In 10 years, these Hanoverian horse-farm owners have gone from start-up to top of the class.
Audis, SUVs and a Porsche or two spin up hot dust as they turn into the long drive of Dreamcatcher Meadows, a world-class dressage horse centre situated 20 minutes outside of Pemberton.
They are arriving en masse for Dreamcatcher’s annual Hanoverian foal inspection, where eight babies born this past spring — all but one are boys — will be inspected and rated for their potential as dressage horses by Dr. Ludwig Christmann from the Hanoveraner Verband, the German organization that rates the quality of the breed.
Dreamcatcher Meadows is one of only a few certified Hanoverian Deckstations in Canada — as certified stud farms for the breed are called. The 2013 crop of colts, all born in the spring to surrogate racehorse mares via an onsite embryo transfer program, are judged by Christmann for movement, build, temperament and other qualities.
What makes Dreamcatcher Meadows stand out in the dressage world is its achievements including 11 Horse of the Year title wins in North America in the last three years alone.
The inspection day is one of those realities that manifest the longstanding dream of a couple who until a decade ago had no connection to the Pemberton Valley at all.
Jill Giese, an Albertan who had been working as a lawyer in New York and London until she switched to dressage, and John Dingle, a dairy farmer living near Bath in the west of England who likewise moved to dressage competition and breeding, fell in love with the valley. Giese was on a skiing holiday in Whistler and had been looking to invest in a Canadian property.
“I wasn’t looking for a farm. I was looking for a little cabin that my family in Canada could use, so we could get together,” Giese recalls.
One day during her visit she decided to go for a drive with a realtor. About 50 minutes from the resort she saw a breathtaking property known as McLeod Creek Ranch on the banks of the silty Lillooet River.
Dingle says: “Jill came over to see her family and went skiing. She discovered it and ‘Oh my God’ fell in love with Pemberton. It was instant, whether it was the mountains… there was something drawing her here. Serendipity, you meet people, you see things. It just spoke to her and she came back and told me about it.”
Speaking to a realtor after, Giese asked to be told if the property ever came up for sale. Months later, it did, and they bought it in 2003.
“It was my picture-perfect place. Buying it was complete intuition,” Giese says.
They moved to the farm in 2004 with four champion Hanoverians brought from England, including Dreamcatcher DMV, Giese’s champion dressage mare after which the farm was renamed, and three of her yearlings.
Now 17 years old, Dreamcatcher DMV, which Giese rides in competition, is the dam from which many of their current crop of award winners have sprung, either as mother or grandmother. Two years ago, the mare won a lifetime achievement award based on her performance over the years and including the wins of her progeny. Giese said Dreamcatcher DMV is the only mare to win five stars for the American Warmblood Society, five categories that rate performance.
Establishing a dressage centre in Canada was a plunge into the unknown for both Giese and Dingle, but there was a strong desire to build a centre where they could compete, teach other riders, and breed Hanoverians. Together, they have established what Dingle calls “a working farm” for the breed and the sport.
Canadian nature didn’t make it easy: there were floods just after Dingle and Giese purchased the property in 2003, which luckily left the farm unaffected though it devastated other areas around Pemberton. And both they and their horses were evacuated after two wildfires threatened the valley in 2009, which again left the property unscathed.
“It’s an eye opener. There are possible natural disasters you wouldn’t get in other parts of the world, but it’s worth it. You just have to manage it. People have said why are you doing what you’re doing in Pemberton? And my first answer always was ‘Have you ever been to Pemberton?’ I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Dingle.
He added they have done everything they could to ensure Dreamcatcher Meadows was profitable, running a B&B in the early days, and farming whatever portions of land they weren’t using to grow their dressage operations. He recalls a passionate conviction they had in knowing their plan could work in Pemberton.
“We were able to produce enough cash flow. When we bought the place we weren’t sure what we were going to do. From milking cows, which has a great cash flow, to not milking cows is kind of scary,” Dingle says.
“We made enough money from teaching clinics, selling a couple of horses, making hay and farming, doing whatever we needed to do to pay the hydro bill, put food on the table, and keep the farm growing. That was a triumph in itself.”
THE VERBAND INSPECTION
On inspection day, July 29, 2013, Giese and Dingle’s 50-or-so guests — neighbours, friends, investors, fellow dressage riders and five officers from the RCMP Musical Ride — check in. They are guided through the stables where they visit the foals and their surrogate mothers. The stable hands joke about the time it takes to brush and braid the cute babies and their inclination to roll in the sawdust afterwards.
The guests are fascinated. Some are local; some from as far away as Ohio (via Whistler), Washington State, and Beijing.
All then head to the covered riding ring where the judging will take place. In the buildings along the way are large frames with dozens of ribbons in them, the prizes taken over the years in regional and national dressage competitions all around North America. The main house is like a large trophy case.
Dingle says that in 2013 there are 10 to 15 competition horses out of an overall collection of around 40, including riding horses and brood mares, colts, clients’ horses and retirees. The numbers go up and down depending on how many are in training.
Several are on top of their age and gender categories not only regionally but also in North America competition; a few are the parents of the foals being judged.
Giese is the unofficial ringmaster, welcoming the guests and explaining the history of dressage and the Hanoverian breed.
Christmann, who has known Giese and Dingle for years, enters the ring. The dapper, middle-aged international marketing director and judge for the state-run German Hanoveraner Verband, he covers much of North America, inspecting Hanoverians. He, too, explains the needs of the verband and talks to the audience about each foal as he sees them.
First up is Westminster, one of a pair of twins. Dingle and his assistant Kirsten Mitchell take the foal and his surrogate mother around the ring at both a walk and a trot. At the end of the first circuit they remove Westminster’s bridle, and Dingle runs, leading the surrogate and allowing Westminster to run free alongside.
The stallion Windfall CB is Westminster’s father. His biological mother, Lady of the Dance DMV, was artificially inseminated. Horse embryos do not immediately implant themselves in the wombs of their mothers, making it possible to remove and transfer them and this is a significant part of Dreamcatcher Meadow’s breeding program.
“Homebred” is a key word for Dreamcatchers, with the stable raising their own foals and often training and keeping them even after they’ve found new owners.
Dingle says that having both stallions and mares available to compete is “like having the pencil sharp at both ends” and bodes well for the Dreamcatcher business model.
“We have the competition record from the mares, which is huge for when we are trying to sell the babies. Potential purchasers can see how the mare is performing,” he said.
Christmann says embryo transfer is a widely used technology now, and applied to other horse breeds as well.
The method allowed Westminster to be placed in the womb of a surrogate, a retired racehorse, and kept Lady of the Dance available for training and competition.
In the ring, the foal is now several months old and Christmann has the opportunity to see his natural movements and carriage.
Westminster is pronounced, “an excellent walker” with plenty of rhythm and suspension that “pushes from under his body, which is what you want.” Christmann’s final word is that Westminister will be “very promising for dressage.”
The mare and foal are ushered out to applause from the guests, and the process is repeated. All but one are assessed this way, but at the end of the day Christmann selects Westminster as his “pick of the litter” for 2013.
At three years old, these same foals will be judged as they are ridden by two verband judges in a two-day “performance test.”
The single filly, Believe DMV, sister to the Dreamcatcher-bred five-year-old champion Ballerina DMV, cannot be seen in the ring today because her surrogate mother, a retired racehorse called Bonnie, suffered a prolapsed womb and nearly died. She has responded well to medical treatment but cannot yet be put through her paces with her baby.
Christmann sees Believe DMV in her stall later, in private. Giese says Bonnie will be retired from the breeding program but will live out her days at the farm.
In an interview afterwards, Christmann explains the German Verband assess breeders in 25 countries, with the Canadian studbook, which keeps track of bloodlines, being kept in Germany. The U.S. studbook is kept by their own association, though the Americans follow German rules and guidelines. He has been to Dreamcatcher Meadows almost every year since it opened.
How does Dreamcatcher Meadows fit into the Hanoverian firmament?
“It is amazing what Jill and John started here. It is quite special to have established this in less than a decade; for the Canadian Hanoverian Society Dreamcatcher Meadows is an important part of our program here,” he says.
The crops of foals this year are “consistent, a good group,” he adds.
Christmann says that those who are unfamiliar with dressage should understand that love for the horses is at the core of the sport and the training: it can take 10 years for a high-quality Hanoverian to reach the highest level in dressage training, peaking at around 12 and 13 years old. This compares with a peak of four or five years for thoroughbred racehorses.
“One side it is a competitive sport, but also a relatively safe sport compared to jumping to compete in on a horse,” he said. “More than anything dressage is a search for harmony between horse and rider. This is the key element.”
He is well aware of animal rights arguments against dressage, especially against the sometimes-used rolker method of extended flexing of the head and neck of the horse to influence its shape and carriage, something that Dreamcatcher Meadows does not practice.
Christmann says it had developed in Holland and was causing big debate in Germany, with that country’s equestrian federation saying they did not support it.
“Like in any sport, there are people who are doing a good job in a truly classical way, and sometimes you also have some developments that are not positive for the sport, like this over-bending,” he says. “In Germany it is very much criticized, also. There is a big discussion in the dressage community about this… You can say it’s a battle between different philosophies at the moment, the Dutch method and others.”
The classical way of training the horse, established over centuries, is a “good way develop them up to the competitive level… for the well-being of the horse. You can’t work against the nature of the horse.”
MUSICAL RIDERS IN PEMBERTON
Five officers from the Musical Ride program of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have also taken time out from the Ride’s tour of British Columbia to visit Dreamcatcher Meadows during the foal inspection.
However, they are not there to check out the youngsters. Instead, they are there to look at the foals’ father, Windfall CB, a tall, black stallion that has won 23 awards over the years and which is very much in keeping with the black horses needed for Musical Ride stock.
Windfall’s semen would be used in the artificial insemination program for mares at the RCMP’s national breeding farm just outside of Ottawa.
Windfall is already a very successful sire, with over 60 foals bred in North America. Giese said they expect seven foals from the stallion in their 2014 breeding program. Dingle brings out Windfall and Giese explains that it took them three baths to get him into gorgeous glossiness for the occasion.
Supt. Marty Chesser, who oversees the RCMP Musical Ride, came to Dreamcatcher Meadows during the Musical Ride’s British Columbian summer tour with four of his colleagues. He explained that the Musical Ride has been using Hanoverians for the last 25 years and they had been looking to improving their stock.
“Dr. Christmann, who works with our farm manager, suggested that there were two stallions in western Canada, one here in Pemberton, which could be used in our program. We’re very pleased withwhat we’ve seen here with Windfall,” Chesser said.
“One of the reasons we went for a Hanoverian is that they have impeccable breeding records that go back 130 years. When we invest in horses we buy black in the hopes they will throw (deliver) black. Last year we had 17 babies and 15 were black.”
His colleague, John Phillips, the manager of the breeding program said:
“I am amazed to be up here, first of all, because of the scenery. And their breeding program is quite phenomenal. They’ve obviously researched it very well and done a super job… Jill showed us the whole breeding facility and she’s very proud of it. It was nice to see the horses work today.”
Phillips said they could easily see Windfall’s lineage continuing through the RCMP’s stock.
One team of 36 black horses performs for the Musical Ride across Canada, including four on standby.
Dingle later said that negotiations with the RCMP are still ongoing.
Dreamcatcher Meadows is very much an educational facility, teaching riders how to excel and building a team of young people learning the finer points of dressage. Giese says she is always interested in hearing from local young people interested in learning more about what they do.
One of their team, 19-year-old Nicole Berthelot, is the herd manager at the stable and in early July she brought home an award for best grooming at the International Young Breeders Championships in Sweden, as part of the Canadian junior team. The competition attracted 25 countries and up to 200 competitors at junior and senior levels, all there to show their knowledge of all things equine breeding related in five categories.
Seventeen-year-old Kirsten Mitchell of Vancouver moved to Pemberton two years ago and has been learning the finer points of riding on her horse Lady of the Dance DMV, owned by her mother Debra. She had been looking for a place to ride when her family came up to Whistler and found Dreamcatcher Meadows on Google. She began emailing Giese and they compared their aims.
“We decided as a family that I would try it for the summer, so I brought my horse up, fell in love with it and stayed the whole year,” Mitchell says.
One proviso has been her promise to her parents to keep her marks up at the local high school, which she has fulfilled.
Along with school, the farm keeps the hands busy, she says.
“In the summer, we get to the barn at 6 a.m. We make sure the horses are fed hay and grain. Then we take them out of their stalls and put them in individual turnout. The mares and foals all go out into a big field together,” Mitchell says.
“Then we start training most of the horses. John will have ridden six or seven horses by 12 o’clock. Clients will have lessons; I have a lesson in the morning as well. Come 3 p.m., we bring all the horses in and give them dinner and make sure they’re comfy.”
The barn is shut down later in the day, and a final check is given around 8 p.m.
It takes years to prepare a champion-quality Hanoverian to grow into an actual champion in dressage, and the financial commitment is high. A foal of that quality can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A number of Dreamcatcher Meadow’s homebred bloodstock are for sale and have attracted investors from the business world and from the Sea to Sky region.
Bus Fuller is the founder of three classic Canadian restaurant chains, Earls, Joey’s and the Cactus Club. He bought Ballerina DMV as a foal five years ago from Giese and Dingle, when he went up to the Pemberton Valley with another purpose, to rehouse his cockatoo, Lily. The cockatoo was a guest of honour at the barbecue that followed Christmann’s inspection, sitting in a large, foliage-laden cage and chatting up a storm.
Ballerina turned out to be a superstar. She and Dingle, who rides her in competition, have a current average of 88.5 points out of 100, the highest median score in U.S. dressage since they started keeping records in 1976.
“That includes all breeds, all ages, both mare and stallion,” says Giese. “It includes horses of Olympic combination quality and grand pix potential. That’s thousands of horses.”
Ballerina gave no early hint of her promise and was considered “a bit gangly,” Giese told their guests at the inspection. Fuller said in an interview that he watched in amazement as she brought in prize after prize, winning Materiale Horse of the Year in 2011 and 2012 for her age category. Her marks, consistently in the mid-80s, are considered exceptional.
Ballerina’s first foal, named Wunderbar, was born by surrogate this spring and was one of the babies judged by Christmann at the inspection. Fuller said he had an offer of $30,000 for Wunderbar already, which he turned down.
“Someone offered to buy him when he was a few weeks old,” Fuller said. “I want to see how he turns out first.”
At the inspection, Fuller was informed by Giese that Ballerina had conceived twins, due to be born by surrogates in 2014.
“I’ve enjoyed today, and brought people all the way over from Beijing, China. They just got in yesterday. I’ve had my grandkids here, my daughter-in-law, my wife, my sons. I’ve seen Wunderbar in the field before but not in a ring like today,” Fuller says.
He laughs: “Now I hear Ballerina’s having twins! Who would have thought at my age!
“What Jill and John have done is fantastic. I’ve built businesses and it’s not easy to do, especially with the turndown of the economy.”
He came into the investment knowing very little about dressage, but he and his wife, Ricki, have developed a love for it, attending competitions to watch Ballerina in action, and they have proved an enormous supporter of Dreamcatcher Meadows, lending a hand with the veterinarian bills when Bonnie, the surrogate mother of Ballerina’s new sister Believe DMV, became ill.
Tony Ma, president of the Vancouver Bullion & Currency Exchange, is a more recent investor — buying Dreamcatcher stallion Lordsley DMV a year ago. In June, Lordsley won his first competition under saddle, and is proving his future potential.
Ma said he owned racehorses, which boarded at Dreamcatcher Meadows over the winter, but he saw Lordsley and was smitten.
“He is such a beautiful horse, I just fell in love with him,” Ma said. “I did not know very much (about dressage) but I always liked watching horse shows on television during the Olympics. The movement, it’s just unbelievable.”
Dingle said: “Investors kind of find us, really. It is serendipity. We’ve met people along the way and they’ve recognized our passion. Some, to be honest, see our horses as an art form of what we do. They get caught up in our dream, it is great. We’ve met some great people and I am very thankful for that.”
THE BUZZ IN PEMBERTON
Former Pemberton councillor and long-time chamber of commerce secretary Shirley Henry first met Giese in Dreamcatcher Meadows’ early days.
“What she was proposing was exciting for us from a chamber perspective. They were very brave to come into a community like this and start up something so different,” said Henry.
“I think it was a challenge sometimes, working with local government, but they ended up with a fantastic facility. It’s so nice to see someone that has come from out of town, out of the country, made it their home and worked so hard and remain here. A lot of people who buy here are absentee landowners, so Jill and John developed their dream on the ground here and it’s good country for horses.”
Current Pemberton councillor Alan Leblanc went to the foal inspection and said he had supplied concrete as they built Dreamcatcher Meadows.
“I was always amazed at their stock. I have horses, too, but they are beautiful animals. That kind of industry lends itself well to Pemberton. It’s livestock. I know some of the people up there kind of questioned what they were doing because the proper thing is to grow potatoes or turnips and cattle, but I think John and Jill have proven that what they are doing is very professional. It should be well respected and I think the local people up there realize that,” he said.
“They arrived with an idea and they have taken that idea through conception to fruition. Dr. Christmann asked me what the locals thought, as well. I said they had really put Pemberton on the map, and he said to me in a very quiet voice, ‘They’re one of the best in the world.'”
WHAT IS DRESSAGE
Dressage is an equestrian sport where at its best level there is complete harmony between horse and rider over a series of tests set to challenge that harmony and communication between them. Grooming and presentation are also important, though the horse’s grooming is not marked.
In competitions, horse and rider are given the tests at an increasing level of difficulty.
The movements judged include: piaffe, or on-the-spot-trot, a movement originally used to keep a horse focused and warm before it went into battle; passage, a highly elevated, flexed trot which extends the legs; half-pass, in which the horse moves forwards and sideways simultaneously; extended trot, which is taken with long strides where the horse stretches its body until the strides are as long as possible, giving the horse a great amount of suspension; pirouette, where the horse turns in a circle almost on the spot, its front end turning around a smaller circle made by its hind quarters; and tempi changes, very difficult stride patterns that can look like skipping, moving between one-, two-, three- and four-beat rhythms.
European countries developed the modern sport from classical dressage, where the horses were trained for performance on battlefields. The earliest dressage-style observations on horse control and ridership were in ancient Greece by Xenophon, who wrote “On the Art of Horsemanship” in 360 BCE.
The interest in quality of training of both horse and rider continued through the Roman era, the Renaissance and beyond. The Spanish Riding School, now a centre for classical dressage, is among the most famous in the world. It was founded in Vienna in 1572 during the Austrian Empire.
Today, Dressage Canada administers the sport in this country. In the United States national-level competitions are sanctioned by The United States Dressage Federation (USDF). Local competitions are offered by USDF Group Member Organizations (GMOs). The Federation Equestre Internationale or FEI is the main international body.
Hanoverian horses, as the name suggests, originate in Germany and are known for their temperament, build and grace. George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover, founded the state school for Hanoverians in 1735.
They are warmbloods, a middle-weight breed that are bred for equestrian sport. Hanoverians are consistently the most successful breed in dressage and show jumping and are tested for health and pedigree and entered into a studbook, which has kept track of their breeding history for 130 years.