By Jean Llewellyn
Photography: Vanessa Wilkie, Lauren McCann, Private collection
A self-confessed traveller at heart, Dolly van Zaane’s sense of adventure carried her from her birthplace in the Netherlands to the wide open spaces and sunshine of Australia in the 1970s. A brief return to Europe a couple of years later convinced her that her future was down-under, where she’s indulged a passion for sport horse breeding and survived!
With her 70th birthday looming on the horizon, Dolly van Zaane talks with passion and energy about her beloved horses, especially those fifth generation offspring from her foundation mares. “My brother tells me I should retire, but what would I do. Sell my horses and half my furniture and move to a granny flat to live off my pension. It’s my horses that are keeping me young and alive.” However, she does admit to downsizing and occasionally diversifying in order to survive over the years.
Driving from Perth, the farm’s nearest city, the road passes exotically named points of interest such as Twin Swamps Nature Reserve and Walyunga National Park, and is a stone’s throw from Swan Valley, a well-known wine-growing region. The richness of the local soil supports a diverse agricultural industry – from lavender to olive groves, cheese farms to coffee roasters – as well as providing exceptional pasture that attracted stock breeders and Thoroughbred studfarms to the area.
Dolly van Zaane’s story is one that will resonate with many for whom sport horse breeding is a passion, a hobby that barely provides a viable income. She is, in fact, someone who perhaps represents a diminishing group of highly knowledgeable breeders, who have invested so much of themselves and any profits into furthering their goals. Breeders who primarily work alone, without the support of a lucrative business income, or inheriting family property handed down through the generations.
An unusual foundation
Dolly van Zaane’s childhood in the Netherlands did not include pets, let alone horses. “My parents weren’t keenon me keeping pets, so I rode my bicycle to an aunt’s house to walk her golden retriever. I think I was born with a genetic attachment to animals. I felt they had to be part of my life. I also loved reading so would take my pocket money and go to a local book shop to buy paperback books on dogs, horses, wildlife, butterflies, trees...”.
However, her life changed abruptly at 16 when her high school finished and she needed to continue her education elsewhere. “My teachers said I would have to go to an all-girls school, and I said ‘no way. I was never a ‘girly’ girl. My parents, to their credit, never tried to push my brother and I, so they asked me what I wanted to do as I couldn’t continue at the same school. I told them I just wanted to work with animals, so my mother got out a copy of the yellow pages of the Amsterdam phone book, and looked for kennels and horse establishments in the area. The first number she called was a dog kennel, but they didn’t pick up the phone, and the second number was a stable in the centre of Amsterdam, I got an appointment, and the rest is history. That was at the Hollandsche Manege. That’s how I got into horses, and it’s interesting because I knew all about the four-beat walk, the gaits and conformation from reading books and before I’d even touched a horse.”
The immigration experience
Having taken the decision to immigrate, and using the assisted passage scheme in place at the time, Dolly van Zaane first arrived in Australia in 1974, but circumstances took her back to the Netherlands 18 months later, and it was this return trip that essentially sealed her future in sport horse breeding. “I was fortunate to get a job at Zangersheide, which really cemented my passion for breeding. I was only there for one year, but it was at the time when Leon Melchior was spending a lot of money to buy all his amazing Grand Prix showjumping mares, and was using AI, which no one else was doing at the time. Almé was there so I met all the famous horses, and people like Alwin and Werner Schockemöhle. It was an amazing time for me and I learned so much. I then moved to Zwolle, in with my husband and his father.
“At the time I was living in a nice big flat, but couldn’t see myself living on the 11th floor for the rest of my days so said, let’s go back. Our visas were still valid, so we scrambled the money together – we arrived with $200 and a couple of suitcases – and I’ve never looked back.”
“I was in Queensland for a while on a small property where I got my own horse for the first time. It was amazing because I’d worked for 13 years in the industry, from the age of 16, and finally I had my own horse. In Europe, people like myself, not coming from a wealthy family, couldn’t afford to buy a horse, they were expensive to keep, and jobs in the industry very poorly paid, but the experiences I had are still valid to this day. Looking back, it was a priceless time.”.. To read the complete article you need to be a subscriber
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