When Scotland’s leading showjumper Scott Brash broke through to the top of the FEI Longines World Rankings List in December 2013 it was the first time a Scottish rider has achieved such a feat.
Scott has maintained his place at the top of the world rankings and in April his achievement was bolstered by the news his Scottish-bred horse Ursula XII had also scaled to the top of the FEI World Ranking Jumping horse list giving recognition to the mare’s breeders, Mary and John Turnbull, and their children Katie (23) and Mark (19), from Ashton Stud, in Fife.
The family live at Ashes Farm, Culross, overlooking the river Forth, where John’s family have long farmed dairy cattle and until only recently ran a beef suckler herd too.
With the family concentrating on breeding and producing competition horses the redundant cattle sheds have been turned into stables, and additionally the sale of Ursula has allowed the family to upgrade their own facilities.
John and Mary married 25 years ago. They met when Mary’s father, the late George Nimmo, bought a horse from John.
They’ve bred many horses that have competed around the world in all disciplines. One of their foundation mares was Bonnie, she was post humanely awarded a British Horse Foundation award for her progeny in 1997 and 1998.
“Bonnie was home-bred by a Cleveland Bay stallion and out of a Thoroughbred mare, which today may be a bit old fashioned but she had three grade A and two grade B showjumping offspring,” explained Mary.
Today the youngest of the horses at Ashton Stud are two years old but buoyed on with the success of Ursula, the family have put four mares in foal for next year, including Ursula’s dam Paloma and half-sister Wiloma.
“I think the first year of a horse’s life is very important.
“The foals need to be handled daily and get confidence with people,” explains Mary.
“Our brood-mares are generally quite young this way their fertility rates are higher and it helps to keep the bloodlines fairly new. The mares are normally broken before they are put in foal so I have an idea of their ability,” she said.
Mark rode Ursula till she was 10 years old taking her to Grade A, jumping in the junior Nations Cup team at Hagan and was non traveling reserve for the Europeans.
Further success included them being third in the Newcomers final at the Horse of the Year Show, winning the newcomers masters at Scope and fourth in the Murka young riders championship at Olympia.
Three years ago Ursula was sold to great supporters of British showjumping, Lady Harris and Lady Kirkham, owners of Scott’s Olympic ride Hello Sanctos.
With the 2012 Olympics in mind initially she was ridden by Tina Fletcher but 18 months ago Scott Brash took over the ride and the remarkable partnership haven’t looked back since.
“We knew she was really good but wanted to find the right rider for her,” explained Mary.
“It’s worked out brilliantly, Scott has taken her to shows that we couldn’t have gone to, it’s a perfect match, he is cool and smooth and they suit each other,” she said.
Right from the start of her career Ursula was a champion, winning the overall title at a Scottish Sports Horse show when a foal.
“She just had that look and knew she was special.
“She was a beautiful mover, with big, loose, springy paces, her walk was light and big and she had a bit of fight in her,” remembers Mary.
As the Turnbulls like to take a foal off the mares while they are still young, Ursula had a foal as a four-year-old, producing Ashton Dollipierre that Mark competes today.
“Ursula was a great mother, she has a fantastic temperament and didn’t get broken until the end of her fifth year as she was small and you wouldn’t have wanted to do too much with her.
“She didn’t start jumping until she was seven and went up the grades very quickly, the more she did the better she got.
“She’s barely 16hh and where some horses would struggle with the distances she found it easy, she was so scopey and light on her feet, with a huge canter for a little horse. Nothing was too big – she made everything look easy.”
Before breeding Mary says it’s important to be very critical of your own stock.
“You shouldn’t use a stallion just because he is fashionable. Ideally it will work in harmony with your mare and match its type and personality.
“We know ourselves what we like, the market is competitive now and you need to know what job you’re breeding for,” said Mary.
“We want to breed something like Ursula, good looking and ultimately to give enjoyment to its owner. If it’s not at the top of its job can it do a job for someone else? It doesn’t need to be at the top, top level, a nice amateur horse can do other jobs as well.”
It’s a family business and the four Turbulls now all work together.
Mark and Katie break the horses with Mark keen to make his own business up here. He has a good string of competitive young horses, mostly home-bred on the showjumping circuit with Ashton Dollipierre, Cuarento and Claus II qualified to compete this weekend at the Royal Highland Show.
“I know we can’t keep everything and to be fair to the horse if we can find a nice home where they’ll be loved and give enjoyment to their owner that’s what it’s about,” said Mary.
“I get attached to the horses and it is sad to see them go but I know they have to be sold so they can further their careers.
“I always try to follow the horses on when they leave,” she added.
“Today people are becoming more educated and will ask for breeding lines, which give the breeder recognition. I can spend hours researching bloodlines and I find it very interesting. We enjoy breeding the horses but we’re always trying to improve. It’s our hobby and it’s given us a whole lot of pleasure,” she said.
Ursula continues to stand at the top of the showjumping leader board and is the first British-bred horse to ever win this award.
“It’s taken us 25 years to get these bloodlines, there’s so few top mares jumping and we still own Ursula’s daughter, half sister and nieces and nephews.
“To get those lines has been a long time and a lot of hard work. We’ve just been chipping away and keeping trying, when I think of all the horses that are bred in the world it’s amazing to think we’ve bred a world number one,” Mary said.