"I believe I have found the secret to being happy as a horse breeder and owner,” says Shirley McQuillan. “If your intention is to have your horses happy, progressing and to get as far as their talent can take them, you will never be disappointed.” As the owner of Touchstone Farm, a breeding and training facility in Versailles, Kentucky, and of Rhett, a successful American-bred high-performance dressage horse, the equine photographer and chiropractor knows what she is talking about.
The key to success, says Shirley, is to be educated about what you are doing. Her own education began long before she began her breeding business. “My grandfather, a horse trainer, rented me a riding horse when I was 7 years old to cure me from being horse-crazy,” she says. Much to her parents’ dismay, it only added to her interest. Shirley went on to attend the equestrian school at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. She then went to Portugal to ride with Nuno Oliveria before going to ride and train at Rocking Horse Ranch in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
When a horse that was in for training flipped over and injured her, Shirley's riding career ended. “He had an inner-ear fracture and the owner neglected to tell me he had already flipped over on a couple of people,” she recalls. “It forced me to find other ways to stay involved with the horses. Breeding and being an owner came along naturally.” Shirley learned by connecting with successful breeders who had horses she admired and by asking a lot of questions. “If you learn about the bloodlines and which lines cross best with which, you can find the right stock to produce exactly what you want,” she says.
Her mentors also taught her to get the best mares she could find, and Shirley started her program with a proven broodmare. She could look at the foals the mare had already produced and see what qualities she passed on. “You don’t get a top dressage horse by breeding a mediocre mare to the best dressage stallion in the world. The mare is 60 percent of the equation in my opinion.”
With the help of Babsi Clark, Shirley bought Maddette, a Dutch Harness Horse, in Holland. The broodmare was her first of that breed. “You have to be sure, if you use this breed, that they have three really good gaits that they reliably pass on. The canter is the most important,” says Shirley.
Maddette is one of Shirley’s best-producing mares and the dam of her Dutch Warmblood gelding, Rhett. “He was special from the beginning,” she says. “When all the other foals where careening around the pastures, Rhett was doing canter pirouettes. He’d passage to the feeder every morning. However, I’m not sure you know what you have until they trot down that centerline with a glint in their eye and all the self-assurance that a Grand Prix horse develops. That is when you know that you have the real thing. Even then, there are still years ahead to gain experience and muscle memory and strength. In dressage, time is your friend.”
As with all of her foals, Shirley’s philosophy with Rhett was that he would start training from the day he was born. “We spend hours just being with them,” she says. As a professional photographer, her work allows her to spend lots of time in the fields with the youngsters. “You can't just turn mares and foals out and expect them to be people horses if you don’t spend time with them and expose them to things,” she adds.
Shirley starts her horses under saddle in the late summer or fall of their 3-year-old year. They get ridden gently for about 60 days before getting turned out over the winter to keep growing. In the spring, they start more serious work. Shirley used Wendy Douglas (who has ridden for her for 20 years) to start Rhett. As time went on, Shirley decided that Rhett was “so strong that he needed a man to ride him, yet he was so sensitive it had to be a rider with finesse and a sense of humor.” She found that in FEI-level trainer Jim Koford. “He is all of those things,” Shirley adds.
She also likes that Jim seems to always put the horse’s welfare before the next show or ribbon. “I never send a horse to compete thinking he has to make it into the high-performance ranks. I just let the trainer develop the horse's talent and let that carry him as far as he can happily go,” Shirley says. In Rhett's case, she soon learned that he loved two things: showing and Jim Koford.
In July 2009, after winning the inaugural Anne L. Barlow Ramsay Annual $25,000 Grant, Jim took Rhett to train with Michael Klimke in Germany. In 2010, Rhett successfully moved up to Grand Prix. In 2011, his move to the CDIs resulted in Grand Prix wins at the International Horse Sport Champions Cup and Dressage at Devon. Rhett and Jim were also named the 2011 U.S. Dressage Federation Region 1 Grand Prix and Freestyle Champions and 2012 Col. Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Grand Prix Freestyle Champions. The pair is currently on the U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance List.
As long as Rhett is having fun, Shirley says that she will support his high-performance career with Jim. “The feeling of watching them compete at Gladstone and Devon is like watching your child accomplish something wonderful,” she says. “It's not about winning, it is about being there.”
Shirley credits her ability to support a high-performance team to having a plan. “Have a business plan,” she says. “Breeding is expensive and sometimes heartbreaking, and you have to be sure you are cut out for it. You have to become a breeder because you love it, not to make a lot of money.” Shirley encourages breeders to have qualified help with the same beliefs about horses that they do, so the business runs successfully. For example, Shirley’s partner, Mark Wegerski, can take care of her equine chiropractic clients if she has been up all night foaling a mare.
Above all else, Shirley notes that anyone interested in breeding needs “to be aware that breeders have a responsibility to the horses they bring into the world for life.” For all sale horses that leave Touchstone Farm, a note is attached to their papers saying that they can always come home if they need to.