Autumn evening in KwaZulu-Natal
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)
Country Life is a fresh, invigorating publication that captures the essence of life in the South African countryside. The pages entice readers with an armchair escape to a quiter, simpler life; an exploration of South Africa's natural beauty, delightful dorpies, passionate people, artists, crafters and the discovery of our bountiful Nation's fascinating heritage.
Country Life recently featured Summerhill Stud in an article written by Olivia Schaffer entitled "In a league of its own", an extract from which follows :
Summerhill Stud in the KZN Midlands is a thoroughbred establishment in more ways than one.
Countless rural folk seek better jobs in the cities, often overlooking the wonderful opportunities country life can offer. For instance, horse handlers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands are given unique opportunities to travel abroad on the Summerhill Stud educational programme. Following an intensive three-year life skills course on the farm, they are rewarded with working scholarships on the American and European farms of the horses’ owners.
Elliot Bhengu, a broodmare handler, and John Motaung, a work rider, were the most recent horse handlers to secure a place on the programme, and I happened to be on the farm when they returned.
“I have learnt so many different tasks,” said Elliot, still beaming with enthusiasm, “and it has made my work back here easier.”
John’s excitement was equally contagious, even though it was the second time he’d been chosen to go to America. “I learnt so much,” he says. “Now I look forward to sharing all that I’ve picked up with the other guys at Summerhill. I’m very grateful to Summerhill for what it’s done for me.”
Velaphi Mbanjwa, Siyabonga Mlaba, Robert Mbhele, Richard Hlongwana, Thulani Mnguni and Mali Zuma are others who have enjoyed work experiences abroad and who have thus benefited from the programme. They chose to remain in rural KwaZulu-Natal rather than seek jobs in the city and have reaped the rewards of their decisions.
Summerhill Stud, with its undulating emerald-green pastures in the foothills of Giant’s Castle, is as picturesque as it is unusual. As national Breeder of the Year for four consecutive years, and the only racehorse stud in the world boasting a five-star country house on its estate, it is one of a kind. Uniquely, it’s also home to stallions owned by the Rulers of Dubai, the world’s most powerful racehorse owners and breeders.
“Of all the studs in the world, apart from their own, Summerhill is the only one where the sheikhs stand their stallions,” says Mick Goss, the CEO of Summerhill.
As Mick drives me around the estate, he tells me there are between 700 and 800 thoroughbreds here. I’m also reminded that activities on the farm are determined by the changing seasons. It’s autumn, with the lush green of summer turning to shades of yellow and red, and the foals are being weaned from their mothers.
“We leave a herd of about 20 weanlings with an adult horse to ensure discipline is maintained,” Mick explains, adding that necessary procedures such as worming and hoof trimming ensure the young horses are handled extensively.
He tells me the more mature and better-bred yearlings are taken to the National Yearling Sales and that they are sensitively introduced to human contact so the handler can show them in the best light. “This is a vital process,” says Mick emphatically. The yearlings have never been ridden (the training starts when they’re about 20 months old) and they are sold to the highest bidder, who could be a trainer, a bloodstock agent or an owner who sees their potential.
The less advanced foals are kept for the Ready to Run Sales in October. These potential racehorses know what’s expected of them by the time they are sold because they’ve been taught the basics on tracks that have produced countless winners.
Winter in the racehorse industry also has its charm. Though it’s the time of the Vodacom Durban July, Africa’s greatest horseracing event, contested at Greyville Racecourse in Durban, things are quiet on the farm. Lands lie fallow, the veld takes on a golden hue, and although prospective young racehorses are being put through their paces, a certain peace prevails.
“With spring comes new life,” says Mick. “The trees burst forth with fresh greenery and budding flowers herald the return of warmer weather. Mares take on a nurturing role with the dependent foals and stallions go about the stud duties for which they are kept.”
Summer, I gather, is a busy time. It’s when international owners take up residence at Summerhill’s award-winning Hartford House “toescape the cold in Europe and the UK, to absorb the gentle Midlands sunshine as the lazy days drift by, and to visit the offspring their mares have produced.”
There’s lots of youthful activity, with newly independent foals frolicking in the fields as the guests look on in admiration. It’s also the rainy season, with balmy days ending in exhilarating thunderstorms followed by mild evenings under a star-studded sky. And so the cycle continues.
Summerhill’s horses are bred and reared as naturally as possible. They graze on pastures of erogrostis, rye, cocksfoot, clover and kikuyu, supplemented by Vuma Horse Feed, a commercial product manufactured on the farm.
This labour-intensive industry is an important job creator and Summerhill has a dedicated workforce, many of whom are the third or fourth generation of their families on the farm.
An exciting new project is the Al Maktoum School of Excellence, planning for which is at an advanced stage. “We see it as providing top class training for management candidates in the South African thoroughbred breeding industry,” explains its co-ordinator, Barbara Meier. “Our mission is to identify, train and develop the industry leaders of the future.”
The school’s first intake is planned for this month.
Whether its stallions, brood mares or people, all have played a role in the success of Summerhill. All are woven into its colourful tapestry.