When it comes to breeding, John McKibbin of Leestone Sport Horses is known amongst many as a man unafraid to voice his opinion, no matter how many feathers he may rustle. His ‘main run’ as he puts it, is owning a caravan site in Kilkeel, Co Down. Horses were part of his life as a young man but it wasn’t until his nephew rode horses that his interest in breeding was piqued. “Every time we went to buy a horse, it wouldn’t pass the vetting. I bought a few horses hoping to breed some that would hopefully pass, but when the crash came in 2007, it was either move up or move out. I sold off all the mares I had that just weren’t a viable financial proposition, and I bought the likes of Crosskeys Cavalier (Cavalier Royale x Diamonds Are Trumps) and a few mares every year and built up my herd. I also have Angus cows; they are starting to calf at the moment.”

The Mourne mountain landscape with its dry stone walls and salt-licked fields is a breathtaking place of work for anyone. Despite breeding both horses and cattle, McKibbin doesn’t adhere to the mixed grazing ethos. “I don’t graze them in the same fields because years ago I lost a foal. When I got the autopsy done they said it was a perfect storm, that there was a little infection but it could also have caught something off a young calf. A very rare thing.”

Slow to move

Breeders in Ireland have been united in recent years, grassroots breeders lobbying for equine farmers to be treated equally to other farmers. How does the north measure up? “Up here everything seems to be very slow to move. The government don’t recognise the horse as an agricultural animal, whilst in the south they do. So in the south you can get your grants, your TAMS [as of 2023]. I remember a company that was set up here, they were supposed to be lobbying Stormont to get the horse recognised as an agricultural animal. Talking to other breeders six or so years ago, the mindset was that it was too much of a religious thing to get them all to pull together to do something about it.”

McKibbon shares a moment with one of his mares at home at Leestone Sport Horses a Colum Lynch

At organisational level, according to McKibbin, the benefit for breeders like him is that the Northern Ireland Horse Board (NIHB) ‘runs a few foal shows and that’s about it’. “I’ve seen the NIHB board trying to break away from Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) and I’m just wondering why?” he says. “What is the agenda there?

“NIHB need a good place to run a proper foal show. I don’t go to mare inspections anymore because I went to a few in Cavan and they turned a mare of mine down for a tiny curb that you’d really have to look for to find.The mare went on to produce horses that jumped 1.40m and 1.50m, why do I need my mare in a classification that’s absolutely no use to me?

“As far as Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) goes, I think Denis Duggan needs to resign. When there’s a vote and they don’t support you in the vote, should you not go? [In November 2022 seven of the eight directors of HSI resigned following a fallout over a vote to dismiss CEO Denis Duggan. Chairman Joe Reynolds then followed. Duggan remains in his position with a new board appointed by Minister Charlie McConalogue.] And there’s other people within the organisation who are not horse people, they’ve never owned a horse, never rode a horse, never bred a horse, I would prefer to see more people with breeding experience on the board.”

Unafraid see? McKibbin has also been very active on social media platforms, calling out untruths as he sees them. Not everyone always agrees of course and there have been rows. “Social media in general is good for breeders, to see where they can buy semen, who are the good vets etc. We have a really good horse vet in our area with John Haughey at Carrickview Stud.

Confidence with breeders

McKibbin is also a semen agent and has a solid philosophy on customer service: “I think the big thing with breeders is transparency, accountability. When I’m an agent for the studs the breeder does not pay me, they pay the stud directly. So that gives trustworthiness, that the money goes directly to the stud. I also just love working with breeders, they text me or ring me at seven o’clock in the morning looking for semen: organising it right away. You know you are doing them a favour, you are getting mares in foal to the top stallions that hopefully go on to represent Ireland.

McKibbin looks at his semen agency work as a ‘whole long-term thing’ and started the business because he says, he wanted the breeding in Ireland to improve. “I would love if there were stallions in Ireland jumping 1.50m and their semen was available but there are just not the stallions out there to breed marketable and profitable foals out of. Probably because it’s too expensive here to produce a horse to that level.

With the snowy Mournes in the distance two Leestone mares begin the Spring ritual of grooming out each other's winter coats. \ Colum Lynch

“This is very simple - for me to go out and buy a mare to breed off I would rather go out and buy a mare at fifteen, twenty thousand rather than trying to buy a mare at six or seven thousand and competing it up to the level that you could sell a foal out of her. It’s much easier to buy a mare with a performance pedigree that you don’t need to compete to sell foals out of. It’s the cost in Ireland and accessing capable riders, there’s only a handful of riders in Ireland that you would send a horse to.”

Good mares

And what about fair pay for breeders? Much is made of the fact that breeders often get the worst pay in the business, has he found he has had fair prices for his stock? “I took an Emerald foal to the sales with a reserve of nine thousand and was told it was too high, I disagreed. The auctioneer said ‘the country is full of good mares’, and I said, ‘no, the country is full of mares by good stallions. Know the difference between a good family and a mare by a good stallion’. I went into the ring and the foal went straight to thirteen grand in five minutes. The country is not full of good mares, it’s full of mares of a good family to sell foals.”

McKibbin’s first foal has just arrived, a filly by Eldorado and he’s excited. It’s an embryo out of his fine mare Acajou van het Kloosterhof (Heartbreaker x Ramiro). Acajou van het Kloosterhof is a full sister to PrimeVal Dejavu who jumped at Rio Olympics. “I also have an Aganix du Seigneur Z embryo and also a Tangelo van de Zuuthoeve, out of the Cornet Obolensky daughter of one of my foundation mares Cross Keys Cavalier; she’s already sold to America. I have another Emerald foal due out of a sister of that mare too, another daughter of Cross Keys Cavalier and then you have another Heartbreaker mare there and she is in foal to Emerald - her four-year-old last year was second in Millstreet and second at the Irish Breeders Classic. That’s already sold to Marion Hughes.

Selling embryos

We know breeding isn’t easy and lessons are usually learned the tough way; it was no exception for McKibbin who foals all of his own mares. “Years ago, I had an Irish Draught mare and the foal was breech. I ended up losing the mare and the foal, it was just devastating. I’d never foaled down when I was young, but I learned very quickly. One night at one o’clock in the morning and I had checked the mare - she was standing there happily eating her hay. Ten minutes later the foal alarm went off. When I went out to her, she was foaling with red bag syndrome. I didn’t know what it was but initiative kicked in and I just thought, ‘well if that bag doesn’t get bust open the foal is going to suffocate’. I just went in with my fingers and thumbs and ripped the bag open, ripped the inner bag and the foal was normal and everything was grand. It was something of a learning curve right away!

“I’ve lost an ICSI embryo by Cornet Obolensky out of my PrimeVal Dejavu mare this year, the mare aborted it. Apparently 50% of ICSI foals were aborting this year. There’s lots we don’t know about the ICSI thing yet, and maybe that’s why all these online forums of frozen embryos for sale are not full of ICSI foals for sale, and not even full of embryos in mares for sale. They are selling frozen embryos in tanks. Why is that? Is it because they know the chances of getting a live foal is slim and that’s why they are passing the embryo on and taking the money?

“I wouldn’t bother with ICSI anymore, I think the only time ICSI should be used is if a mare isn’t capable of carrying full term or able to flush an embryo. Or if you were looking to use a stallion that was not available by ordinary breeding. The likes of Chacco Blue - his straws are selling for twenty and thirty thousand euro. Obviously you are not going to put that straw in one mare and hopefully get her pregnant, it just wouldn’t make viable economic sense to do that. When they take the oocytes out of the mare, in my experience, only one in four turned into a viable embryo. And then only 50% of those embryos made it to a full term pregnancy. At that stage you could have spent somewhere between ten and twenty thousand euro.

“The other thing I was thinking of is that whenever you are inseminating the mare even with a frozen straw, there’s probably enough semen every time a stallion is collected to make a hundred straws. But you are getting the best swimmer there, to fertilise the egg. However, in ICSI they are selecting the liveliest sperm in a slice of a frozen straw. Are you going to be getting the best semen? In each straw there’s maybe a hundredth of a slice of that straw and then you are picking out one sperm out of that one hundredth of a slice.”

Very happy

McKibbin is shrewd in business and a bit of a blue sky thinker truth be told, but it’s not all about the head. When we begin to talk about the foals he’s bred, the heart finds its place and he admits: “It’s lovely when you are breeding stuff that is jumping up there at 1.50m class, it’s nice to get a first or second in the shows, but what makes me happy is when the foals are born living and healthy and suckling the mare and everything is up and living. You have your disappointments, but it makes it all very satisfying when you are working from a sperm, getting it fertilised and in the mare, looking after the mare for the year and getting a live foal. That makes me very happy.”

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