Tuesday 24 October 2017

My perfect little herd

David Medcalf pulled on his jodphurs to talk to renowned Wicklow horse breeder Suzanne Acres - only to find that there was no chance whatever of saddling up any of the special horses at Ballykeppogue Stud

Suzanne Acres with Flame and her two sister foals
Suzanne Acres with Flame and her two sister foals

On the wall in the hallway of the Acres home near Wicklow Town is a large, framed photograph of a fine black horse.

The picture was taken from the side, with nothing in the background to distract the viewer from this magnificent animal with its glossy coat.

Here, surely, is a steed fit for a king, or at least fit for the rigours of the hunt, or maybe a clear round in the ring at the RDS.

But no, the horse in the picture is actually far too small to carry anyone but a very small child on its well-bred back. He is scarcely bigger than a Saint Bernard dog, though his conformation may be equine perfection.

The subject of the photo is one of 30 miniature horses in the fields and stables at Ballykeppogue.

The shoulders of most of these Lilliputian equines scarcely reach the belly button of the average human. In charge of the breeding and showing these remarkable specimens is Suzanne Acres, who is dedicated to the task.

'They are completely different to Shetlands, which are miniature ponies,' she explains. 'These are proper scaled down horses.'

Welcome to the world of miniature horses, a world with its own pedigree lines and its own network of shows.

The Ballykeppogue Stud is well known throughout this specialised, pint-sized universe, with countless rosettes and trophies to prove it.

The members of Suzanne's string come in many colours, from many backgrounds, with nothing obvious in common but their small scale.

'We are all about quality,' claims the young woman in charge, giving her mission statement. 'Our objective is to make the most perfect miniature horse, regardless of registration.'

The bland formal words cannot disguise her sheer whole-hearted enthusiasm she brings to the task she has set herself.

She loves her miniatures, all of which have names and all of which come to greet her as she walks through the fields and the stable yard.

On a tour of the premises, she introduces some of them to the visitor from the newspaper.

Here, for example is Rocky, his beautiful golden hide fringed with black mane and tail to create an eye-catching sight.

The stallion's correct full name is Lucky Legends Couragio Rockstar, blessed with Argentinian genes and United States breeding.

The South Americans have a particular strain of miniatures called Fallabella and Rocky is one of the few examples imported to this part of the world.

He looks entirely at home in his Irish paddock, as well he might corralled with his harem of four mares.

Suzanne insists that she is not obsessed with pedigree as she pursues her holy grail of perfection in size and shape.

Her conversation is peppered with references to Shetland American (altogether different from the ponies, apparently), Welsh stock and hackneys from which she seeks to produce the perfect cross.

She is happy surrounded by animals.

As well as the horses, she and her father George have room for a couple of donkeys and a small collection of Lleyn sheep.

Then there are the dogs - JJ and fluffy puppy Penny - as well as the hens which provide eggs for sale to passers-by.

Unfortunately, the supply of duck eggs dried up recently when a passing fox decimated the flock.

Twenty-five-year-old Suzanne Acres says her own breeding is very much Wicklow. Her love of fresh air may be traced back to spending much of her girlhood on The Murrough, that great stretch of seaside stones which runs north from the town. She graduated from the Dominican secondary school to take a place on an accountancy course at college in Bray.

The notion of spending the days balancing figures rather than mixing blood lines now seems slightly surreal and she almost shudders at the thought. She moved the few miles inland with her father to Ballykeppogue ten years ago to what was supposed to be his retirement place.

As it has turned out, George is not really the retiring kind and he has taken a full and encouraging part in the stud enterprise on the 11 acres of the Acres smallholding.

He has also turned out to be a dab hand at driving, with a seat on board a gig behind a small horse.

'We started out with two pet donkeys,' recalls his daughter. 'I had always loved horses but we never had room for them before and I never got around to riding horses.'

The first of the miniatures were a pair called Molly and Charlie, who combined to produce a beautiful bay foal called Dodger in 2009.

His owners were so delighted with him that, when they heard there was a show for miniature horses in Gorey, they drove down to the County Wexford.

She confesses that they had no real idea what they were doing but Dodger nevertheless collected the runner's up rosette in his class while a passion was born in his owners.

They improved their presentation skills and their prized pet won countless championships the following year as they hit the road for venues such as Athlone, Clonmel and Tullamore, as well as Kilmacanogue closer to home.

Dodger started the ball rolling, inspiring an enterprise which soon diversified into breeding as well as showing, with the arrival of Rocky as house stallion in 2013.

'We wanted to bring in new blood lines,' says Suzanne of the decision to bring in the handsome Fallabella. She spotted a picture of Rocky on a British website and had to travel over to Derby to collect him as a three-year-old.

The Acres have become very familiar with the ferry across the Irish Sea since, extending their itinerary from the Irish circuit to include UK events.

They are regulars, for instance, at the 'Miniature Horse of the Year Show' at Grantham, where their Volcanic Ash of Rothley stallion was overall champion in 2014.

More routinely called Ash, the champ is on the Ballykeppogue website as available for stud duties and has been keeping company recently with a mare who came from Scotland to benefit from his services.

Suzanne attempts to provide a layperson's guide to the art of showing miniature horses.

She has her own show attire, comprising a tweed jacket and her trademark fedora hat.

Grooming and hoof care is essential when it comes to making an impression on judges, who are looking to find the animal with the best conformation.

The cut of the mane is also important: 'The fashion is to have an extended bridle path to accentuate the neck,' she explains mysteriously.

As well as being clipped to perfection, the show horse must learn show manners and demonstrate and ability to move well in the ring.

The comparison with Crufts, the famous dog show, is valid.

Team Acres spend half their time from April to October travelling around these islands in a van specially converted to carry up to five miniature horses and the gig.

'We share the driving. It is absolutely brilliant and I cannot imagine sitting inside in an office.'

The reality is that her miniatures spend much of their lives indoors as the land at Ballykeppogue is wet and generally unsuitable for winter grazing.

A warrant of stables has been developed in the shelter of converted barns to provide them with the best of accommodation.

'They are too small to have anyone on their backs,' confirms the ace breeder. 'They are bred as pets, wanted by royalty and celebrities.'

One of her foals, a son of Dodger, has ended up in the Persian Gulf with the royal family of Qatar.

Among the VIPs who have been seen with waist-high equines are pop singer Sting and fashion magnate Paolo Gucci.

Anyone who wants to follow their example, could do worse than have a look on line around

Among the offerings is an incredibly blue-eyed colt with Perlino blood line called Ballykeppogue Ima Awesome Rockstar, to give him his full handle.

The price you might pay for such a beauty, so grey as to be white, is discreetly omitted from the webpage, but all genuine enquiries will be welcomed. Business may be business but Suzanne give the impression that she would be genuinely sorry to see any of them go.

'I love every one of them,' she says fondly. 'They all have their own little quirks. I feel very privileged to be able to do what I am doing here.

I am the boss but Dad loves it too and I would not be able to do it without him.'

Bray People