May 21, 2018

Behind the Breeder’s Brand: Phyllis Dawson and Windchase, Part I

By Claire Kelley - USEA Staff
Phyllis Dawson’s homebred Polaris (Brandenburg’s Windstar x North River Lady) finishing his first four-star event at the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event with Sara Gumbiner. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“Extremely proud and honored to have been a part of it all!” are the feelings Phyllis Dawson felt when she watched her homebred, Polaris (Brandenburg’s Windstar x North River Lady) and Sara Gumbiner cross the finish flags at their first four-star event, the 2018 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Having over 20 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event completions, multiple Burghley Horse Trials completions, a 10th-place finish at the Olympic Games, wins at international events including Radnor, Essex, and Checkmate, and six-time winner of the Morven Park Advanced horse trials; Dawson is no stranger to the eventing game. Her experience as a competitor and her background in training every horse she brought up the levels mixed with her knowledge of breeding makes her own Windchase one of the best breeding programs in the country for event horses.

Baby Polaris at Windchase in 2005 (left) and Polaris and Gumbiner jumping clear around their four-star debut in 2018 (right). Phyllis Dawson Photo and USEA/Jessica Duffy Photo.

With the rise in popularity of the United States Eventing Association (USEA) Young Event Horse (YEH) program also came the rise in the USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) program. The FEH program evaluates the potential of yearlings, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and now 4-year-olds to become successful upper level event horses. Identifying upper level event horses in the early stages of life is something Dawson knows quite well. Dawson has cut out the import expenses by breeding high quality Irish Sport Horses in her backyard in Purcellville, Va., and this was made possible with a little help from Brandenburg’s Windstar.

Breeders take note – the late stallion Brandenburg’s Windstar (I’m A Star x Kildalton Seabreeze) sired numerous top event horses including the fan-favorite Arthur (Brandenburg’s Windstar x Kelly); the newly minted four-star horse, Polaris (Brandenburg’s Windstar x North River Lady); Katie Willis’ Advanced mount, Polar Storm (Brandenburg’s Windstar x Ashley W); and three-star event horse, Windchase Phoenix Star (Brandenburg’s Windstar x North River Lady).

Brandenburg's Windstar. Phyllis Dawson Photo.

Brandenburg’s Windstar Fame and Fortune

Some might call it fate that brought Dawson and Brandenburg’s Windstar together. As Dawson said, she “never meant to own a stallion.”

However, her mind changed upon setting eyes on the young steel gray stallion. Owning him the majority of his life, from a 2-year-old until his passing in 2011, Dawson shares how they first crossed paths. “I was going over to Ireland to shop for some horses with a couple of friends, Joerg Eichman and David Smith, who owned Brandenburg Farm [now the farm is Sharon White’s Last Frontier Farm]. Joerg talked me into looking at stallion prospects, and we went into partnership buying this 2-year-old colt and named him Brandenburg’s Windstar.”

A standout quality of this striking colt was his superb bloodlines. Bloodlines that linked him to Dawson’s four-star horse, Starbright (sired by I’m A Star), as well as the famous Kildalton Seabreeze (Sea Crest x Kildalton June) and King of Diamonds (Errigal x Ruby). “[Brandenburg’s Windstar] was by the Thoroughbred stallion, I’m A Star and a Sea Crest mare. So, he carried some of the best jumping bloodlines in Ireland.”

The Pursuit for Presence

Although bloodlines play a role when Dawson looks to breed a top event horse, they aren’t everything. So, what other qualities does Dawson look for in mares and stallions to ensure successful eventing offspring? 

“The qualities I look for in both the mare and the stallion would be similar. I am looking for athleticism, soundness, jumping ability, boldness, a great gallop, and good movement. I want correct conformation, good feet, good uphill balance, and a keen willing expression. I also look for that special quality; you might call it ‘presence.’” Presence, along with many other favorable qualities, is something that one of Brandenburg’s Windstar’s offspring is notorious for – the strikingly handsome Arthur.

A final ride in the Rolex arena for his retirement in 2017, Arthur’s career consisted of 38 FEI event completions and seven trips to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

Presence: a keen quality that separates the good from the great, and a quality that helped Arthur to finish second at the 2012 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, sixth at the 2012 Burghley CCI4*, a win at the 2016 Carolina International CIC3*, a win at the 2011 Red Hills CIC3*, and multiple wins at the Advanced level with his longtime partner Allison Springer.

Battle of the Sexes

Brandenburg’s Windstar’s athleticism and conformation are apparent in the majority of his offspring, but does the sire hold more weight when passing down characteristics?

Dawson explained, “conventional wisdom is that the mare has more influence on the offspring than the stallion, partially because her interaction with the foal influences its early upbringing and personality. Having said that, some stallions seem to really ‘stamp’ their offspring with certain qualities, and these stallions can have a greater influence. Certainly my (late) stallion Brandenburg’s Windstar passed on to almost all of his babies his exceptional jumping ability and correct, sound conformation.”

“Horses, like people, are a product of their life experiences,” said Dawson.

Life experiences and the age-old question of nature versus nurture are likely determinants for specific traits to either be passed down or produced. “Personality, temperament, and trainability, while being important inherited traits, are also partially a product of upbringing and life experiences. [Successful event horses] may be the result of expert training rather than qualities that will be passed down,” said Dawson.

Zero to One Hundred Percent Thoroughbred Blood

It’s not surprising that breeding experts Dawson and YEH Championship judge Chris Ryan both believe in the importance of Thoroughbred blood in a top event horse - 75 percent to be exact. “If you are trying to breed for the upper levels, it is important that you have enough Thoroughbred blood. I don’t believe it makes any difference if the Thoroughbred blood is on the dam or stallion’s side, what is important is the percentage.”

“I want at least 75 percent Thoroughbred blood for an upper level horse. I breed Irish Sport Horses, and I am usually breeding a Thoroughbred mare to a half bred or 3/4 Thoroughbred stallion. In the [U.S.] it is easier to source good Thoroughbred mares from the racing industry.” Notice a common theme? This percentage is the same percentage Ryan described as an ideal event horse in the article Zero to One Hundred: Thoroughbred Blood in a Young Event Horse.

Full brothers Polaris (left) and Windchase Phoenix Star (right) (Brandenburg’s Windstar x North River Lady) are now both Advanced event horses. Phyllis Dawson Photo.

Stars Aligned for Phyllis Dawson 

“Invest in the journey, not the destination,” is Dawson’s personal motto, and breeding is one journey Dawson is passionate about (regardless of whether she makes a profit.) “I could count on the breeding business to make sure my financial bottom line stayed firmly in the red,” Dawson said with a laugh.

Not in it for the money but the love of horses, Dawson’s favorite aspect to breeding is, “[First,] when the foals are born. Watching the miracle of birth, and watching as the foal gets to its feet, takes its first tottering steps, and nurses for the first time. There is nothing like it. [Second] is watching a horse you have bred, foaled, raised, been involved in the starting and training, as it competes at a high level.”

Competing at the highest level is Polaris, and Polaris’s name came from Dawson herself as she is responsible for naming every foal born at Windchase. “All of Brandenburg’s Windstar’s foals are named either after a star or constellation, or they have Star in their names – in honor of Windstar, and his sire, I’m A Star (Crowned Prince x Sing A Song).”

Only a few instances where Dawson could realign the stars, and one instance is wishing her favorite gelding and Olympic mount, Albany II could be changed back to a stallion. “He moved well and was a super jumper. The most outstanding thing about him was his attitude; he always tried 100 percent to do his best. He was one of the kindest and most genuine horses I have ever had the privilege of knowing. He took me to the Olympics, what can I say? If only he was a stallion and I could breed him to a good Thoroughbred mare…”

Putting the past behind her, Dawson feels excited for the future of her breeding program. Dawson made sure to keep Brandenburg’s Windstar’s bloodlines alive through her 3-year-old colt by Windstar, named Windchase Eaglestar (Brandenburg’s Windstar x Gold Trinket), as well as Windchase Pegasus (Brandenburg’s Windstar x Smart Notion), who was born just a few weeks ago. “Perhaps he will carry on the legacy,” Dawson states.

The legacy, the resources, the experience, the knowledge, and the love are all pieces to the puzzle in how Dawson has built a superior American breeding program.

Interested in learning more insider tips of Phyllis Dawson’s breeding program? Stay tuned for part two, coming later this week.

Phyllis Dawson’s farm, Windchase in Purcellville, Va. Phyllis Dawson Photo.

About the USEA Future Event Horse Program

The USEA introduced the Future Event Horse (FEH) program in 2007 as a pilot program in response to the popularity of the already established USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) program. Where the YEH program assesses 4- and 5-year-old prospective event horses based on their performance, the FEH program evaluates yearlings, 2-year-olds, and 3-year-olds for their potential for the sport based on conformation and type. Horses are presented in hand and divisions are separated by year and gender. At the Championships, 3-year-olds are also required to demonstrate their potential over fences in an additional free-jump division.

New in 2017 was the FEH 4-year-old division, designed for youngsters not quite ready for the rigors of the Young Event Horse program. These horses are presented under saddle at the walk, trot, and canter before being stripped of their tack and evaluated for their conformation. Additionally, 4-year-olds also participate in the free-jump divisions at Championships to show their potential over fences. Click here to learn more about the Future Event Horse Program.

The USEA would like to thank SmartPakStandlee Hay CompanyProfessional’s Choice, and Merck Animal Health for sponsoring the Future Event Horse program.

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