The Equine Sports Breeding (ESB) story is filled with heartache and triumph. It is a wonderful example of how dreams can come true with hard work, tenacity, focus and creative thinking.
An equestrian breeding program that began in 1986, ESB has just produced its 250th foal. From her first Irish Draught mare and her thoroughbred cross filly to Olympic silver medal winner, Kirby Park Irish Jester, owned and ridden by Megan Jones, Vanessa Hawkins, owner and operator of ESB has seen her program develop into one that is making a name for itself in the international eventing world. Frustrated with finding the right horse for eventing at the upper levels, Vanessa undertook an extensive study of the different breeds of performance horses. “I wanted a horse that was well put together, could move and jump and that had a good temperament without the physical and mental baggage of racing,” says Vanessa. Finding this horse, however, proved harder than she thought. “I was getting so heartbroken with rehabilitating horses in my pursuit of a good one, that I thought I would just be easier to breed a decent horse than to buy one.” With a degree in nursing and knowledge of genetics, she applied for and won a scholarship to study performance horses. In April 1988, she traveled back to the UK, bought a Mini and drove over 10,000 miles around England and Ireland studying the Irish Draught horse. Spending many hours with horsemen from several generations and gathering advice and information on bloodlines, Vanessa learned that one of the critical aspects of breeding for performance was the importance of the mare, especially when out crossing to achieve hybrid vigour. “So many people look to the stallion to fix everything when the mare has so much more influence, especially in the first cross,” shared Vanessa.
Convinced she was on the right track, Vanessa purchased an Irish Draught mare and her Thoroughbred cross filly with the help of her grandmother and then founded the Australian Irish Draught & Sport Horse Society (IDSHS) in 1989, serving as its President for the first two years.
As what started as a small operation began to pick up steam, disaster struck. In 1990 Vanessa’s imported Irish Draught mare, ESB Irish Anna, suffered post partum laminitis after her fifth foal. After a four-month battle to save her and a tenotomy in all four tendons, Vanessa tragically lost the mare to colic. “It is a common complication after being confined for so long. What makes me even sadder is that we could not have prevented it” says Vanessa. “She was an amazing mare, so incredibly tough, gracious and determined, she was my mentor and I was devastated by her loss. People don’t usually allow us to grieve the death of an animal in the same way we do a person. The pain is still very raw and this is what keeps me going. I don’t want her life and her struggle to have been in vain.”
With huge vet bills to pay, Vanessa was forced to sell the half-bred mare, ESB Irish Bea, in foal to the thoroughbred stallion, Balmoral Boy. Vanessa eventually put the new owner in touch with Megan Jones and she produced the lovely Kirby Park Irish Hallmark (Paddy) from this cross. Paddy competed at Badminton in 2004, leading after the first day of dressage.
Following the loss of ESB Irish Anna, Vanessa switched gears, married her college sweetheart, reduced her horse numbers and moved to Murray Bridge, South Australia, where she became a snow pea picker supervisor – a far cry from horse breeder! It was during this time that she met Margaret Jones, whose daughters, Emma and Megan, both rode competitively but needed some good horses. Vanessa helped them get started with a band of broodmares and her colt from ESB Irish Anna, ESB Irish Enough (Matty). This gave Megan her foundation stock to start the Kirby Park Stud with Irish Jester, Jamie, Jig and Jessica in 1993. The following year came Jordan, Justice, Jade and Janey. Megan kept Kirby Park Irish Jordan as a colt and has continued to produce her stud from his progeny.
Four years later tragedy struck again as Vanessa lost ESB Irish Enough to endocarditis, an infection of the heart. “He had caught a cold and the bacteria migrated to his heart without me realizing. I was lunging him one day working on his canter transitions and he just suddenly neighed, flung himself into the fence, staggered and dropped dead at my feat. I just couldn’t believe it and sat with him lying in my arms for two hours before being dragged inside. He was one of the most magnificent horses I have even had the privilege of seeing, let alone riding. He was just amazing in every way and such a huge loss both to the breeding program and to me personally.”
While she was recovering from yet another set back, the ESB progeny were starting to make their mark in national and international competitions. There were a number competing at the FEI level, but the day that Kirby Park Irish Jester won the silver team medal at the Beijing Olympics, Vanessa knew that her hard work and determination had paid off. “I didn’t allow myself to think about it until they had won, it was way too emotional.” In between the team medal and the individual round, Vanessa received an email from her mother saying “Congratulations, we are so proud of you and I am so ashamed for not supporting you more.” Vanessa was so pleased for Megan Jones and her family saying, “they have all worked very hard and sacrificed a lot to achieve such success”.
Vanessa knew that something had to give. Between the breeding, competing and working to fund the program, she couldn’t do it all. Professionally, she had gone from nursing to snow peas, lecturing in horse studies, a Director of the Australian Horse Council (AHIC), an advisor on Government committees, creating and publishing a database of the industry and the first Event Director for Equitana Asia Pacific. Throughout all this, her marriage dissolved, her house was showered with rocks by a gold mining company, which also dumped 45,000 cubic meters of rock on her property, another failed relationship, floods, and outbreak of EI, bushfires and the worst drought in Australian history. Around the same time, Aboriginal scar trees were discovered on her property and she was approached about having an international car rally with over 200 cars traveling at over 200kms an hour on her land. “There has to be a film script in there somewhere,” says Vanessa. “The whole saga is a cross between A Field of Dreams, Black Beauty, Erin Brockovich, The Castle and A Beautiful Mind.” By now, however, she had become pretty unflappable and just put her head down and continued to work through the problems.
The breeding program had been developing on a number of different properties throughout all of this but in 2000 Vanessa moved into her new house on a 300 acre property in central Victoria. Aptly named ‘Gold Fields’ (being on the edge of a gold mining company), Vanessa has developed the facilities to realize her other dream. The property is now home to The Gold Fields Stadium, The Bush Courtyard, The Gold Fields Equestrian Club and the Equine Sports Breeding & Training Centre.
The challenge to take the ESB breeding program to the next step was primarily restricted by finances. “Riders were coming back to buy their second and third horse, but due to escalating feed prices with the drought, they couldn’t afford to pay me what these horses were costing me. So I implemented a ‘Pay as they grow’ payment scheme whereby I would match the rider with a horse and we would agree on a price and a time period for the horse to be picked up. It was a good cash flow solution for everyone.”
Vanessa would invite the riders to come and stay if they had holidays or time off so they could all get to know each other, especially the horses. It gave Vanessa a chance to share her training and young horse philosophies with the riders and the riders had the opportunity to find the best match for them. It became clear to Vanessa during these visits that even though many of the riders had loads of ability and personality, they often lacked the experience and savvy to leverage their success and journey as professionals. As a breeder, Vanessa wanted to make sure that the horses had the best opportunity to prove themselves. So the concept of Team ESB was born.
Team ESB is a pioneering concept in which riders receive an ESB horse as well as the training, advice, guidance, mentoring and support to achieve their goal of reach the international level of competition. According to Vanessa, “The idea is to select the riders and match them with the right horse. I seek advice from coaches or fate takes a hand but riders are selected on their riding ability as well as their attitude and personality. I then “give” them a horse which I think suits them best at the time and that will also assist their progression to international competition.” With good horses often hard to find, this can be a dream come true for riders - an ongoing supply of talented, purpose-bred and professionally raised youngsters without a large initial outlay of funds.
Vanessa’s goal is to create a global platform of talented riders on these lovely ESB horses. There are currently about thirty riders in the program and Vanessa is now on a mission to discover more budding event riders. “The rider selection is an ongoing process especially when I think the best ESB horses are yet to come. It is imperative that riders have the right attitude, will appreciate this opportunity and want to be the best they can as a person as well as a rider”.
“I am concentrating on the more junior riders because they are less established and will hopefully appreciate the opportunities a bit more. To grow our sport, riders need to think outside the box and become more entrepreneurial, creative and proactive in planning for their long term goals. One of the major challenges is to teach the riders how to communicate professionally and the importance of building their profile, networks and personality.”
Vanessa now believes she has a better idea of what is required to develop the team and is equipped to take the next step. She is has developed the Team ESB Manual to ensure that all members are on the same page and have a greater understanding of their role and direction. She has also run several training workshops with guest speakers on goal setting and strategic planning as well as media training.
“The horse and rider combinations need to be focused on developing both their professional and practical skills as well as supporting and helping other members. As we continue to grow, we are working on building our profile, awareness and branding with websites, blogs, merchandise and publicity. This provides better service to our riders, supporters, owners and sponsors.”
Further to this, Vanessa is about to launch a training program for the riders. Equestrian Sports Management (ESM) will consist of online theory as well as practical sessions and assessment. The course will be focused on assisting the riders to achieve their goals.
“Once we have everything in place, we can take this to potential owners and sponsors and offer them good communication and professional management and hopefully a return on their investment.”
Team ESB owners have the ability to be part of team syndicates and own a share of more than one horse. Sponsors have greater exposure as they are linked with more than one rider, often in more than one country. As Vanessa shares, “Horse trials can be really exciting with loads of opportunities for individuals to have fun and feel involved as well as achieve corporate promotion, exposure and branding. Team ESB embraces all members and makes the most of everyone’s energy, ideas and expertise so that our investors and stakeholders feel involved and valued. At the same time everyone wins and benefits from the global exposure as well as the expertise, mentorship and networks of all the team members. Most of all though, it’s about having fun.”
ESB horses currently compete throughout the world, but at the moment Team ESB’s focus is primarily in the UK, USA and Australia. Over the last five years Vanessa has been travelling over to the UK and USA researching the industry, exploring opportunities and sourcing the right people and riders to develop the concept.
“After all this time,” Vanessa admits, “I also realize that there is more to Team ESB than just riding and competing, it is about developing ourselves as individuals with good values, trying to live the Olympic spirit each and every day and bringing people together to share the same quest for excellence, friendship and respect for others. It is about being the best we can and keeping the dream alive, realizing that with hard work, determination and passion, we can achieve anything if we try. It is also about developing and contributing to the next generation in order to create a more peaceful and positive future. I’d like to leave this world a better place and know that ESB has created its own legacy and contributed in some way.”
For more information on Team ESB and Vanessa’s story, visit: