The Irish renaissance

Ranfurly’s Tracy Crossan has been instrumental in ensuring the Irish horse breed’s future in New Zealand. Images by Richard Healey and Annie Studholme

Ever since her teenage years, Tracy Crossan has been passionate about Irish horses. There’s been barely a time since then that she hasn’t had a least one Irish horse in her paddock, and there would be few people as passionate about retaining and reviving the breed in New Zealand.

Tracy and her husband Gavin farm 720 hectares in the remote and unforgiving Maniototo, in Central Otago, in partnership with Gavin’s parents.

Part of the property, which is surrounding by imposing mountain ranges, is dedicated to Tracy’s Trevalda Irish Sporthorse Stud, where the traditional Romney sheep have had to make way for paddocks of mostly grey Irish horses.

Tracy Crossan with Trevalda Mountain Dancer and Trevalda Mountain Storm

The undisputed kingpin and Tracy’s pride and joy is the handsome Registered Irish Draught (RID) stallion, Ballineen Blue Mountain, known to his fans as ‘Brian’.

With his oldest progeny now eight-year-olds, Brian is already leaving a legacy in the New Zealand equestrian scene; spearheaded by the likes of multiple Supreme Champion and HOY title winner Trevalda Mountain Storm.

Trevalda Mountain Storm winning the Gee Whiz Memorial at HOY 2020 with Dani Simpson

There are several more youngsters by Brian likely to impress in the show rings this season, including Travalda Mountain Dancer, a super-smart purebred out of Richmondlea Delia, an Irish-bred mare Tracey imported from Australia by the hugely influential RID stallion, Crosstown Dancer.

Tracy, husband Gavin and sons Hamish and Ryan with Ballineen Blue Mountain (‘Brian’)

Irish resurgence

While in New Zealand, the Irish sporthorse (ISH) has long played second fiddle to the flashy European warmbloods, Tracy says the breed is going through a bit of a resurgence after years of dwindling numbers. 

It’s gratifying for Tracy and other Irish sporthorse fans, as the breed has a long and proud history in this country, going back to the 1980s with the importation of purebred RID stallions Kingsway Diamond and Laughton’s Legend. These two sires were responsible for many successful progeny, from top-level eventing through to hunting and show jumping.

The key benefit of the ISH, says Tracy, is their rideability. “It’s one thing to breed these amazing warmbloods, but how many people in New Zealand actually have the ability to ride Grand Prix dressage or jumping? That’s where the Irish come into their own. They suit 95 per cent of the riding population. They don’t have to be ridden every day. They can do everything that the warmbloods can, but if you make mistakes they will forgive you for it.”

Irish sporthorses were traditionally a cross between a RID and a thoroughbred, which combined the jumping ability, strength and stamina of the Irish Draught with the athleticism of the thoroughbred. More recently though, RID lines have been crossed with warmbloods.

“It’s a really lovely cross,” says Tracy. “People want the temperament and trainability from the Irish, and the soundness that goes with it, and the ideal is to keep a bit of the movement and flamboyancy of the warmblood.”

The purebred Irish Draught is vital in the mix, as Tracy is at pains to point out: “Without the RID, there is no Irish Sporthorse.”

And determined to secure the Irish Draught in New Zealand, over the past few years Tracy has focused her attentions to breeding purebreds, importing several international quality broodmares,

There are currently just a handful of purebred RID mares in the country, and Tracy has four of them, including two imported from Australia: Tarahill Kulzari (by Branigans Pride RID), and Tullows Trevalda Dream (by Conqueror King RID).

Her latest addition is Kilconnell Go Free, a young filly by Tracy’s all-time favourite Irish Draught stallion, Gortfree Hero. 

A multiple winner of the stallion class at Dublin Royal Show, Goftfree Hero is a Gold Merit stallion for his own performance in show jumping and showing, and also for his progeny’s performance.

As the cost of importing from Ireland is huge, Tracy searched long and hard to find the right filly. 

When she came across Kilconnell Go Free (‘Elsa’), she was told she wasn’t for sale. Some lengthy negotiations followed. “Luckily, her owner could see the worth of what I am trying to achieve over here with increasing our gene pool, and ensuring the future of the breed here in New Zealand,” says Tracy.

Elsa arrived in New Zealand in February 2020, and will be key to Tracy’s breeding programme. “I totally believe in the stallion [Elsa’s sire]. He is one of the best Irish Draught breeding stallions in the world. I want to make sure we stamp ourselves in Irish horse history in New Zealand. I’m pretty certain that’s going to happen,” she says.

Where it all began

An only child, Tracy was bought up in Central Otago by her mother; her father sadly died when she was very young. While her mum wasn’t horsey at all, Tracy spent as much time as she could at an uncle’s farm, who had racehorses. 

But it was time spent in England that sparked her love of big, traditional saddle hunters. At the age of just 17, she took out a student loan, bought a car and a float and went in search of a horse.

The result was a chestnut mare, one of the first crop by Kingsway Diamond.

That was it; Tracy was in love. “She was the horse for me. She was a typical red-headed mare, but I did everything with her. She evented – we did the Springston Trophy twice – hunted, jumped, cavalcaded, mustered, did games and became a multiple Champion Saddle Hunter. And I’ve pretty much had an Irish horse in the paddock ever since,” she says.

Tracy first ventured into breeding game when she sent her mare to the thoroughbred stallion Zabalu, a son of the great Aberlou, which resulted in a lovely grey filly. 

After she met Gavin and moved down to his family farm she was able to expand her breeding programme. At that stage there was just one purebred RID stallion in the country, Coalman’s Touch, who was imported in 1988.

“He was the only one around at the time. I bred some lovely horses by him,” says Tracy.

The horse of a lifetime

As lovely as the Coalman’s Touch progeny were, it was clear to Tracy by that stage that the only way to go about safeguarding the Irish breed in New Zealand was importing a purebred colt to add to the gene pool. 

Her prayers were answered when Malcolm and Lisa Beck, who were based in Hawke’s Bay, brought in the fully classified RID stallion, Ballineen Blue Mountain.

“They were already importing a warmblood stallion and thought if they were bringing in one that might as well bring in another. They saw we only had one Irish draught stallion (in New Zealand) so they scouted around England, and found Brian.”

Brian, who was bred by Enid Lord, is a son of the Supreme Champion In-Hand and Ridden stallion, Bealagh Blue. He is out of Ballineen Glen Abbess, one of the most decorated Irish Draught horses in history. 

At his classification in England, 60 horses were put forward and he was one of just four to be awarded a class one grading. 

After he stood for a season in Hawke’s Bay, Tracy was offered the amazing opportunity to ride and stand Brian at stud, as the Becks were returning to England. 

Tracy couldn’t quite believe her luck. “I thought, I’m 40 years old, if I don’t do it now, I will never do it. He was already a working stallion, with world-class bloodlines.”

Having had no experience with a stallion, Tracy had a lot to learn. “I had to watch a lot of YouTube videos to learn how to collect,” she laughs. Gavin was enlisted to build the necessary facilities including dummy, mare and foal crush and AI facilities, and even helped with all the collecting in that first season.

From the start, Brian was a true professional. Tracy says he knows when he’s on stallion duty, and when he’s been ridden, and he’s quickly became part of the family. Even her sons, Hamish and Ryan, who aren’t particularly horsey, enjoy grooming and caring for him.

But getting him out in the public eye was going to be the key to his success as a stallion here. When he arrived at Trevalda, Brian had just been started under saddle: “He couldn’t even canter a 20m circle.”

But his exceptional temperament made it easy for Tracy to take him out and compete; at his very first outing, he won both the Supreme Champion In-Hand and Ridden Stallion at the Canterbury A&P Show.

Ballineen Blue Mountain has had a successful showing career

He has gone on to win many more titles, and to have success in both show hunter and show jumping, and he also loves being out on the hunt field.

Now that his progeny are also out competing with success, his bookings have picked up considerably, with both amateur and commercial breeders showing interest.

Tracy says that to begin with, many New Zealanders were somewhat hung-up on the stereotypes of the breed here. Though both Kingsway Diamond and Laughton’s Legend were traditional RID types and the best bloodlines available at the time, “everything and anything” was put to them, and there was some negative press due to a couple of notorious red-headed mares .

The Irish Draught has evolved a lot in the 40 years since. “Brian represents a more modern RID. He’s very different from what we’ve previously had in New Zealand. Once people realise there is a real market for his progeny, I think we will see more of them for sale. I’m getting three or four emails a week from people wanting to buy horses.”

Tracy with her broodmares (l-r) Tarahill Kulzari (AUS), Richmondlea Delia (IRE), Tullows Trevalda Dream (AUS) and Kilconnell Go Free (IRE)

Irish Draught history

The first reference to the Irish Draught dates back to the end of the 18th century. The first studbook was established in 1918, when it was recognised that many breeds of livestock were greatly improved through the establishment of good breeding records and the formation of Breed Societies. The initial studbook had 51 foundation stallions and 376 mares.

The First World War claimed many Irish Draught horses, and more were exported for meat during World War II. The demise of the breed continued during the 1950s, as machinery replaced traditional farming methods.

Today, the Irish Draught is still on the list of threatened breeds. Tracy says there are pressures on the breed numbers worldwide, because of the growing trend towards breeding lighter-boned, athletic horses.

While this has merit, she says it’s imperative that foundation stock of Irish Draught are preserved. An sufficient number of Irish Draught mares are needed, as purebred RIDs are the foundation of the Irish Sporthorse.

For brawn, brains and soundness, the Irish Draught provides stability in performance pedigree which cannot be matched in any other studbook, explains Tracy. “Having an injection of Irish Draught blood has provided a thinking brain, toughness, rideability and stamina.”

  • This story was first published in the October 2020 issue of NZ Horse & Pony