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giant's castle
giant's castle

The most productive breeding dirt in the world…

(Photo : Summerhill Stud) 



Continuing the extracts from the Summerhill Sires Brochure for 2010/2011. Are you on the mailing list? If not then please let us have your details and we’ll gladly ensure you get a personal copy when it’s published on the 1st August.

“Summerhill is more than good real estate. Rolling hills and deep complex soils over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of great trees and emerald green pastures tell you the country is kind, but not soft. With their stately Prime Ministerial residences, their rich racing heritage and old chapel basking in the lee of Giant’s Castle, Summerhill and Hartford are national treasures.

These farms are deep in horse country, just outside Mooi River, a slow village with a little railway station, left behind by the Anglo Boer War. There are more churches per capita than anywhere else. Old families and a bit of old money still abound.

Summerhill is somehow a farm though, before it is a business, only as good as its current battery of runners, and what it puts back into the soils. It doesn’t really need a sales pitch. You learn soon enough what this place is about.    

Racing has many fine showplaces, built by millionaires with profits from elsewhere. Few properties of Summerhill’s ilk finance themselves entirely on the quality of their horsemen. These people know what they owe, and they understand the responsibility of living in the shadow of “The Giant”. With their sixth consecutive Breeders’ Championship under their belts in the most competitive decade in history, they could just be living on the most productive piece of horse breeding “dirt” in the world.”




Stakes (ZAR)


Summerhill Stud



Lammerskraal Stud



Normandy Stud



Ascot Stud






Klawervlei Stud






D Cohen & Sons



Maine Chance



Avontuur Farm


Sporting Post 4 July 2010

summerhill stud south africa
summerhill stud south africa

For more information please visit :



summerhill stud, hlatikulu valley near giant's castle, kwazulu natal
summerhill stud, hlatikulu valley near giant's castle, kwazulu natal
summerhill stud, giant's castle, kwazulu natal ,south africa
summerhill stud, giant's castle, kwazulu natal ,south africa

Summerhill Stud, Giant’s Castle, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

(Photos : Summerhill Stud)


Not long ago, we were locked in talks with an aspirant investor in the Summerhill enterprise. There’ve been numerous suitors for a share of the action at Summerhill over the years, at least four of them from across the waves. But this time, it came from one of the thoroughbred world’s most intrepid investors.

While there was never an argument about the values placed on the land or the assets, there was some discussion about the relationship of cost to reward. In stock exchange parlance, this is called the “P/E” or the price/earnings ratio, expressed as an index measuring the earnings as a multiple against the value of the asset. The great companies of the world command a PE in the vicinity of 20x earnings.

There came a time in the course of our discussions with the prospective investor that he exclaimed “God, Mickey, your PE is higher than Coca-Cola”. A month later, we became the first stud farm east of the Drakensberg to take the Breeders Championship.

At last year’s awards, shortly after we came off the podium with our fifth consecutive Equus Award, our good friend was the first and most magnanimous well-wisher to congratulate us. We’ve never forgotten his earlier retort, and our quietly understated answer was “now you know why we’re more expensive than Coca-Cola!”. In the end, it’s what one very rich man will pay to beat another.

No doubt, farmers in the Mooi River environs will take heart at the value people place on our local farmland. This is, after all, the country the British, the Zulus and the Boers fought so fiercely for in the 1800’s. Whenever we travel abroad, we kiss the floor at Oliver Tambo International on our return, never forgetting how lucky we are to till the soils of the finest agricultural and stock country on earth.


leopard in the midlands
leopard in the midlands


(Photo : Phillip Mackenzie)


There are people who pay independent fortunes to find leopards and their cubs in the wild reserves of Africa. At Summerhill, we’ve long preserved the fauna and flora around us in conjunction with our neighbours, and we are the proud possessors today of a rich legacy and a deep diversity in the animals and plant types that characterize our environment.

Among the predator creatures that frequent our territory are Caracal (Rooikat), several packs of Jackal, the occasional Cape Fox, and Serval. We’ve been known in the district to have the odd rare visit from a Leopard, and our horse breeding colleagues up the road at Camargue Stud once suffered a loss of several yearlings as a result of their taking flight when a male of the species passed through their paddock several years back.

We don’t recall any reports of sightings on Summerhill though, so imagine our surprise on Monday evening when our hotel manager, Paula Mackenzie, spotted a female leopard and her three cubs on the roadside at the junction dip between our two properties, the Springs and Summerhill. What a sight, and what a pleasure to know that she should feel comfortable raising a family in our neighbourhood. Leopards are strongly territorial animals, and operate within a well defined range. They have been known to pitch up at the strangest places, but seldom venture beyond the kloofs and forests that provide cover for them during the day. There’s little that will prey on their cubs at Summerhill, and it says something for our conservation practices here that this lady should feel free to roam as she has, to our eastern most boundary.

Something for visitors to look forward to at Hartford House, as she’s likely to be in the vicinity for some time, while the youngsters grow up.


angus cattle
angus cattle

Hartford’s Angus Cattle

(Photo : Summerhill Stud)


For more than a decade now, diners at Hartford House’s legendary restaurant, where celebrity chef, Jackie Cameron, “wows” them with the best beef fillet on the planet, have proclaimed the virtues of our Angus beef.

But besides “Woolies”, who’s fussy customers only buy Angus, South Africa seems to have overlooked one of the world’s best kept secrets, in much the same way as we bypassed the “Danehill” phenomenon in the stallion business.

Fast forward nine hours to Melbourne, Australia, where Channel Nine was banging on this morning about their “big” discovery, almost as though they’ve struck oil. Angus beef has been proclaimed the best by a country mile, and there’s hardly a food outlet not offering it on their speciality menus.

It’s well known back home, that our Agriculture Manager, Barry Watson, presides over one of South Africa’s finest Angus commercial herds and they’ve won countless awards. Just a few years back, the President of the largest commercial beef farmers union in the world (Argentina) was a house guest at Hartford House. He left us after a week, conceding that the Hartford beef was up there with the very best he’d ever eaten.

But ours is no ordinary herd. They don’t just taste so good. They eat so good, as complementary grazers for the horses. They like the pastures long, while the horses like it short.

They pick up the horse parasites (it’s a symbiotic relationship, much like zebra and wildebeest in the wilds) they control the ticks (and facilitate the export status of our thoroughbreds in the process), and in general, they provide the variety so essential to the delight of the eyes on any proper farm property.


vuma extruder plant 1
vuma extruder plant 1
vuma extruder plant 2
vuma extruder plant 2

Vuma Extruder Plant

(Photos : Leigh Willson)


You are right, it is one of the most beautiful farms on the planet, and we’re lucky to know the seasons as they come and go, always recognisable for another renewable feature. We also have some “practical” places, like the workshop and the Vuma extruder plant, which are literally mini factories and take some managing from an aesthetic perspective. It’s their turn now, as their agapanthus just happened to be the best on the property right now, which just goes to show, you don’t have to be shabby just because you’re not in the gardening business.


yesterday, today and tomorrow at summerhill stud slideshow
yesterday, today and tomorrow at summerhill stud slideshow



“We love horses, we like people, and we love what we do…”

annet becker
annet becker

Annet Becker Summerhill SudI recently came across this article written by Dan Rosenberg (ex Manager and President of Three Chimneys Farm near Midway, Ky). What was so interesting to me is how someone thousands of kilometers away from us, in a different environment, can put down exactly the thoughts and aspirations of any farm manager anywhere in the world.

It reads :

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I told my riding coach that I was going to make my living with horses. She responded : “You have to be at least half crazy to do that, and it helps to be all the way crazy.

So, I became a farm manager, and to steal a lyric from an old Paul Simon song, I’m still crazy after all these years.

The title of farm manager covers a wide range of job duties. Many, if not most, farm managers are hands-on. I started out as manager of Three Chimneys Farm mucking stalls, grooming horses, wiping out snotty noses, and mowing in the evenings. Eventually, my job evolved into a desk job with stacks of paper, a keyboard at my fingertips, and a telephone headset at my ear. Whether you are a hands-on manager, a desk-bound manager, or all the job descriptions of farm manager that fall in between those two, it is literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years and years and years.

Though we get to live in a gorgeous, calendar-perfect setting with scenes of gut-wrenching beauty, the job is anything but idyllic. It is a stressful job filled with frustration and pressure, disappointment and heartache. But we love it and would not do anything else. There is no question about it. We’re all at least half crazy. Here’s what we have to deal with.

Love of horses

The love of horses is what draws us to this career in the first place. As we all know, they are magnificent animals manifesting the qualities we so admire: courage, nobility, grace, and beauty. It has often been said that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

But we also know that horses are determined to self-destruct. Especially the good ones. And so it has also been said that no one with more than ten horses ever had a good day. They come into the barn three-legged lame with a foot abscess on the morning the owner or an agent is coming to see them. They colic during your child’s birthday party. They run through a fence in the middle of the night. They abort on Christmas morning. All in a day’s work for the manager.

As I went to my first management position, my mentor Lars la Cour told me on my last day working for him : “You’ll find out the horses are the easy part, and the people are the hard part.” Truer words were never spoken. Good communication skills and good people skills are essential.

Coach and teacher

A manager must be a coach, a teacher, a psychologist, a parent, and a policeman. We have to find good people to hire, teach them, motivate them, help them through personal crisis, counsel them, discipline them, and mold them into a team. Sometimes we drive each other crazy.

We have people who don’t show up for work, people who can’t follow simple instructions, people who can’t get along. We also have dedicated horsemen who show up when the roads are icy, who stay late waiting for the veterinarian to look at a sick foal, who work their tails off on those days when everything goes wrong. Working together under trying conditions, sharing the good and the bad, often leads to deep respect and close relationships.

It’s fun to call a client with good news. “Your mare is pregnant!” “Your mare has a beautiful new foal!” “Your mare’s two-year-old just broke his maiden first time out by ten lengths!” Calling a client with bad news is another part of the job. It happens more frequently, and it is never easy. We are never happy about the news ourselves. We care about these horses as much, or even more than the owner does.

We feel the loss of a pregnancy, an injury to a yearling, or the death of a horse as a personal loss, both emotionally and often financially. It is pretty tough to make that phone call, only to be beat up for something we already feel badly about and for something over which we had no control. But we feel even worse for the owner who is sympathetic for our loss and grateful for our efforts.

Over the course of years, we make many such calls, to share the joy and the sorrow. There are always some jerks, and another part of our job is to try and educate them. But we develop deep and lasting friendships with many. It’s one of the best parts of the job.


Talk about teamwork! Talk about sharing tough times and long hours! You’ve got to love your veterinarian.

Some decisions are clearly management decisions. Some decisions are clearly veterinary decisions. The gray areas in between can be contentious. We have a partnership and a “give and take” in making those hard calls that determine our success or failure and also lead to strong relationships.

The farrier also deserves a tip of the hat. A good farrier makes us look good, and a bad farrier can ruin us. We spend hours together in the heat and the cold discussing each foal and yearling. We need utmost confidence in each other.

The feed mill, the hay man, and the shipping company all work closely with us and can help make our jobs and our lives easier. So do the sales companies, agents, and trainers as well as contractors and vendors. Nurturing and managing those relationships is a big part of the job.

And of course we interact regularly with our colleagues and their staff. We live in a fishbowl. We compete against our friends, and everyone knows everyone’s business. But we work together to get our mares in foal. We celebrate each other’s triumphs and sympathize with each other’s bad luck. We commiserate about how tired and worn out we are and about our common problems. We work together in a crisis.

We endure oppressive heat, freezing cold, snow, ice, drought, and flooding, and we have those indescribably perfect days in April, May, September, October. We regularly experience accident, disease, and death. We also witness the hopes and dreams of a newborn foal or a first-time starter, and we have the thrill of seeing a group of yearlings race across a field.

We are used to the vagaries of nature from a lost pregnancy whether due to placentitis or mare reproductive loss syndrome, the disappointing foal from our best mare, the OCD lesion in the stifle found weeks before the sale.

From owners to grooms, we deal with unreasonable people, dishonest and unreliable people. Yet, from top to bottom, we find some of the most caring people and best friends in the world.

We practice “animal husbandry,” a term that unfortunately is not used much anymore. But I think it is a good term. We know our horses better than most people know their family members. We care not only for them, but we care deeply about them. We share in a thing of beauty. We share disappointments, and we share hopes and dreams with our friends.

The essence of a farm manager may be that we love horses, we like people, and we love what we do. Maybe we are not so crazy after all.

The grass is greener on our side...

summerhill organic composting project
summerhill organic composting project


Please click numbers above

to view photos of our Composting Project

(Photos : Clint Teichman) 

barry watson
barry watson

Barry Watson Agriculture and Estate ManagementCompost… one of those magical things that we don’t fully understand. Uses include soil conditioning, fertilization and the addition of humus or humic acids; it is also used as a natural pesticide for soil.

Here at Summerhill we make compost from our stable bedding materials. It is not a complicated process but does require a little elbow grease.

The composting project here at Summerhill is actually about 15 years old but the production on a grand scale is now in its third year. From March this year until now, we have produced just over 2500 Tons of compost and have applied it to our pastures both for grazing and hay production in preparation for the forthcoming summer.

From soil test results, we can see that where we previously had imbalances, we now have soil improvement in line with the biological principles of eco-stalwart Dr Albrecht. The application of compost on this scale has also made our “Organicfertilizer practices far more efficient. We no longer use highly acidic, and poisonous, fertilizers that sterilize the soil and in turn wipe out all beneficial life under the surface.



miracle mix
miracle mix


barry watson
barry watson

Barry Watson Agriculture and Estate ManagementPasture choices for any species of animal is one of the more hotly debated topics in agriculture. Some say Kikuyu, with a winter grass under-sown, is the ideal whilst others believe Kikuyu causes an imbalance of certain minerals in the animal’s body… especially in the pregnant mare.

Short of getting into a debate on what, where, why and under what conditions; we have found a pasture mix, from days of old Europe, which has massive potential as a pasture, especially for  those sick, lame and lazy cases. It is a mix of Sainfoin and Sheeps Burnett.

The name Sainfoin is derived from Old French, sain foin (“healthy hay”). This plant species is a legume, therefore it fixes nitrogen and when correctly inoculated has a low fertilizer requirement.

Sheeps Burnett on the other hand, is a deep-rooting herb retaining green foliage into the winter and is highly digestible and has a low tannin content.

This pasture mix has been extensively trialed against Lucerne and the upside is that it generally stays green through winter. That is the theory anyhow, so we are still trialing the mix here at Summerhill. Farmers of old called this mix the “miracle healing pasture” as it somehow speeds up the recovery period in ill animals. 

Time will tell…



summerhill stud barn owl with fledgling
summerhill stud barn owl with fledgling

Summerhill Barn Owl with fledgling

(Photo : Barry Watson) 

barry watson
barry watson

Barry Watson Agriculture and Estate ManagementEarlier this year I wrote about rodent control, or to qualify that statement, in the agricultural landscape, we call the problem a gerbil. These little critters have a habit of making large dens, much like rabbits and their warrens. Remember what happened in Australia after the introduction of rabbits? They caused such a problem that a fence was put up right across the continent in an attempt to control their invasion, prompting a return to Europe in search of a natural antidote. Myxomatosis is the disease that keeps the rabbit population under control in the British Isles.

Unbeknown though, to the settler folk of Australia, the existence of these warrens or dens had its benefits, as they act as aerators allowing oxygen into the soil,  and assisting the soil to breathe. 

The problem arises in the crops, remembering that gerbils are vegetarians and have a special affinity for your well planted grass pastures. They have been known to decimate large areas in the vicinity of their dens, evoking the short-sighted but effective response of poisoning.

Our biological farming consultant, John Fair, has been integral to our solution, instigating the erection of owl houses in strategic spots in the fields. A family of owls is reputed to “deal” with something approaching 12 gerbils daily, and while gerbils also have a role in the ecological balance, uncontrolled, they’re capable of tipping the scales themselves.

The success of our owl population is a feather in the cap, as it goes straight to our philosophy of sustainability, something most urbanized humans take for granted.

Reintroduction of an endemic species of prey bird into an area where they used to be in sensible proportions, makes for a win-win situation. The natural balance is restored, as is the environment, and the grazing by large animal species (horses and cattle in this case) as old as the earth itself, is remanifested.

Worth recounting though, that it was the exploitation of the environment with the use of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and the decimation of the soil through the constant pulverization of tractor power, that upset the balance in the first place!

As the revered conservationist, Dr. Ian Player, once said “Nature has her ways. If we don’t respect her, she will take care of it herself. Nature has time on her side, and sooner or later, she will intervene if we don’t play the game”. Just look at the Arctic, and you’ll know what he means.


Nightlife at Summerhill Stud

serval video
serval video

Click above to see

rare night footage of a Serval

barry watson agriculture
barry watson agriculture

Barry Watson Agriculture ManagerThe results of a recent night game count here at Summerhill revealed what we expected, although maybe not in quite so much abundance.

The two most common species of antelope found on the estate are the Common Reedbuck and the Duiker.

The Common Reedbuck is an antelope who prefers open plains, that is they like space around them, often in the vicinity of water. Although they are usually found in groups of 3 to 6, we encountered groups of up to 12 animals in a herd. The Common Reedbuck tends to graze at night and can be heard by their distinctive whistle. If left alone they become very tame, as we experienced when a doe came right up to the van, had a good sniff followed by a whistle before wondering off. The Rams though tend to be solitary and have defined territories. We counted 42 Reedbuck in two paddocks at Bye-farm. The two paddocks in question, Bye 10 and 11, were our first two paddocks fully converted to biological management principles. Obviously the grass must taste better as I have never seen so many Reedbuck in one place at the same time. It truly was a sight to behold.

The other resident antelope found in abundance on Summerhill is the Duiker. These much smaller creatures do not venture out in large groups but we spotted them throughout the farm. This behaviouris true to natureas both male and female Duiker are territorial and only join up for the express purpose of breeding. Their territories do overlap however. Duiker have a tendency to breed all year round but to give birth in the summer months. This phenomenon was proven when we observed a large number of lambs scuttling into hiding when startled.

On the other end of the spectrum are the predators. We spotted two in this category;the Black-Backed Jackal, scourge of many South African farmers, and the Serval. We almost missed the Serval hiding in long grass, which to naked eye would have left him invisible. Fortunately we were using a red-light, normally used for night hunting, which lit him up like a candle. These predators fall into the same category as the Duiker in that they are reclusive, solitary creature. They are however incredibly beautiful to look at.

Another resident species spotted on the farm was the humble, but dangerous Porcupine. We found these fellows walking on roads and contours but the majority were found in the maize lands. These prickly “friends” cause more damage to maize then one might imagine. In a maize land they are in Porcupine utopia, pairing up in dugout burrows with an abundance of food and protective shelter from their few natural predators.

All this took place at night and as anyone who has been on a game drive will tell you, evenings in Africa are a nocturnal experience of sight and sound.


Angus cattle grazing on the Summerhill Estate
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

Summerhill has long championed the cause of the Angus breed of cattle, and it’s a well-known fact that we’ve been home to one of the country’s better commercial herds for more than the past two decades. An intriguing incident happened on the farm of a fellow breeder recently, when one of our colleagues went out one evening to check his cattle grazing on maize stover in the reaped maize lands after dark. He asked his wife to bring the spot lamp in case there were any predators around the cattle.

When they arrived, they were surprised to find the cows standing in a circle, and upon shining the spotlight onto the cattle, they discovered a lamb in the middle of the circle. On closer inspection, they discovered the lamb had been mauled on its hindquarters, and turned the spotlight away from the cows to find a jackal standing some 20 metres off. It was evident that the cows were protecting this newborn lamb (just over a week old) from the jackal.

The couple took the lamb home and nursed it back to health. Since they themselves do not farm with sheep, they enquired of their neighbours the following morning, none of whom were missing any of theirs. How the lamb arrived among the cows, nobody’s able to fathom. How the lamb knew the cows would protect it, remains a mystery. There’s no explaining animal instinct.

Either way, this is an amazing display of nature’s mothering instinct, especially among the Angus breed. The distressing bleats of the lamb led them to drive off the jackal, and form a circle of protection around the lamb. It’s some story, isn’t it?

A healthy farm makes a healthy horse

summerhill angus cattleWeaners from Summerhill’s champion Angus herd hard at work preparing the small paddocks for commencement of foaling season in August
(Photo : Leigh Wilson)

Twenty years ago, the man that stands at the helm of Maine Chance Farm today, John Slade, was the boss at Summerhill. One of the first things we did when John came on board, was to look at acquiring a herd of cattle to compliment the grazing habits of the horses. There are any number of reasons behind the compatibility of different species of stock in the natural environment, and you need only to look to the game reserves to see how well the wildebeest and zebra get on with each other. You see, cattle like the grass relatively long, so they can get their tongues around the lengthy swathes, and the horses, who graze with their teeth, like it comparatively short.

Secondly, the rumen of the beast is hostile to the parasite of the horse, and vice versa, and therefore, from a parasite control perspective, they look after one another’s systems. Finally, though not least, at Summerhill we use the cattle to regenerate our pastures. As most of our readers know, we have a large composting operation at Summerhill, and because we’re in the horse business and use oodles of bedding, we have a wonderful natural resource at our disposal. That said, in the winter, we take a lot of our hay out of the stables, full of the urea deposited through the urine, and spread this across the frosted-off kikuyu pastures. The cattle just love it, they pick it up and pass it through their systems, and then spread it across the pasture like a top dressing. When the first September rains come we say halleluiah! as the first shoots of spring burst forth from their winter slumber. What a sight.


barn owl summerhill studOne of our resident Barn Owls
(Photo : Barry Watson)

barry watsonBarry Watson Agriculture ManagerWe all know them but don’t really talk about them. We have probably all seen at least one in our lives, but very few of us know what to do about them. A few centuries ago they carried ‘the plague’ that decimated the human population not only in England but right across the European continent.

You know who I am talking about… THE RAT!

Now this fellow, and his many cousins, cause big trouble for all farms world-wide to this day, whether it be eating seed or spoiling food and feedstuffs.

Those few wise souls that are in the know, know that to control vermin you really need to be in the management business. We are talking about probably the most adaptive pest to humans in history. What ever you do… they just seem to come back!

If you had to ring up a pest control company and ask them for a solution, they would begin with a long story of what the rats do and where they come from… all very interesting but you really just want them out the way.

Well, on the farm we know that rats dig holes in the paddocks and form dens. Now we are not simply talking about one or two holes but rather one or two thousand holes. They wipe out stands of crops and leave large bare patches in the pasture paddocks and when it could be your job on the line, you are forced to sit up and pay attention.

Not really in keeping with what we do here though… we raise racehorses. So in nature, how are rodents controlled? Disease, small mammals (Foxes etc) and birds of prey, to name but a few.

Here at Summerhill we undertook the building and installation of owl boxes. The Barn Owl, which is endemic to this area but has been displaced from its natural habitat by synthetic man-made poisons used to control rodents (which never worked!)… has made a come back. We have now successfully placed 5 owl boxes, all occupied with a pair of these magnificent creatures.

A breeding pair of Barn Owls will breed all year round if the conditions are right and the female will generally lay between 3-6 eggs. These eggs take approximately 30-33 days to hatch, and then the feeding starts. Upwards of 3000 rodents are consumed for a growing family.

Now this is in keeping with nature… dealing with a problem in a pro-active bio-friendly manner.


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Breeding Racehorses : A Matter of Family

 goss family

The Goss Family
(Summerhill Sires Brochure 2008/2009)


The tradition of producing quality racehorses goes back almost eight decades among the Gosses. But their admiration for horses as a family has its origins in ancient Ireland, before the Battle of Boyne.


Ever since, they’ve held a warm affection for the sport of horseracing, and especially for the animals at the heart of it. The custodianship of that association was never more proudly revered than under the stewardships of Mick’s great grandfather, Edward, his grandfather Pat, and his own father Bryan, and today the manifestation of their obsession lies in everything you see at Summerhill.


It is true that in modern times, Summerhill” is a splendid, much-envied brand. Because in the eighty years since they first started breeding racehorses on a tiny scale at The Springs in east Griqualand, the Goss family have never breached the founding principles of excellence and audaciousness, laid down by the man who embodied them.


What you’re looking at here, all over again, is history. And more history, in the making. And you’re more than welcome to join us in making some of your own. Because there’s one thing that’s as true today as it was at the Battle of Boyne. We only win if you do.

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The rains have stopped now in our part of the world, the days are blue and there’s hardly a cloud in sight. From now until September, the one thing that’s constant with us, is day after day of sunshine, the only difference lies in temperature. From nature’s perspective, Mooi River’s world goes to sleep for a few months and takes a well earned rest after so much output, so much given from September until now.

But for those of us who live here, we’re just entering another era of furious activity, weaning mares, preparing the winter pastures, preparing ourselves for the breeding season and the marketing of the stallions, assessing all the horses on the farm, particularly the mares, with a view to the forthcoming breeding season, and then writing the recommendations to our many customers around the world.

Of course, KwaZulu Natal, Africa’s racing capital, enters its Champion’s Season as we write, and so the sports are only just starting.

It’s a beautiful time at Summerhill and Hartford, and it’s not only the wonderful weather but the changes that come with the seasons, the briskness of the mornings, the warmth of mid-day and the coolness of the evenings. It’s an invigorating time, energies are lifted, and while the land and the environment go to rest, we have a little respite in which to get stuck into our intellectual pursuits.

And then we have a few things to look forward. Next month we have a draft of five yearlings arriving from Australia, two filles by the reigning European champion sire, Galileo, and colts by the celebrated international stallions, Red Ransom, Anabaa and Hussonet. On the same flight we will have a brace of new stallions, two men who will hopefully have a breed-shaping influence on our lives for many years to come.

These are momentous events in the life of a thoroughbred stud, the arrival of two progenitors who’ve been especially selected to take us to new levels.

But this little story is about autumn, not new stallions, and that is a story for another day.


summerhill tractor (michael nefdt)Organic Integrity
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

“Agricultural Eccentricity

We concluded our last episode on the “Mating Game” with the betrayal of a confidence, or put another way, with something of a presumption: declaring Lady Chryss O’ Reilly a kindred spirit. Truth is, the O’ Reilly’s don’t only have their breeding philosophies in common with us; they also share a deep-seated attachment to South Africa. Outside of Ireland, they have more homes here than anywhere else.

But for the best evidence of the value of what we had to say of our reliance on stockmanship as the optimal tool in the design of a mating, you need only look at the National Breeder’s Log, where Summerhill’s boldest pursuer is Lionel Cohen. A revered horseman if ever there was one, he’s another with something in common with the odd one among us: his computer illiteracy! Lionel’s Odessa Stud is nothing if it isn’t driven by a consummate professional, whose best advertisements most times have been bred the less conventional way, with stock of lesser commercial fashion.

In a world in which numbers are fundamental to championships, you might be forgiven for thinking the breeding of racehorses has become something of a production line, and while this is obviously true in many parts of the world, at Summerhill we still pride ourselves on the fact that with us, it remains an art. Talking of art, we quickly realised in our business model, that this was another pillar on which we could separate ourselves, by adopting a course that was off most radar screens. In episode two, “Defining The Job”, we spoke of the need to employ specialists in every division, and that most times in the horse breeding world, agriculture is a rather neglected area of activity.

It’s one thing getting the mating right, it’s another altogether sustaining the pregnancy in the healthiest and most productive circumstances, and then, post-delivery, providing an environment in which the foal is able to achieve its full genetic potential.

Our observations of the way things were being done on horse farms in most parts of the world (including here at home,) led us to the conclusion that, for the most part, this was an area where we could separate ourselves from the field. The first thing was to employ the best agriculturalist our money could buy, but in the process we needed to find someone who was still fresh and open to new ideas, unburdened by the baggage that so often besets a conservative community, when it comes to change.

The reason was, we were about to embark on an altogether untravelled road, and what we were about to do was in the nature of a revolution, certainly in the horse business.

Many of our lessons came by trial and error (we’ve paid the school fees!), but the one thing we’d learnt in our time at Summerhill, was that repeating mistakes was a costly business. So our powers of observation grew sharper each time we entered a cul-de-sac of no return, and in the fullness of time, not only did nature begin to reveal herself to us in all her glory, but the folly in trying to beat her became abundantly evident.

The end of World War II heralded the fertilizer revolution, coinciding with the development of serious tractor power. The new convention involved ploughing on a broad scale, and the application of fertilizers brought about a multiplying of yields on a scale hitherto unknown. Let’s not forget, the fertilizer business was born out of the explosives industry, which had to find a means of redeploying its products with the ending of hostilities. Agriculture provided the perfect place. What nobody told us, was that the regular pulverising of soils and its constant doctoring with synthetic stimulants was not a sustainable practice. Inevitably, we found our soils were beginning to resist the rigours of ploughing, and like a drug addict, they were drawing in ever-growing quantities of fertilizer, just to uphold the yields of years gone by.

And so we discovered what nature could do for us. We resorted to recycling our bedding through a composting plant, balancing of our soils through natural minerals and trace elements, and restoring the original integrity of the soil. No longer the impermeable, hard-baked crust that took a ripper to break it at the onset of the planting season; no more the outrageous quantities (at what cost?) of fertilizer, and countless applications of insecticides and herbicides. No, here we were, returning to our beginnings with composts, limes, rock phosphates, nitrogenous legumes, natural worm remedies and a “No’” sign across anything pretending to look like a toxic spray.

Cattle were introduced almost twenty years ago to combat the parasites that pervade the horse world, to pick up the ticks and convert the straw bedding into their own form of compost. The natural world is finely balanced by the variety in its multitude of species, and in the interplay between cattle and horses, there is something resembling the wildebeest and the zebra in the wilds. No wonder nature works.

If you’d come to Summerhill with a penotrometer six or seven years into this programme, and thrust it into a typical soil crust in winter, it might have gone, at best, some four inches down. Today, since the tilth or crumble of the soil has reverted to what nature originally intended, in many cases, the penotrometer will sink to the handle, almost a metre into the ground. Imagine the implications.

The earthworms are back, the dung beetles are peddling their trade, and instead of rushing away across its surface, water percolates down into what was once a parched earth, enhancing its retention and in its interaction with the new lungs of the soil, it promotes the existence of micro organisms. A new-found religion, it has to be said, and what a difference it’s made to life on the farm.

There are those that believe we must be sleeping with fairies at Summerhill, and that what we’re up to, boarders on what some regard as eccentric. If doing things differently means being eccentric, so be it. Truth is, eccentricity has always abounded where strength of character has abounded; the concentration of eccentricity in society has generally been proportional to the concentration of genius, mental vigour and moral courage. That so few dare to be eccentric these days, marks the chief danger of our time. But that suits us, because our “eccentricity” is obviously what sets us apart.

A recent estimate of the birthweights of foals at Summerhill reveals an average increase of between 5-6 kgs over those of less than a decade ago, while the incidence of loss through conventional disease has been stringently curtailed. The levels of natural immunity in our horse population, has been considerably enhanced, with one exception.

Two years ago we encountered the first occurrence of salmonella at Summerhill. Those who know it, will tell you it’s lethal. Yet, for all the wonders of modern medicine, and despite the application of the fanciest of drugs and the most stringent of bio-security measures to control the disease, it was only a resort to a natural remedy that restored us to normality.

Salmonella is a bacterial disease, and in a naïve environment (one which has never previously known it,) it is apt to spread like wildfire. Our horses and our environment had never before been challenged. Do what you want with all the antibiotics, washes, rinses, power hoses, movement curtailments, none of these on their own or in their collective might, are entirely effective in the eye of such a storm. In the end, we found our solace in a natural antidote.

Again it was about restoring the balance, and we sought the assistance of “good” bacteria to counter the effects of the “bad”. Almost instantly, we noticed the turnaround. To our knowledge, this was a ground-breaking “world first”, never before employed in our discipline, yet it was all so simple, and made so much sense. Thank you, eccentricity!

Of course, there have been other issues of influence in Summerhill’s four consecutive Breeders’ Championships, and each of them accounts for an increment of little more than 5-10% in terms of improvement. This though, was the beginning of an agricultural revolution for us, where our understanding of and our alliance with nature, prevailed over the previous revolution. Seeing it at work, and knowing its benefits, has been as satisfying as anything we’ve done here.

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PLACENTITIS : Measuring placental thickness in mares

horse fetus“The single most important cause of premature delivery is placentitis.”
(Photo : Tim Flach)

annet beckerAnnet Becker Summerhill Broodmare and Foal Care ManagerImproved diagnostic techniques and advances in the understanding of equine reproductive physiology and pathology have resulted in increased pregnancy rates in mares. In contrast, the incidence of early pregnancy loss has remained fairly constant at a rate of 10-15 %. Pregnancy losses during late gestation (> 5 months) represent an even greater problem for the equine breeding industry. Affected mares will not only fail to produce a foal, but will often have a lower conception rate during the next breeding season.

Pregnancy losses during late gestation could be the result of fetal illness, placental dysfunction, or maternal illness. Monitoring of maternal health and preventive treatments of the pregnant mare against diseases that may cause abortion have been performed routinely for decades. However, monitoring of the placenta during late gestation has only recently gained recognition in equine veterinary medicine.

Premature delivery of a weak or dead foal is devastating to horse owners. Even if they receive the best neonatal care, most of these foals, if they live, never have productive performance careers. The single most important cause of premature delivery is placentitis. It accounts for nearly one-third of late-term abortions and fetal mortality in the first day of life. Placentitis is most commonly caused by bacteria that ascend through the vagina and breach the cervical barrier.

An abnormal thickness and partial separation of the allantochorion from the endometrium has been observed in mares with clinical signs of ascending placentitis based upon transrectal ultrasonography. In advanced stages, the space between the uterus and the placenta is filled with hyperechoic fluid. In a field study on Thoroughbred mares at commercial stud farms, it was concluded that an increased CTUP (combined thickness of the uterus and the placenta) during mid and late gestation, indicates placental failure and pending abortion. None of the mares with normal thickness of the placenta lost their pregnancies, and all mares that aborted had a marked increase of the CTUP or placental detachment. Under practical conditions it was suggested that a CTUP >8 mm between day 120 and 300, >10 mm between day 301 and 330, and >12 mm after day 330 suggests placental failure and pending abortion.

For a while now, we have been measuring the CTUP of all the mares at Summerhill on a bi-monthly basis. Any mares with an increased CTUP are placed on daily antibiotics and are rechecked by the vet a month later to see if there is a decrease in the CTUP. If it has decreased, we suspend her antibiotic treatments, but if it increases she will continue on antibiotics for another month. In the previous years we have done this with all our ‘high risk’ mares with great success – all of them producing live, viable foals. As there is a 10-15% pregnancy loss in normal mares, we feel by checking their placental thickness on a regular basis, we see more mares carry to term and produce live foals.

While transrectal and transabdominal ultrasonographic examination of the placenta is very useful in detecting early signs of some placental pathology, it is important to keep in mind that placental changes resulting in periparturient problems can sometimes be subtle, and may not readily be detected on ultrasonographic examination.

Fresh Air or Endotoxin?

outdoor grazing (michael nefdt)Outdoor grazing at Summerhill Stud
(Photo : Michael Nefdt)

Many people involved in the thoroughbred industry believe that it is better to stable a horse rather than to put a horse to pasture. Guests to Summerhill are often taken by surprise when we share with them the fact that, barring any medical problems, our mares and foals live outdoors 24/7. Our 2 year olds and horses in training also spend more time outdoors than do most in trainers’ yards.

Stacey Oak DVM, MSc writes for The Horse that if you think you are pampering and protecting your horse in his cushy, comfortable stall instead of turning him out on pasture, think again. Michigan State University researchers have found that stabled horses are exposed to eight times as much endotoxin in the air than their pastured counterparts. The result? These high endotoxin concentrations can play a role in airway inflammation in stabled horses, particularly those with Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO).

“In Northern climates, horses are often stabled and fed hay instead of being turned out on pasture. This common practice can actually be detrimental as it may impair the horse’s welfare and exercise performance due to a high exposure to airborne pathogenic-disease causing-and inflammatory materials,” explained study co-author Frederik Derksen, DVM , PhD, from Michigan State’s Pulmonary Laboratory in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

Inflammation of a horse’s airway is known to be a risk factor for poor racing performance. Swiss investigators have shown that in show jumpers and dressage horses, inflamed airways are associated with lackluster performance. In horses diagnosed with Recurrent Airway Obstruction RAO, exposure to organic substances in stables and hay dust, such as endotoxin (likely from concentrated point sources such as manure) and fungal products, can be particularly concerning as they trigger an inflammatory response and airway obstruction.

To determine the difference in endotoxin concentrations in the breathing zone of stabled versus pastured horses, Frederik Derksen and colleagues selected six horses to participate in the study. Each horse was fashioned with a personal sampler and endotoxin concentrations in collected air samples were measured.

Endotoxin concentrations for stabled horses were 7.08 x 103 endotoxin units (EU)/m3 which were significantly higher than the 0.85 x 103 ERU/m3 measured for pastured horses. No correlation between endotoxin concentrations and ambient temperature or relative humidity was observed.

“These endotoxin concentrations are sufficiently high that horses exposed to these levels, particularly those with RAO, are likely to suffer from airway inflammation,” summarized Frederik Derksen. “Horses with airway inflammation likely don’t feel well and perform poorly. Therefore, airway health of horses matters to horses and their owners!”

The study, “Endotoxin concentrations within the breathing zone of horses are higher in stables than on pasture,” will be published in a forthcoming edition of The Veterinary Journal.

THE BOTTOM LINE : Profits from Khakibos

khakibosFlip and Riana Minnaar’s Khakibos under centre-pivot irrigation
(Photo : Farmer’s Weekly)

There is an old fashioned element in the farming business that thinks our bleating on about the attributes of organic farming, is something that belongs with the fairies. Of course, there was a time when people spoke of global warming in the same breath, and all we say to those who second guess our practices, is have a look at the Breeders’ log.

For years, as part of our movement towards a bio-friendly approach to raising horses, we have explored ways of eliminating our reliance on synthetically manufactured products, and part of that process, in the ambit of containing parasites in our animal populations, has been to resort to natural remedies. The “old” people used to place swathes of Khakibos under their floorboards to limit the presence of fleas in their homes, and there is something in this so-called “weed” (it’s actually a herb) that serves as a natural deterrent against worms in horses.

It’s a world-wide problem today that the worms we find in our animal populations have developed their own resistance to the regular de-wormers available in the market, and since these products have in common, the use of much the same active ingredient, no matter how its dressed up, we find they are becoming less and less effective by the year.

In conjunction with the commonly known “black jack”, we have found that by allowing these herbs to exist on the fencelines and the contours of our paddocks, the frequency we need to resort to the use of regular purgatives has diminished correspondingly. So it is with some satisfaction that we read an article in the latest issue of Farmers Weekly on the value of Khakibos.

“Just outside the little village of Clocolan in the Eastern Free State (a delightful place in its own right), Flip and Riana Minnaar have based the profitability of their farm on the use of Khakibos, to the degree that they now have 500 hectares of this herb under cultivation. In their case, they converted (its common name is Tagete) into an essential oil, and from this one source, they produce some 20% of the global market, quite staggering. While the old saying “it grows like a weed”, is probably still appropriate here, the Minnaars have realised such value from their Khakibos venture, that they have a considerable acreage under irrigation pivot, thus boosting their production.”

Increasingly, the world is rediscovering its roots, and the effectiveness of natural remedies is becoming more and more apparent. Not only that. Despite the propaganda to the contrary, we’ve also discovered, that we’re able to maintain our agricultural output at previous levels, without having to rely on synthetic fertilizers and products which, apart from their capacity to lift yields, also have a proven ability to negatively affect the natural health of our soils.


summerhill internship“A seasonal or longer internship at Summerhill is unlike most in the world.”
(Photo : Kayleigh Leisegang)

The Thoroughbred industry is part of an extremely well established global trade. This must be one of the industries with the greatest potential for international travel for a young person. You have people travelling the sales circuit from one country to another, and others working 6 month breeding seasons on opposite sides of the equator, on a regular basis. It’s not only about the work, but also experiencing the cultures, traditions and environments of all these countries. With horses, it barely matters what language you speak, because the skills you need are universal and the most important attribute is passion. Singularly, passion is the only language.

Besides the fact that Summerhill has sent its employees from the previously disadvantaged community on more than 32 overseas trips, we also offer opportunities for young people to work here. This has provided us with some exceptional seasonal help over the past 10 years, provided by locals and people from abroad. Thoroughbred racing is a diverse profession, and spending time on a world class stud such as Summerhill, you are not only exposed to stud work, but also get a glimpse on so many facets of the racing world.

Our interns of the past include:

Mick Flanagan

mick flanaganMick FlanaganMick is from County Louth in Ireland and spent several months in 2006 working at Summerhill. He has worked at a variety of the top studs in the world including Coolmore America, Haras du Logis and Haras de la Louviere in France. Currently a second year intern on the Darley Flying Start course, Mick is doing a 5 week placement with Mike De Kock in Dubai.

“My time at Summerhill was one of the most enjoyable times in my life so far. What a team and what an environment for a horse to grow up in. I was afforded lots of hands on experience during my couple of months at Summerhill moving from morning management meetings to stallions, to yearlings, to broodmares and trackscavators!” “I learned so much about the South African bloodstock industry while at Summerhill and it is definitely a place where I will be spending more of my time in the not so distant future.” 

Douw Coetzee

douw coetzeeDouw CoetzeeAfter finishing a year and a half internship at Sequel Stallions in New York, South African born and bred Douw worked two seasons at Summerhill as assistant broodmare manager. He then did the internationally renowned Irish National Stud course and is currently working for Arrowfield Stud in Australia.




Claire Neveux

clair neveuxClaire NeveuxClaire came to us as the top graduate of her year at the Irish National Stud course, after previously having worked at Lord And Lady Lloyd-Webber’s Watership Down Stud in Hampshire. After finishing a season at Summerhill, Claire returned to her native France, and is studying Animal Science at Paris Diderot University.



Declan Foy

declan foyDeclan FoyAnother Irishman, Declan initially started his career as a banker and then swopped it for the greener pastures of Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stud in England. Shadwell’s 20 year association with Summerhill led to Declan coming here last season. He worked as Assistant Foal Manager at Summerhill in the 2008 foaling season, our biggest seasons yet, with 245 mares foaling down. After completing his season at Summerhill, Declan is currently working at Juddmonte Farms (our Broodmare Manager, Annet Becker, is another Juddmonte graduate) in America, after which he will do a season in Australia.

“I learnt a great deal from my time at Summerhill and it was wonderful being part of such a successful team with a great attitude to working hard. I would encourage anyone to spend a season there as it is the most rewarding and worthwhile experience”, says Declan.

A seasonal or longer internship at Summerhill is unlike most in the world. The experience you get here in all the different aspects of horse management, from treating sick horses, evaluating young stock, staff management, client relations to sales prep and breeze ups, is a lot more challenging than in most other countries of the world, mainly because the level of responsibility is much greater. Interns are not simply used as labourers, but are introduced to the demands of management. It involves long hours and is not for the fainthearted. Accommodation on the farm and a living allowance are provided.

There are seasonal and permanent positions available in the different divisions at Summerhill on a regular basis, and if you are interested please send your curriculum vitae and cover letter to :