Thursday, January 15

William Funnell: ‘I was the only rider in the GCT on a home bred horse’

Of the greatest show jumping breeders in Great Britain evidentially are top show jumping rider William Funnell and Donal Barnwell of The Billy Stud. Last year Funnell was in the top thirty on the Longines Ranking, thanks to his home bred AES horses. His fully AES approved stallion Billy Congo helped him and Great Britain to win team gold at the European Championships in Herning, Denmark in 2013. A Tuesday evening in October we pass by William Funnell’s farm near Dorking and stop by his favourite pub to have a chat. While consuming a glass of beer and a good steak, William talks extensively about his breeding program and his aims in the sport, about what he likes about his life and about his “eventing wife” Pippa Funnell of course.

We just passed by your breeding farm. It looks huge. How many foals do you breed every year?
We have about seventy right now, but we have already sold a few.

No, seventy! We cleaned some mares lately, but do more embryos now. We started with ET five years ago and we can see the difference. We are now trying to focus more on our best mares. That’s what everybody is doing right now. The breeding has changed. In the future we want to have thirty embryos a year and fifty normal born foals. This year we started to do the embryo transfer at home. We have enough of our own mares to use, so we don’t have to rent foreign surrogate mares.

My goodness! Do you really think you have to breed in these large numbers to get something really good?
It’s hard to draw a line. If it was a science, it would be easy to breed GP horses. We have already sold broodmares that afterwards seemed to have given interesting foals. If you could see it all before, it would be easy. We started to breed on a bigger scale five years ago.

How did it all get started?
Twenty years ago Donal and I bred our first foal together. We got to know each other when I worked at the Brendon Stud for the Light family as a young man. Donal often called in at the Brendon Stud to loose jump horses. Later on he became a dealer and I a rider. Donal and I had some horses together and our first foal came from a mare who had been injured. Her name was Tatum. She was an Irish horse by Clover Hill. We couldn’t do anything but breed from her. Maybe it was faith that pushed us in this direction. Also luck was on our side. The mare we started with was a very good jumper. She was meant for sport, but used for breeding. That’s how it should be. Little by little we realized she could be the founder of a nice breeding story. From the beginning we believed that crossing the Irish blood with the best European, could offer us top show jumping and eventing horses. Her first foal immediately turned out to be a GP horse. This was Billy Orange (Animo), who jumped in the Super League Nations Cups for The Netherlands with Roelof Bril. 

There’s the Billy term already!
In fact we named this first colt just Orange, because it was a chestnut. When he came in to start being ridden, a groom called him Billy. His sport name became Billy Orange and we kept the Billy name for our stud. The second foal out of our mare Tatum was Billy Autumn, also by Animo. She was a lovely filly, so we decided to cover her as a three-year old. The stallion we used was Vechta, a stallion by Voltaire who I had just bought in Scandinavia. I had seen him jump clean in the Grand Prix of Oslo as a seven-year-old and fell in love with him. The foal of this young mare and Vechta was Billy Congo, my current GP stallion.

One more foal out of our first breeding mare Tatum jumps internationally at the moment. This is Billy Buttercup (Vechta) from the Norwegian Victoria Gulliksen. She mostly jumps the small tour 1.40m-1.50m classes, but she’s often placed.

Could you see Billy Congo’s skills from the day he was born?
In fact we decided to keep him entire and not sell him because he was a brilliant foal and because his mother started to perform so well. Congo was four when his mother won her first GP in Canada. She would even win a car at Spruce Meadows in Calgary later on, so it wasn’t surprising that Billy Congo ended up being a GP horse as well. 

You had Vechta, but also acquired Cevin Z as a breeding stallion. Did you use your own stallions to reduce the expenses?
We did, but we had already started to use more foreign semen. I don’t think it’s smart not to use top stallions because of the price of the semen. For 2.000 or 3.000 euro you can use any of the best stallions in the world. The stallion is the cheapest part, as long as the semen is good. The only problem is the quality of frozen semen. Often they send the worst straws from Europe to England. But when you have fertile semen, those few pounds can make the difference in the end, when you have a good jumper. However, with our own or with local stallions we were lucky. First we used Animo a lot, because he was stationed in the neighborhood and he was a blood stallion with an Olympic record. He has given a strong base to our breeding operation. Later on I bought Vechta and received Cevin Z as a gift from Heather McPherson, which brought more success to the breeding programme. Vechta was unbelievable. He was to jump the World Championships with me, but was injured just before. He was nearly there. I remarked Cevin Z in the Foxhunter class in Birmingham. Also my home bred stallion Billy Congo has delivered very promising young stock, but I don’t think it’s necessary to use only own stallions. Right now we have fifty percent foals from our own stallions and fifty percent from foreign stallions. 

And which stallion brought you the best horses?
Billy Congo is the best! No, I’m a modest man, but I’m just so in love with some of the young horses by Billy Congo. Some six- and seven-year-olds in my stables. What I experience with Billy Congo is that he gives blood and produces careful sport types. There aren’t many stallions like that. For most stallions you need a blood mare. He doesn’t need that. I think most people don’t even realise how good he is because I think he is suited more to the European mares than the English blood types. He’s good on the typical continental mares, because he’s a strong horse with a good back and good hind end. That’s why I think we should sell more semen to Europe. There are not enough stallions with this type in Europe. Together with Kees Van Den Oetelaar I’m dividing the semen in Europe now. We have just finished another period of freezing his semen. His semen is better than any other. And his frozen is as good as the fresh.  

Do you also breed eventing horses for your wife (Pippa Funnell)?
Of course she rides some home bred horses, but most of the time this happens coincidentally. We don’t really breed in that direction. We don’t use thoroughbreds anymore, but some horses just seem to be suiting the eventing sport better than the show jumping. We just try to breed sport and blood types, which boosts our chances. Look at the top four horses at WEG. You could easily make a top eventer of Jeroen Dubbeldam’s horse, from Casall and from the French one. You really need blood in general. When you use too much Darco or Cassini, you end up too cold. It’s the same for me as for her. 

How much is she involved?
Of course we don’t ride all the horses ourselves. We have lads to produce the young ones. But I can say we both do important work. Besides that Pippa is busy writing children novels. She has begun the 21st book now. It started some six years ago and the books are getting really popular.  

So she’s already thinking about the retirement pension?!
Back to business… How does the cooperation between you and Donal work exactly?

We discuss everything and always seem have the same opinion. We make each other complete. I couldn’t do better than to work with him. He’s even more of a horse expert than me. He does the breeding part. When they are three and a half year old, they come to me. We don’t really select before, because all the young ones are in groups in the field. We have some dry land where they can stay out during the winter. We don’t do anything with them before they come in. It works well. We don’t have a lot of trouble, because the first weeks when the foals are born, we handle them a lot. They remember that forever. They are not wild when they come in three and a half years later, but they come to me loose. We put them in the stalls and from there start working individually. Horse by horse we judge the quality and decide which direction to take with each one. Some will be sold sooner than others. Certainly there is a market for many of them. In England a lot of horses are imported from Holland and Germany. Lower quality horses. The breeding of jumpers here is smaller, so we have the tradition of importing horses. I think in the future the English have to provide their own horses, like we do. When people come to us to buy a horse, they know it was exclusively produced by us, which is a plus point. They also know we have more horses when they need the next one. More and more people approach us for horses as a result. We’re making progress.

We don’t see you in the show jumping ring anywhere right now. Is this the time of the year you start with the young ones?
In fact I’m finished competing until the Sunshine Tour next spring. Billy Congo was injured in Lummen, where he won the Grand Prix this Spring, so I didn’t have the horses ready to compete at the highest level. That’s why I took it a bit easier for the rest of the year. I gave my stallion a longer break than necessary, but he’ll be back at the beginning of 2015. I like the shows, but only when I’m able to perform. Last year when I was in the top thirty of the world ranking, I was invited to every big show in the world. I was placed many times in the Global Champions Tour shows, so I stayed in that top thirty. It was the time of my life, as I was the only rider on that circuit winning prizes with home bred horses. I enjoyed it, but I don’t need it to be a happy man. I’m not frustrated about having lost my position. I’m not obsessed by the Longines Ranking. I think that’s the only way to keep enjoying it. Once you lose your top horse, it’s nearly impossible to stay in. It’s important to know that as a rider. Next year my other horses will still be too young. I don’t want to burn them out. That’s the reason I planned another quiet year for Billy Congo next year. In 2016 I want to be on top of the game with a nice string of horses again, because I think Billy Congo is a horse able to jump the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. I hope we can jump in the team again, like we did in Herning, where we won the team gold for Britain at the European Championships.

In the meantime you enjoy working with the young ones.
I like the sport as much as I like working with the young ones, but I wouldn’t want to miss either of those two activities. I like riding a Grand Prix, but on Monday back home I also like to loose jump the three year olds. I study the horses and constantly try to improve what we do. 

There are few people making money by breeding horses, but you do. How come?
Like I said we always try to improve ourselves and we have been lucky from the beginning. From our first Irish broodmare Tatum we have sold three Grand Prix horses. We had a portion of luck with the accident to this mare. She was expensive and she got injured, but the foals made the profit. Because we want to produce the best horses and keep on making money from the breeding, we now use more frozen semen from top stallions than ever. We want horses that can keep us at the top of the sport. They have to be good enough for the international level we compete at. That’s our aim. Also because we produce our own horses, we can make more money that way. My goal is to have fifteen seven-year-old horses ready every year for the international sport and available to commercialize. It works well like this and we are still growing.