bred her seventh and final foal, the stallion Lionwood Ranger.

"I always wanted to bring the mare's ashes to Ireland to sprinkle them along the banks of the River Shannon, where she spent her youth.

"I never had the opportunity to do that, and sadly I was forced to sever my last connection to the family when I sold her home-bred grand-daughter Lionwood Rowan de la Mer to Canada in 2014, having realised that it was simply not in the budget to have her join me here in Ireland.

"Giving up the last link to a family I nurtured for so many years was extraordinarily difficult."

It was only in the past 12 months that Ms Freeman realised the link she thought she had lost, would finally return to her in Westmeath. "It was a very emotional time when Ken agreed to give me the opportunity to be reunited with Angus.

"I owe Ken a debt of gratitude for his efforts, both on behalf of Angus, and the Irish Draught breed many of us hold so dear. I feel so honoured that Ken has allowed him to come to Ireland.

"Our goal with him now is to get foals on the ground.

"He covered only a few mares in America due to his competition schedule and most of those mares were thoroughbreds.

"There are very few pure-bred ID mares in America and competition is fierce for sport horse mares as there are so many warmblood, thoroughbred and other stallions available, many with competition records.

"Also sadly a lot of the infighting between breeders seems to have been exported to America along with the horses.

"This has turned a lot of people away and many have closed up shop over the last five or six years.

"Angus will undoubtedly have a better chance of contributing to the breed here, but he has been competing for the last 11 years straight so now it's time for him to enjoy some green grass and relaxation."

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