It’s possibly a little unfair to remind David Shoobridge, who is busy telling me that that his greatest desire is to breed horses with a good temperament – as well as talent of course – that he once thought that temperament wasn’t even a factor to consider.
He laughs. “I suppose you would call it the evolution of oneself,” he says. “Yes, I was that person. I was that person who wanted to breed that horse, with its legs around its ears. Now I want to breed a horse that’s so easy it makes it look as if I ride brilliantly.”
Not that he needs much help in the riding brilliantly department to be honest. This 6’3” son of Tasmanian farming parents makes dressage riding look oh so elegant and graceful. David, the owner of the international stallion agency, Waterview Park and now his own brand, David Shoobridge Pty Ltd, shot to prominence with the imported KWPN stallion, 00 Seven, winning a number of prestigious Grand Prix Competitions, with the pair establishing themselves as one of Australia’s most successful combinations in the world of FEI dressage. In 2013 he was ranked 85 in the FEI World Ranking top 100, placing him ahead of all other Australian-based combinations.
Agent de Jeu, 00 Seven’s son, is now making headlines himself. As well as competing and running his breeding programme David is in high demand as a trainer and coach, and after five minutes conversation with him it’s not hard to understand why he’s so popular. He’s friendly, easy-going and informative, qualities which make him remarkably easy to interview.
At the moment David is setting up his relatively new 40-acre property at Lancefield, near Hanging Rock in Victoria. “It’s a property in development,” he says. “But I’ve put in an amazing arena, with ten post and rail paddocks, with 1.60m high posts, three rails fitted and two stand-offs with equirope on the inside, truly super fencing. Not much chance a dressage horse will jump out of those. I grow my own hay, I have 20 acres with horses on it, and 20 acres for hay. It’s a lot of feeding, but I manage the diets well. All the young horses and broodmares live in herds, and I currently have five broodmares and five young/growing horses, then the stallions and riding horses separately, of course, and I have three stables, which I’m currently extending, for my horses that are in work.”
But there’s another thing, on top of his busy life of competing, coaching and running his business – and that’s being a full-time Dad to his daughter Annabel, and it’s what brings us into the background of what David describes as: “The most difficult year of my life.”
He’d been separated from his wife, Annabel’s mother, the noted rider and veterinarian, Amanda Shoobridge, for a while when she suddenly died of bacterial meningitis while she was on a visit to London mid last July, and the tragedy was hard to deal with.
“David Mckinnon was staying at my place the night it happened,” he says. “David, Annabel and I travelled to Mout Buller with some wonderful friends for a day trip on Sunday 22nd July. We’d had a great trip, had skied hard, arrived home exhausted, put Annabel to bed before following suit soon after. At about 10pm my phone rang… but I was asleep… so it didn’t register or wake me the first time… but it rang again, and then again. I woke and answered it. It was Amanda’s mother telling me the devastating and life changing news. I couldn’t believe it at first, it just wouldn’t sink in. I broke down in total disbelief. Dealing with tragedy is hard enough, but then having to tell your daughter that her mum died was excruciating. We were dealing with our separation, and on top of that my mum had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I’d been travelling backwards and forwards to Tasmania as a matter of priority. It was a really tough time, in the space of six months I lost my mother, my ex-wife and mother of my child, I had to start again with my business, and it’s been a huge struggle to remain positive and focussed.”
It was his mother’s parting words to him that have helped him stay strong. “She said to me, ‘never say why did this happen to us, or that it’s not fair. I don’t want you to have any self-pity.’ I think her attitude really helped me. A lot of people would ask, ‘why me?’ But these important lessons resonate. Having an inflated sense of entitlement will always hold you back. You have to grab life, don’t be ungrateful, be strong enough to deal with these terrible things when they happen. You have to accept that you might have a crash every now and then, but the sun gets up in the morning, and every day is a new day.”
But there’s been a lot of grief to process during the year, particularly nurturing Annabel through the loss of her mother. “I’ve said to Annabel that a lot of people have bad parents for a long time, and she was lucky enough to have a great mum for a short amount of time,” he says. “I tell her what my mum said to me, never ask why did it happen to me… just work hard to reflect on all the wonderful things our life has given us. She’s nine, and she’s into horses and attends Pony Club… so that makes me a Pony Club dad! She has a lesson once a week from her ‘proper’ instructor Claire Thomas, is busy with swimming training, running club, piano lessons, and netball. Of course on top of this, there’s the fairly hectic social life of a nine year old to keep up with too! We are both really, really busy!!”
Logistics, David says, are the key to making it all work. “On days when my Dad is with us, he’ll feed up and I’ll clean the stables. I then go inside and get Annabel up and ready for school. I come back and ride until late morning and teach in the afternoon. Luckily I have a wonderful assistant, Emma Beaton, who started working for me this year. On Monday afternoon I don’t teach so I can do swimming training with Annabel, Tuesday is her lesson at home, Wednesday I’m coaching at Boneo Park, so generally ‘Papa’ (Tony, my father) does the school pick-up. You just have to be efficient,” he says with what I’ve already come to recognize as a fierce determination to make it all work.
That fierce determination was already in evidence when he was 14, and taking his first competition horse to his first professional lesson away from home. The horse simply refused to get on the float, but never one to be put off, he rode him the 20-kilometres to the session with Sue Chandler, who was then Tasmanian based and a big influence on David’s early education. That first clinic though, had a very strong emphasis on float training – a skill and lesson that still resonates today.
It wasn’t until he was a late teenager that dressage began to be of interest to him, until then it was definitely not on the radar. “I enjoyed hooning around the farm on the family horses,” he says cheerfully. “From that I really got into Hunter Trials, which I loved. I couldn’t fathom how on earth anybody could remember a dressage test, or why they would even want to!”
He was fortunate that the ‘farm’ was a 2,225 hectare property in the beautiful Derwent Valley that gave him plenty of chance to exercise his ‘hooning’ skills, and his background as an all-rounder is part, perhaps, of his easy look on a horse. He’s one of those riders who seems to be so at one with his horse, that they flow effortlessly into each other. Not that there were any special facilities, or special help in the early days. “My big envy was of anybody who had an arena,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe how lucky people were to have one. I had a riding area that I now envy in hindsight. It was a wonderful flood irrigated grass arena surrounded with old established Poplar trees, a year-round running creek and English Oaks… as a teenager I took it all for granted, but now, having spent years developing properties, it’s retrospectively appreciated!!”
Part, of course, of his ‘making it’, is the extraordinary breeding programme started by he and Amanda, and their decision to import quality stallions, in order to use mainly live semen (although he does import frozen semen as well). I ask the inevitable question about how to breed a quality horse, and I’m given an intensive course in how to think about breeding.
“Let’s start with the obvious,” he says. “In our minds, we all want to manifest this ‘ideal’ foal, this ‘ideal’ riding horse for our discipline. But what are our ingredients? Look closely at your foundation ingredients. You don’t want to knock down a fibro shack, and put a million dollar house on old foundations – it might look great until the cracks start showing. The same applies with breeding performance horses. If you’re going to breed, or you’re buying a horse, look at the mare line, have the manifestation of the horse you want in your mind, focus on the end goal. As cute as foals are, there’s no point breeding foals you can’t ride.”
David believes social media has a lot to answer for in Australia’s current over-breeding craze. “People want that instant dopamine hit of satisfaction. They fall in love with a foal on social media, and the foal sells from the photo. But dressage isn’t about fads, or having the latest and greatest. You might breed a great looking horse, but will it be forgiving if you work it only three days a week, and will it be sound if you work it six days a week? Define the fit and style of horse for the person you are, or the person you are breeding for.”
His stallion partnership with 00 Seven began somewhat unconventionally when he and Amanda did exactly what he tells everybody not to do, and bought him in 2012 sight unseen. “I sourced him from his breeder, Isabel Van Gisbergen through Emmy de Jeu, he says, “and until he landed in quarantine I hadn’t set eyes on him. Not something I recommend! But it worked. The rest, as it’s been said, is history”
Using fresh, rather than frozen semen, was underscored by David and Amanda’s knowledge that every time semen is handled, some of it dies. “The rule of thumb is that with full quality fresh semen, it can be viable for around 48-hours, so once it’s frozen, we’re putting a pause on it – we’re asking it to hold that thought, so to speak, and we’ll get back to you in a few months, or a few years. Frozen semen sometimes has only a six-hour shelf life once it’s defrosted, if you use fresh semen, you can use it a day before ovulation and you have a much bigger window of opportunity. Of course, it’s more technical than that, but it’s quite simple with a good protocol.”
The cost for using fresh semen is higher, but as David points out is often more financially viable in the long run. “It might cost you $2,500 for fresh semen, with a LFG (Live Foal Guarantee), but if it doesn’t take and it takes two to three times it doesn’t cost you any more. Frozen is less, but it can take more goes. The fact is that breeding is gambling, but you can be an educated gambler.”
Despite the tragedies of the last year, David has found an even stronger commitment to his dream. “If you follow your dream you can make it happen,” he says. “I’ve made good decisions and bad decisions, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are not even any bad decisions, there are only decisions that teach us something.”
One thing his farming background has given him is a continued love of everyday riding, and he believes it’s vital for keeping horses happy and interested in their work. His horses have a mixed routine. “We school them on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, Friday and on Wednesday and a day on the weekend we do a circuit of a road and trail ride that’s about ten-kilometres. We do that in a combination of walking and trotting. A lot of people are surprised that I’ll trot Grand Prix horses up the road, but it’s good for them to work on different surfaces, get out of the arena and have some great solid exercise. It’s also a chance to wander through our picturesque Macedon Ranges area and reflect on how lucky we are to live in an area like this, with the life we do.”
At his Lancefield property David currently has two stallions who are both breeding and competing – Fuerst Fantasy (owned by Bec Sellick from WA) who is by Fuerst Heinrich and out of a Rosenkavalier mare and Legend of Loxley. Says David: “Fuerst Fantasy is the most delightful, obliging, easy going Grand Prix horse you can find! In fact, he is so amenable to any given situation that Kaitlin Martin, a young rider student of mine who was only 13-years-old at the time, took him to Equitana as a demonstration horse for Tanja Mitton’s mindset and position masterclass.”
Legend of Loxley, who is owned by Heather Adcock from Victoria, who is relatively new to the list. “He’s a magnificent and powerful mover who will challenge the best there are,” says David with confidence. “He’s consolidating his FEI work now and will soon be out competing Prix St Georges. He’s already won many classes and placings at Advanced with David McKinnon.”
Another star is the imported gelding Schacco IV (owned by Sue Palermo) who is by Swarovski and from a Rubinstein mare. “Schacco is competing advanced with already some impressive scores,” David says. “The aim is to get the Grand Prix work established and hopefully competing, while at the same time providing Sue with the ultimate school master to help her learn the GP work. Helping people learn, achieving dreams, sharing their honest enthusiasm – that part of my job is just the best.”
He is very aware of his new start, but at the end of the last year, he was, he says, in “a bit of a hole”. Deciding he needed a fresh focus, his father Tony prompted him to look at buying a new horse, and in a short space of time, in partnership with his father and his accountant, they’ve acquired a three-year-old 17.2hh Warmblood, with what David describes excitedly as: “All the mechanics, a wonderful style of sport horse. His breeding is also absolutely amazing. He’s by Toto Junior x Negro x Ex Libris. Toto Junior is by the phenomenal Totalis, his mother is by Negro who is the sire of World Record breaking Valegro, and Ex Libris who was the sire of Carl Hester’s Escapado. He’s really, really well bred.”
It’s hard not to sense the excitement in his voice. And at a projected fully grown height suitable for someone of David’s height, it’s hard not to see that David will at last have a horse that is not only easy but may well be able to put its legs behind its ears!