Michael Doherty, his father Gerald and sister Kelly, manage Quarryfield Farm near Ballymote in south Co Sligo. It’s a 38ha holding originally bought by Michael’s grandparents in the early 1950s, and over the following decades a successful dairy enterprise was developed. Then, in 2002, disaster struck: the entire 90-cow dairy herd was taken, following a suspected, but contested, case of Brucellosis.

This unimaginably traumatic event – a lifetime’s work unravelled – forced a reappraisal of the family’s farming future. Initially, the land was rented to a large sheep farmer before Michael, then in his early teens, and his father gradually began sheep farming themselves, understandably reluctant to go back dairying.

Michael went on to university in Maynooth, studying Equine Business, a choice informed by his desire to study business combined with his early interest in animal breeding and his sister Kelly’s equestrian pursuits, which meant there were often horses or ponies around the farm. He enjoyed his studies, including an internship with Horse Sport Ireland, which he later joined full-time.

Michael Doherty beside a pond he has created on his Co. Sligo farm.

Skin in the game

Michael’s fascination with the industry, and his appetite to learn more steadily grew: he recalls buying his first broodmare ‘Knightfield Mena’ in 2013 (using a car loan!), partly to have “skin in the game” and build more “street cred” for his day job. He left HSI in late 2018, after eight years, to work for himself and to realise his dream of breeding international showjumpers at Quarryfield.

Today, 15-20 sport horses are kept on the farm (a mix of broodmares, youngstock and horses in training). The farm buildings have been converted for the horses and the 100 ewes who complement them, grazing-wise. An impressive sand-and-rubber-surfaced training arena is used by Michael’s partner Charlotte to put the horses through their paces.

It’s very much a family enterprise, with everyone pitching in. Kelly, in keeping with her brother’s entrepreneurial spirit, also runs a language school (Sligo Language), and an Airbnb property in an adjacent converted granary.

For Michael to survive and succeed in such a high-risk, capital-intensive industry, with no real background prior to his university studies, required considerable audacity, conviction and a willingness to learn. His approach was refreshingly direct, asking himself: ‘who is doing what I want to do, best and most consistently?’ before travelling across Europe to visit leading breeders, observe their farms, facilities and horses and to seek their advice – ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Leveraging natural assets

One significant piece of advice was not to worry about the “fancy stuff” but to leverage the natural assets of the farm and surrounding landscape, both in terms of animal welfare and in attracting investment. For Michael, showjumping horses are a high-end luxury good – “it’s almost like creating and selling art,” he says.

He has crafted a stunning booklet describing the mares of Quarryfield, drawing on the ‘Yeatsian’ landscape to attract prospective clients and breeding partners (horses from Florida and California currently enjoy the Sligo pastures), helping spread the financial risk and reward.

Michael is enthusiastic about restoring Quarryfield’s natural infrastructure, in particular hedgerows to subdivide paddocks safely for horses, while providing valuable shelter and browse where they can self-medicate. He values the farm’s wet lands (a river runs along one boundary, a site for breeding waders), old buildings and massive wooded ringfort as part of his farming legacy, and also as part of the package for prospective investors in his breeding enterprise.