Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

No limits - succesful breeder is pushing equine genetics boundaries

Ronan Rothwell is pushing new boundaries in equine genetics

Ronan Rothwell with his top showjumping broodmare Arina.
Ronan Rothwell with his top showjumping broodmare Arina.
Ronan in showjumping action with Boleybawn Riverdance.

Siobhán English

As a successful breeder of sport horses, and founder of the well-established Irish Breeders' Classic, Tinahely-native Ronan Rothwell knows no limits and has recently gone one step further in developing a new business within the world of equine genetics.

It is this business acumen that saw him scoop the Equestrian Business of the Year accolade at the recent Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year awards in Dublin.

"I really was delighted to win the award as it not only meant a lot to me, but also my staff at Boleybawn Horses, my wife Suzanne and my family who have supported me throughout," he said. "It is great to have something so prestigious to your name."

For decades the Rothwell name itself has been synonymous with both thoroughbreds and sport horses, so it would be hard to have imagined Ronan pursuing any other interest outside of the industry, although dairy farming did cross his mind at one stage.

"Dad always had dairy cows and after a stint with showjumper Marion Hughes I came home with a view to getting back into that, but I soon realised that the horses were more of a draw to me. We always had a few mares at home and instead of me getting further into farming, the equine herd began to grow."

From there he dabbled in thoroughbreds through his brother, trainer Philip, and trained a few point-to-point winners before switching his focus to sport horses full-time.

While his father Noel had little interest in the equines on the farm, Ronan's time with him in the milking parlour was certainly not wasted, but only as he was to discover later in life.

"Dad has always been fascinated in bovine genetics and I remember as a child watching the cows being covered by AI. I suppose that is how I developed an interest in the area of embryo transfer in mares, although it was 15 years ago when I first tried it on a mare we had here. It was so expensive back then I said I would never do it again."

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Much has changed since then, however, and embryo transfer is accepted today as a valuable tool in equine practice to increase the number of progeny from genetically valuable mares, many of whom continue to compete while a surrogate carries its foal for 11 months. Its growing popularity has now also made it affordable to breeders as more veterinary surgeons offer the service.

It was only last year when Mr Rothwell had an opportunity to take embryos from another few good mares and transfer them into recipient mares that he saw a possible new business in the pipeline.

"It was while I was attending some of the veterinary clinics to get mares scanned that I realised how many people were actually doing embryo transfers. It was then I saw the demand was there for recipient mares."

In the following months he began to purchase mares suitable as recipients and offer them for hire. "Breeders know that it is hard to synchronise recipient mares with donor mares but we take care of that. All they have to do is get their own mare in foal."

During the entire process he works closely with specialist vets Tim Brennan, Larry Dunne and Andreas Carli.

Of the 16 mares in the herd, no fewer than 10 of those have successfully undergone embryo transfer and are now acting as surrogates for sport horse foals.

As a long-time producer of top-class event horses such as Boleybawn Ace, Ronan Rothwell knows the value of good pedigrees, and now through this process, he hopes to breed another few superstars in the coming years.

The latest addition to his string of young horses is a four-year-old mare by Verdi out of Ballypatrick Flight.

National champion as a seven-year-old, Ballypatrick Flight is exceptionally well-bred as a half-sister to Greg Broderick's Olympic-bound MHS Going Global and Mr Rothwell is optimistic that this young mare's breeding will also see her go to the top.

"The aim is now to cover her and take some embryos from her before she goes jumping. She is part of the plan going forward - to breed out of younger mares and then sell them on."

In recent years Mr Rothwell has seen himself lean more towards continental sires as part of his breeding programme, though it all started out rather differently.

One of his first mares, Fairwood Princess, was traditionally bred (Kildalton Gold-Lucifier) and her dam Greenhall Madam was a winner at the RDS.

Gifted to Mr Rothwell by his grandfather, the late Derek, Fairwood Princess went on to produce the international show jumpers Boleybawn Riverdance and Boleybawn Perfection and event horse Imperialist (formerly Boleybawn Impression).

"At the time it was great to have Fairwood Princess here and we still have some of her progeny here breeding. Initially I tried to protect the line but in the last few years I have had to be ruthless and not let the heart rule the head.

"I believe that if family can't keep itself, protecting it is not beneficial to anyone.

"To be honest I have ended up going the warmblood route by default, and not by choice, as some of the best breeding stallions in the world are warmblood. I always breed to suit the mare - it is so important and in my opinion not enough attention is paid to the mare's pedigree."

Among his current valuable herd of older broodmares is the 11-year-old Arina, a daughter of Air Jordan Z and closely related to the multiple medal-winning mare Ratina Z. An expensive purchase at the time as an unbroken two-year-old, she has since recouped her cost through the sale of her progeny. This includes Fernhill Splash, who is now eventing in the States.

"I suppose I have never been a follower of fashion with regards to my breeding strategies but thankfully, most of the time I have gotten it right - to produce a good jumper with step.

"Sadly 50pc of breeders are still breeding without a focus. To be honest this end of it and the whole industry needs more support. It is shocking and disappointing that an industry worth €700m can still only get €4m from the State. In order for things to improve this needs to change," he concluded.

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