The Grassroots Producer Series with Oonagh O’Brien

Next in my Producer Series with The Grassroots Gazette, I have a chat with Anna Fee – owner of Via Equine and Via Equine Sport Horses about how she has been coping with the current economic situation and how it is affecting the equine world. Anna gives some really thought provoking answers here – I was particularly interested to hear her thoughts on the Traditional Irish Horse – which echos something I have heard a lot of recently. 

Another amazing Irish breeder and producer shares an insight into her equine business and brings so many great points to light.

Firstly, introduce yourself and share a bit about your work and the types of horses you specialize in. 

My name is Anna Fee, I am the owner of Via Equine and Via Equine Sport horses. We mainly like to breed and produce young horses for the Eventing and Showjumping market BUT likewise if we have something that is a nice all rounder we are happy to produce this also. 

It appears from research and discussions with various individuals in the equine sector that, like many other industries in Ireland, horses are experiencing financial strain. With money becoming scarcer and the cost of living rising, this seems to be having a negative impact. What are your thoughts or insights on this matter? 

There is absolutely no doubt that it’s a worry for everyone. Nobody wants to deal with any sort of inflation however in order to keep in this business you have to try to be fair but also respectful of your time and effort and let your price reflect this also. People will always have to look at their budget and reflect what they do and the way they price their market. I’m a firm believer that often less is more so perhaps having less horses to be produced or bred around but instead concentrating on a smaller number and a better quality animal is often a better option rather than large numbers and less profit. I think people will then ‌pay a good price for a quality animal who is quiet and easy to handle.

Many discuss the continuously increasing entry fees for shows, compounded by the rising costs of diesel/petrol. As a horse producer, have you noticed this trend? 

Oh absolutely. We now like to produce some younger horses and if they show some real high-class potential we are happy to invest and send them onto some of the professional riders such as Seamus Hayes, Paddy O Donnell, Gemma Phelan, Piermount stud or Timmy Doyle . At this point the cost of production increases dramatically. So you have to be prepared to realise your costs are up but if sold the return will work out . 

 We love doing the young horses from Breaking up to around 1m10 and 1m20 but after that we invest quite heavily into further producing them further and bringing them onto the bigger fences and hopefully onto Grand Prixs but you have to accept the costs of diesel, grooms, time and effort along with entry fees are going to be a given and I often think people forget that they are paying for experience, production and costs of equipment being used. 

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Presumably, with the number of horses you breed and wish to showcase, this must affect you. Have there been shifts in the types of buyers you encounter? 

I take huge pride in every horse we breed and produce. To me there is none more important than the other and it’s a principle I stand by here in the yard. Every horse is treated the exact same regardless of their ability they are doing their best that they are capable of. The numbers have increased in order to allow us to bring to market more of the type we like to breed and produce.

We have done a good few embryo transfers etc so have some really smart young stock on the ground HOWEVER the disappointing and frustrating part of this job is often the expectation of buyers. Anyone I deal with is lovely but often they don’t want to accept the price of getting a foal to ground, never mind a foal to 4 and 5 years of age and often they can’t accept the reflection on price. I have a motto now or buyers. My foal is this price as a foal , when they are 3 that price will inevitably increase to reflect the quality of animal but also the costs must be taken into account for time, feeding, care, effort and then after that the potential of the Animal. Buyers don’t like to wait for a good horse but then they also don’t like the price you then ask for the animal you have held and produced for years so in this sense it’s quite difficult. I have dropped prices to get horses to the right production home and I do feel even though it’s a bit of a financial loss it’s to the benefit of me as a breeder and producer to make sure they get to the right place to reach their potential. 

Does the interest in Irish-bred horses remain strong, especially for international sales? 

I have found that the international clients still love the Traditional Irish Horse. We sold one not too long ago who was a full brother to a 1m50 winning horse. The funny thing was all the Irish who called to see him said he hadn’t enough blood for them and the International clients bought him with one viewing and he was aimed and went for Eventing. I think the international clients like how the horses  are brought on in Ireland. As clients have said to me “the Irish horses are trainable and the Irish know how to produce them”. But I honestly think it still comes down to Irish-based buyers not wanting to wait for a traditional Irish horse. The Proper Irish horse is now a thing of the past unfortunately due to the amount of Foreign breeding in our horses today . I think with proper grants and marketing we could bring back interest into the TIH section. I don’t breed TIH but any I have had have been super horses and have always given great joy to their current owners . 

How are you coping with the cost of living increases? Are you compelled to pass on these additional costs to your clients, and do you consider this a business risk? 

I’m the same as everyone else. The cost of living and the cost of materials for the yard and keep of the horses has caused me to make changes but the likes of smaller changes like switching bedding, buying a no branded rug etc. We definitely shop around for everything more than before.

I have tried not to but I now take a more business focused approach; I like to do business with some emotional involvement and I always stood by my gut feeling etc. But I take a more hardline and business approach in order to survive ever increasing changes and I firmly believe buyers have to accept the cost the producer of time and effort. I normally advertise the younger horses for their price out of the field, if we have to put time and production into them then I increase price to reflect this. 

It’s hard to do it because I’m so emotionally involved In the line of production from foal to riding market but at the same time we must, like everyone else, pay our bills.  

Have your clients’ preferences in horses altered recently? 

Definitely, clients want more from younger horses, they want more scope, more flash,  they want horses who are riding to a maturity past their age and a record. I honestly think some clients are lacking the understanding they are investing into a good young horse for future competition or long term fun. 

I try not to fall into this preference . I personally believe horses need time and that’s coming from experience but also from my physiotherapy where I see young horses with old horse injuries. SO even though the preference of clients is having a young horse jumping or schooled like an older mature horse I am very quick to tell them they are green but willing and will last into the future without breakdown as they have been worked to their physical ability and in fact enjoy their jobs. 

Are you concerned about the future of the industry if conditions don’t improve? How does Ireland7 fare in comparison to the rest of Europe and the UK for professionals like you, in terms of opportunities and facilities/competitions for horses? 

I worry about the level of competition pressure put on horses and especially young horses. I honestly and firmly believe qualifiers etc should be removed and a league system with smaller fences and less should be introduced  and horses in the top 24 etc should then Qualify for the likes of the RDS a league system means horses need to be produced in a steady manner., if they need a break they can get it and miss the odd league day. This will help take the pressure off of producers too. The consistent training slow and steady will mean better horses that will last longer. It also gives smaller producers time to get horses to leagues and likewise it will give more centres chances to get some of these days. I know there are leagues but the fence heights to me are an issue also. I think we have some amazing facilities in this country. I would like to see more funding for the welfare of the horse, rehabilitation, specific centres for young horse training along with good education days on the physical development of horses. I think this will help make us better producers and bring back horsemanship into the factor. 

Could organisations like Horse Sport Ireland, Show Jumping Ireland, or even the Government do more to support Irish equestrians, in your view? Lastly, if you could make one change in the Irish Equine Industry, what would it be and why?

I’m not alone in the feeling that HSI needs a big overhaul. But I honestly feel the staff are doing the best with what they have, it’s the system that needs to be overhauled. The costs incurred for breeding and producing young horses is huge and it’s really becoming a very difficult decision to register them with HSI or another studbook. HSI have super grants but only if a lot of criteria is met and again I have been very lucky to have received some of these grants but I have also lost out on grants due to  factors out of my control i.e. stallion I used now still not approved etc .I’d like to see them make a big effort on helping smaller breeders etc keep nice young stallions and mares and support them more in order to ensure we have a nice pool of young horses coming through and being available to producers to get to market. It was great years ago with the local nice stallion that people locally would use and in turn sell the progeny onto families and in doing so getting them onto the market. I think these smaller breeders and stallion owners would benefit from a grant towards marketing and production grants to training them for collection. (I hope that’s not a huge rant ) *98

I would love to personally see more support for the grassroot producer and breeder. Open training days through HSI with good trainers and riders discussing with producers what they want and what way they need to school for supply to the market that’s in demand would be super.

I honestly feel that education and basic horsemanship is lost so How to watch for injuries, nutrition, supplement education would be great. Funding for this would be fantastic and get good Equine Science graduates from around the country calling into yards and educating staff etc. I think this would be fantastic funding and in turn help produce better horses for market and bring back our horsemanship into the country. 

If you wish to contact Anna – details as follows:

Phone:  085-1442894




The Grassroots Producer Series with Oonagh O’Brien

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