Billy-no-mates? Hardly…….

A Visit To The Billy Stud by Catherine Gray

“Breeding Champions for the Future”……. that’s the headline on the Billy Stud’s website. A bold statement, admittedly, but one made in the knowledge that this stud has created a winning formula for consistently breeding and producing champion sports horses for the future.

The Billy Stud is a unique joint venture between William Funnell, Pippa Funnell and Donal Barnwell, combining their experience in showjumping, eventing and breeding. William Funnell is a world-renowned show jumping rider with over 20 years’ experience at the top of his sport. He has won over 20 International titles and has represented his country all over the world at the highest levels. Donal Barnwell has over 20 years’ experience in breeding horses and, in addition to his own unique philosophy and outlook on selection, breeding and training, is recognised as having one of the best eyes in the business. Pippa Funnell is regarded as one of Eventing's sporting elite in terms of her achievements: in 2003 she became the first person to win Eventing's greatest prize, the Rolex Grand Slam (consecutive wins at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley), and she also keeps herself occupied with talented youngsters. She is a renowned producer of young horses, having won a record number of Burghley Young Event Horses classes.

The Open Day took place on 6th April this year, at Jordan’s Farm, Roger Stack’s base in Forest Green. This is where most of the youngsters come for breaking, having been born and spent their early years with Donal and the greater part of the broodmare herd at his yard at Kirdford. Once backed, they then move on to William and Pippa’s yard near Dorking to be brought on. After an initial walk round the yards where the stallions and several of their progeny were stabled, the expected 30-40 visitors numbered easily over 100, making seating in the indoor school rather cosy. We stood or sat penned in the centre of the arena, with the horses performing loose around the perimeter. William and Donal explained that the stud’s breeding programme was started almost by accident, their first foal being Billy Orange, born some 15 years ago. The breeding programme has now expanded quite considerably, with 55 foals born in 2009, and 80 foals due in 2010. Their first broodmare was Tatum, by Clover Hill, out of a Sky Boy mare, and she set the trend for the standard they were trying to establish. Having initially made a deliberate decision to specialise in Irish-bred horses, as they felt they were highly suitable for both eventing and show jumping, their aim now is to be a premium source of the best British-bred competition horses in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand. They have a firm belief that Irish bloodlines have a lot to offer and give advantages over Continental breeding. Both feel that Irish bloodlines have been under-estimated in the past and they believe that their investment to date has given them an advantage in the market. To this end, they cross Irish brood mares with Continental stallions selected for their absolute proven jumping ability as well as correctness of confirmation, range, scope and temperament. The core of the breeding programme is to produce top class jumpers, however it is Donal and William’s belief that modern top class jumpers, as well as the quality, need the Thoroughbred influence to become top class jumpers, and this is seen as a recurrent theme through the breeding stock’s pedigrees. The oldest stock are now 6 to 7 years old and are producing results at the highest levels, and a large number of 4-5 years olds are now becoming available; twenty two 4 year olds were backed over the winter.

First in to perform was Cevin Z, the handsome grey 16.2hh 13 year old by Coriall Z (Cor de la Bryère) out of Larthago, a Carthago Z mare. Highly regarded for both his talent and his pedigree, Cevin Z was one of the most consistent 6 year olds in the country in 2003, achieving 4th place in the Foxhunter Championships at HOYS. His international winnings totalled £8,000 when competing at Lisbon, Chantilly and Vimeiro in 2007, with UK wins at both the Surrey County and New Forest Shows. Bought by the (late) Heather MacPherson as the second-highest priced foal from the Zangersheide Stud in 1997, Cevin is now a permanent Funnell family member. He retired from top level competition after developing a suspensory ligament lameness behind, but is currently being competed very successfully by a 13 year old boy in the BSJA’s “Children on Horses” series; we saw him later outdoors with his current rider, and were very impressed by the partnership they have struck up, with Cevin Z clearly enjoying his outing, and his rider receiving some light-hearted tuition in working on his horse’s stride pattern. Viewing him loose, ridden and later in the stable, Cevin is a strong, very masculine sort, and whilst he could be criticised for being a little spongy in his pasterns, he demonstrated an attractively free walk, was still very active behind and showed great reach in all paces. He is perhaps a touch plain in the head - attributed by Donal to his dam – which seems to be echoed in those of his youngsters that we saw, but as I was once told by a very well-respected breeder, “It doesn’t have to look pretty to do the job properly”.

We were then treated to individual displays by six of Cevin Z’s youngsters, all of them grey, and all of them clearly their father’s children. Cevin’s rather elevated knee action in trot also echoed in most of these youngsters, which might well appeal to those mare owners wishing to inject a little more ‘pezaz’ into a mare’s mundane trot. Although out of mares of varying types, each of these youngsters demonstrated great athleticism and bravery. It was evident that these horses were not familiar with the environment in which they were being presented on the day – why were all these people staring out from a cage? However, each was patiently encouraged around the not over-large school and over a single fence that gradually increased in height and depth, easily demonstrating their abilities to shorten and lengthen their stride as they met the fence. Billy On Show, Pippa’s 8 year old showjumper out of an Andiamo mare, is being aimed at County level this year and is considered a good prospect as an International horse; he was placed third at the Young Horse Championships as a six year old in 2008 and is on the Equine Pathway for 2012. He showed great spring and lift, measuring himself well into the fences; bred to showjump, Pippa felt he could actually event, and was cheekily reminded by Donal that she had previously rejected his dam as an eventing prospect. Billy Laden was next, owing his name to having been the very devil to catch when a youngster at Donal’s. With a big open frame, he showed himself a little sharp initially, which Donal attributed to the Cruising influence on his dam side. Once relaxed, he proved himself very powerful and scopey, which would account for his impressive performance on the Sunshine Tour, his qualification for HOYS and for reaching the 6 year old Final in 2009. He had a very successful season winning The British Breeders Show Jumping Award for 6 year olds by winning The British Young Horse Championship Final and was placed third in The Star of the Future Final at Arena UK.

Billy Manhattan presented a leaner, more angular frame, yet was undeniably attractive, and Donal freely admitted here that perhaps Cevin Z would not suit a mare that was on the long side. Only 5 years old, he was considered more of an eventing type, and demonstrated huge lift and power behind, coupled with great lightness over a fence. Billy The Biz was next, altogether a finer more elegant type, out of a Grade A mare which Donal described as a proper half-bred, being by the TB Coevers with her dam’s grandsire the renowned King of Diamonds. This 5 year old had a busy attitude and achieved good height even when going in too deep to the fence, and when he made his one error and immediately learnt from it, William explained that their philosophy was based on wanting to see the horse use its brain; they want to teach independent thought, and therefore do not use a placing pole. Both these geldings were shown later under saddle in the outdoor arena with their sire, and showed very much to like. Billy On High was another 5 year old, made in the eventing mould; she had huge strength in her back, and showed tremendous hock action. William explained that seeing this was always encouraging, as the horse was already demonstrating an ability to sit and take their weight behind. She had apparently been cross country schooling with Pippa and shown exceptional promise. Billy Birvin was a lovely 5 year old prospect, out of the same mare as William’s very talented Grade A showjumper Billy Birr, but looked more blood than him. A little green and rather cautious, she tried extremely hard and could easily be forgiven her one mistake, given she was a year behind her rest of her year group, having already had a foal. Donal explained that she was one of the 2 year old fillies they put in foal, who, after weaning, go on to be backed in the winter they are rising 4. The final Cevin Z youngster was an un-named 3 year old, out of an Animo mare, who was, for now, being kept entire. Donal explained that the original plan had been to geld him, but on the day he was to be cut, he demonstrated such impressive jumping ability to escape from the vet, Donal had second thoughts. Donal explained that for any of the colts to remain entire, they really had to be exceptional: this is borne out by them having kept only 2 colts entire from their 2007 foal crop. This fellow showed he has the scope and range to achieve Grand Prix, but also carries the blood to event, and demonstrated a fluid and effortless style over his fences, with great lift through his shoulders and back end. At this point, Donal admitted a secret to William and Pippa: he had already used him on three mares in 2009 – it was easy to see why.

The next stallion was Billy Mexico, who is a very handsome rich chestnut 5 year old standing at 16.1hh. Being by Cevin Z, he carries on his sire’s side the double crosses of both Cor de la Bryere and Capitol 1, and his dam Bidorette (by Le Mexico out of an Almé mare) is a proven broodmare having produced numerous good foals, in particular, the approved stallions, Fervent (a proven sire who achieved over £20,000.00 in winnings) and also Libro who jumped to Foxhunter level, with BSJA winnings of £974. Bidorette is also the mother of the gelding BF Panama who jumped up to AON 6 year olds in the UK. Billy Mexico looks to be an exceptional young stallion, having started his competitive career with William by achieving a second place at Scope 2009 in the National 4 year Championships and then taking joint first at the British Young Horse Show Jumping Championships at Addington, in the 4 year old British Bred Championship. He showed us a tremendous natural jump, with an impressively elastic ability to stand off or go in close, all with absolutely no obvious effort. Strong without looking chunky, he could well add substance to a lighter framed mare. It will be very interesting to see how his first foals go on to perform, as the two yearlings we saw next were the epitome of equine athletes in the raw. Only just in from having been over-wintered in large groups in barns, their greenness did not prevent them from showing how light on their feet they were and how well they stepped up and through from behind.

Billy Congo nonchalantly strolled in next. Although known as ‘Junior’ at home, there is clearly nothing Little League about this stallion. At 16.2hh and 9 years old, he is by Vechta (Voltaire), who was a talented show jumper being placed in numerous Grand Prix, including the Hickstead Derby, and was regularly selected for the British Nations Cup Teams including Rome and Aachen, ridden by William. His dam is Billy Autumn, bred at the Billy Stud from their foundation mare Tatum; she has also gone on to show great talent, being third at the Horse of the Year Show in the Foxhunter Final and being placed and winning numerous Young Horse classes, ridden by both William and Pippa Funnell, before being sold as an 8 year old to Canada. Billy Autumn’s father Animo and grandfather Clover Hill, Ireland’s most prolific sire need no introduction, both having sired international winners too numerous to mention. In his jumping career so far Billy Congo shows great potential: he has competed successfully both nationally and internationally and during the Show Jumping Sunshine Tour 2009, he jumped for five weeks without a single pole down. He has to date already won over £20,000 and is widely recognised as one of the most exciting young horses competing on the Equine Pathway for 2012. William feels that “he’s the best I’ve ever had, and this year he’s got to go on to prove it”. At the Open Day, we saw him in perfect condition, and he showed himself to be very careful but brave. He demonstrated active and balanced paces and great strength through his back. Donal commented, in his refreshingly critical, no-nonsense style, that he felt Billy Congo was better in his hocks than his sire, and that whilst not an ‘extravagant’ canter, there was more than enough to perform the job at the highest level. We saw this borne out when later under saddle with Pippa, as he performed his very own Chase-Me-Charlie competition, going easily over a parallel some 1m50 in height and 1.30m spread, and were stopped only by the jump stands being no taller. The comfortable relationship between Donal, Pippa and William was again obvious in the fun chat between them, as Pippa was unfazed by Donal’s comment: “It’s amazing how brave these eventers can be when riding a well-schooled showjumper!”. She later retorted to William’s teasing that the only reason she was riding Billy Congo rather than William was because she “thought he’d go higher with a few less stone on his back”!

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