By Helen Sharp
Photography: Colum Lynch
When it comes to breeding, John McKibbin of Leestone Sport Horses is known amongst many as a man unafraid to voice his opinion, no matter how many feathers he may ruffle. Horses were part of his life as a young man but it wasn’t until his nephew rode horses that his interest in breeding was piqued.
According to McKibbin, “Every time we went to buy a horse, it wouldn’t pass the vetting. I bought a few horses hoping to breed some that would hopefully pass, but when the crash came in 2007, it was either move up or move out. I sold off all the mares I had that just weren’t a viable financial proposition, and I bought the likes of Crosskeys Cavalier (Cavalier Royale x Diamonds Are Trumps), and a few mares every year, and built up my herd. I also have Angus cows that are starting to calf at the moment.”
The Mourne mountain landscape with its dry-stone walls and salt-licked fields is a breathtaking place of work for anyone. Despite breeding both horses and cattle, McKibbin doesn’t adhere to the mixed grazing ethos. “I don’t graze them in the same fields because years ago I lost a foal. When I got the autopsy done they said it was a perfect storm; that there was a little infection, but it could also have caught something off a young calf. A very rare thing.”
Breeders in Ireland have been united in recent years, grassroots breeders lobbying for equine farmers to be treated equally to other farmers. So how does Northern Ireland measure up? “Up here everything seems to be very slow to move. The government doesn’t recognise the horse as an agricultural animal, whilst in the south they do. So, in the south you can get your grants, your TAMS [Targeted Agriculture Modernisation Schemes, as of 2023]. I remember a company that was set up here, they were supposed to be lobbying Stormont (the Northern Ireland Assembly) to get the horse recognised as an agricultural animal. Talking to other breeders six or so years ago, the mindset was that it was too much of a religious thing to get them all to pull together to do something about it.”
At an organisational level, according to McKibbin, the benefit for breeders like him is that the Northern Ireland Horse Board (NIHB) ‘runs a few foal shows and that’s about it’. “I’ve seen the NIHB board trying to break away from Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) and I’m just wondering why?” he says. “What is the agenda there?
“NIHB needs a good place to run a proper foal show. I don’t go to mare inspections anymore because I went to a few and they turned a mare of mine down for a tiny curb that you’d really have to look for to find. The mare went on to produce horses that jumped 1m40 and 1m50. Why do I need my mare in a classification that’s absolutely no use to me?
“As far as Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) goes, [...] there’s people within the organisation who are not horse people, they’ve never owned a horse, never rode a horse, never bred a horse, I would prefer to see more people with breeding experience on the board.”
McKibbin has also been very active on social media platforms, calling out untruths as he sees them. Not everyone always agrees of course and there have been rows. “Social media in general is good for breeders, to see where they can buy semen, who are the good vets, etc. We have a really good horse vet in our area with John Haughey at Carrickview Stud.”.. To read the complete article you need to be a subscriber
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