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The Foal Finder: an Interview with Denise Mitchell

Updated: May 9


Denise and John Mitchell with their herd of young Hanoverian warmblood foals and horses

This year, Denise Mitchell celebrates her 45th wedding anniversary, and though her husband might not admit it, he knows he’s a lucky guy, not least because he had the good fortune to own horses when he met his future wife.


“I came from a completely non-horsey background,” explains Denise. “The eldest of six

children, my mum and dad couldn’t afford to give me a horse, but every second of any day that I could get near a horse, I was there. Then, when I was almost 16, I met John, and he had horses – just average, everyday sort of horses – but he had horses, and so the interest was there and we clicked straightaway.”

Today, that interest has not only seen the couple reach their Sapphire wedding anniversary, it

has also created a winning partnership that has seen the Mitchells become one of the most

respected, must-go-to contacts in the young horse market.

Specialising in “highly trainable” Hanoverian warmbloods, Denise and John have secured more

than 150 foals in the past 26 years from the elite Verden foal auctions in Germany. Many more

have come from trusted private breeders elsewhere in Germany, transforming their home and

business ‘Gamblethorpe Hanoverians’ into a horse lover’s paradise.


Young Hanoverian warmblood horses in a field at Gamblethorpe Farm in Yorkshire

“We moved to Gamblethorpe 36 years ago,” says Denise. “At the time, I was pregnant with my

second child so I couldn't have a horse because I was too busy with the children. The farmhouse

was also derelict, but we started with a few liveries.

“Eventually, we got one or two brood mares, and we began breeding. Then we bought some

stallions, Irish drafts and thoroughbreds, but it came to the point where dressage was starting

to kick off in a big way and we fancied getting a young dressage stallion. Amazingly, we couldn't

find one in the UK at all.

“We tried everywhere, and my friend eventually suggested we go abroad to buy one, and that’s

how it started. We bought a foal in Germany, and he licensed as a stallion. He actually became

a Grade A showjumper, not a dressage horse, and he jumped internationally.

“A year later, we decided to go again and we bought three more. Now it's escalated to the

point where we're getting nearly 40 foals a year.

“John turned 70 a couple of days ago, and we really ought to start slowing down, but there is

such a market for these young horses that we don't want to stop because we are getting there.

Everyone knows who we are, we get repeat people coming back to us, and we're even getting

top Grand Prix riders coming as well.

“But we're also getting people that just want a nice horse; a horse that looks good, that's got

a trainable brain, and a horse they can have fun on. So, the Hanoverians suit everyone. They

really do.”


Hanoverian warmblood foals at Gamblethorpe Farm in Yorkshire

For many riders, the idea of owning and bringing on a youngster seems like an impossible

dream – an opportunity only available to equestrians at the top of their game. But it’s the

genuine accessibility that comes with Hanoverians that makes this warmblood breed so

appealing to Denise.

“Many people seem to think they are incapable of having one, that they're not good enough,

but we’ve sold horses to our liveries on the yard who have coloured cobs or Welsh Cobs or Irish

drafts and they have fallen in love with a foal that they’ve seen and they’ve bought it.

“And because they’ve bought it as a baby and it has been brought up correctly, and we've

shown them how to get on with the horse and how to do things, they make exactly the kind of

horse they want.

“If you want a horse that is sharp, and ready to do dressage to Grand Prix, you ride them

differently to someone who wants to go out hacking on a Sunday morning and maybe go to a

local show now and again. Horses adapt and they don’t get enough credit for that. They are

very intelligent and they will adapt to old people or young people.

“We've even had people who have never had a horse before and yet they have bought a

youngster off us and it's worked. I'm not saying it always does, but most of the time it does.”


Hanoverian warmblood foals playing at Gamblethorpe Farm in Yorkshire

Denise and John have been buying foals from Verden since 1997 and due to their unstinting

loyalty to the breed they are among the auction’s top buyers. In fact, after purchasing their

100th foal, they became the star attraction with a presentation in front of 3,000 people. Not

bad for a girl from Yorkshire who could only dream of having her own horse one day.

“Verden was a great experience,” admits Denise. “Of course, we don’t get all our foals from

there. We have private sellers as well, some of whom are just farmers with maybe two or three

foals; everyday people who have maybe one or two mares, but who are very knowledgeable

and able to ask the state stud for advice on which stallions to use. The whole system is set up so

well in Germany. It's very well-funded because it’s actually worth millions to them. It's one of

the biggest industries in Germany.”

For those who don’t know, warmbloods are middle-weight horses primarily originating in

Europe, specifically bred these days for equestrian sport. The best-known warmbloods are

the Hanoverian, Holsteiner, Oldenburg, Dutch Warmblood, Belgian Warmblood, and the

purebred Trakehner.

The Hanoverians originate from the north German state of Lower Saxony, and the official

studbook dates back to 1888. In the beginning, thoroughbreds were primarily crossed with

domestic mares to improve the quality of horses for cavalry and farming, but over the years,

the Hanoverian breeding programme adapted to meet the need for a more athletic riding horse

– today’s modern Hanoverian.

Now, to protect the integrity of these remarkable performance horses, breeding stock is

carefully selected for correct conformation, athletic ability and inner qualities such as

disposition and trainability – attributes that have made Hanoverians Olympic medallists in all

three disciplines.

“Hanoverians are beautiful horses,” says Denise. “The majority of them have good

conformation, they have very trainable brains compared to, say, the Dutch horses that can be

very hot. You wouldn't give someone a Dutch warmblood to break in and ride; they need a

professional as a rule as some of the lines can be very, very hot. That's another reason why we

stick with the Hanoverian lines that we know.

“Of course, some lines can be a little more difficult so, if you have Sandro Hit in your pedigree,

you need to know that you've got a trainable line there as well, like the De Niro or Donnerhall

line. The F line is also very trainable. This is the kind of knowledge you need to have when you

are buying foals. It's very scientific.”

Although Denise and John have a small library of books that they consult when they are

investigating the bloodlines of new foals, Denise admits the priority is to “like the foal that

you're looking at.”

“You can say as much as you like about the pedigree, but the first thing is the foal – is it correct,

does it move, has it got a nice friendly nature, is mum friendly, what has the stallion done, has

he got good rideability?

“When you have that kind of knowledge, and you know which horse is tricky and which ones

are easy to deal with, hopefully that comes through in the foal.”

While Denise has developed an enviable eye for recognising future talent, she admits that there

are some foals that come up for auction that make her “heart flutter,” and they are usually the

youngsters that tip the £100,000 mark.

“It's extraordinary, some of the money that exchanges,” she says. “It can reach into the

millions for two-year-old stallions. It's big business.”

Having bought more than 1,000 foals since Gamblethorpe Hanoverians came into being, Denise

admits to having had a few favourites over the years, but among the elite of her elite collection

is Dubloon by Donnerhall.

“He was one of the first stallions I bought and I had him for seven years,” she says. “I rode him

myself and competed him and he did amazing, even though I am not the best rider in the world.

In the end he ended up in Southern Ireland with a lovely lady called Rosemary Gaffney, a top

para rider. She was a reserve for the London Olympics with him, but unfortunately no one

dropped out, so she didn't get to compete. He was a gorgeous horse, and I'll never forget him.”


Hanoverian warmblood foals in a field at Gamblethorpe Farm in Yorkshire

As anyone who has ever bought a young horse may know, there is a definite ‘ugly duckling’

stage they go through as they transform from cute foal to Grand prix dressage prospect. As the

German saying goes, ‘only look at a horse at three weeks, three months and three years.’

“It’s true,” laughs Denise. “If you saw the yearlings now, you'd think ‘Oh, my God!’ They're

covered in mud, they’re hairy, their bums are higher than their fronts, they've lost the

movement they had, they’ve got ewe necks, and you think ‘what the hell have I bought?’. But if

you look at the foal video, they always come back to that. If you've got one that's in proportion

as a foal, by the time it gets to three, fingers crossed, you've hopefully got something that

resembles that foal. Sometimes it’s a little bit older than three, and some can look really good

at two. But you can pretty much guarantee the yearlings will look awful. That’s why we take

videos of all our foals and put them on our website, so you can see how they're developing. It

really helps to see the potential if you can look back on the first couple of videos when they

were younger.”

Unlike some yards, Denise believes its important to allow her foals and young horses to live as a

herd while they are developing.

“When they arrive from Germany, they’re all missing their mums, they don't know where the

hell they are, they've been in a lorry and we put them all together in the foal barn where we

leave them for a couple of days to chill out. Obviously, we go in and see them and talk to them,

and it’s amazing how quickly they settle when they've got all their friends with them. I think

that makes a big difference.

“We try to keep them in that herd situation all their lives, as long as we can, until they're ready

to leave to go to new homes. We bring them into the stables, occasionally, and get them used

to coming away from the herd, but the main thing is that they are brought up as they would be

in the wild. They need that turn-out time and they need to be able to move. This helps with

both their physical and mental development, all of which makes them so much easier to deal

with in later life.”


Denise’s Top Five Foal-Buying Tips

1. Do your homework. Compare as many youngsters as you can before making a decision

on which one to buy.

2. Make sure the conformation of the foal is correct, especially the limbs and feet. If you

aren't an expert, ask for help from a vet or someone who is an expert.

3. Do your research into the foal’s pedigree. Will they be a rideable, unstressed horse or

will they be a professional’s choice? Trainability is more important than a flashy trot. Do

not over-horse yourself.

4. If possible, spend time with your potential youngster, getting to know him or her before

making a decision.

5. The most important consideration when buying a youngster is to make sure you have

the correct environment for him or her to develop in. Foals and young horses need

other youngsters with them as well as excellent, grassy fields to move around in and

grow.


Above all else, enjoy your youngster. They aren't babies for very long.



For more information about Gamblethorpe Hanoverians, visit www.gamblethorpehanoverians.co.uk

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