Breeding Spotlight: Leigh-ping Forward with OTTBs

Jeff Goodwin and Exactleigh compete at Galway Downs’ Eventing Championships in 2023. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

Taking a glance at any entry list these days, there are quite a few prefixes and suffixes that we have come to know. The ever popular Irish Cooley, Ardeo, and Fernhill, the Belgian Zangersheide Z, the up-and-coming FE, Excel, HSH and Global, and even the Argentinian Solaguayre is on the rise. One could be forgiven for missing a lone “Leigh” here and there.

But not anymore.

In the 2023 edition of the annual Event at Rebecca Farm (Kalispell, MT) — one of the top destination events on the West Coast — there were more “Leigh” horses than any other breeder, trainer, or seller. There were 14 Cooley horses, 10 Fernhill, 7 Ardeo, 6 Z, 4 Excel, 3 FE, and 1 Global.

Squeaking past them all, “Leigh” horses had 15 representatives, from CCI3*-L all the way to Beginner Novice.

Humor abounds in the names of these salwart partners: Pridefulleigh, Mixologeigh, Bankseigh, My Leighona, Casualleigh, Agatha Christeigh, and my personal favorite: Drunk & Disorderleigh.

Where do they come from?

Jil Walton operates JARBA Farms out of Rebecca Farm in Kailspell, MT where she breeds and trains her own homebreds and off the track thoroughbreds. A representative of the 1992 US Olympic Eventing team, she helped USA to a top 10 finish and finished 17th individually as the highest placed American on a self made mare called Patrona.

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Patrona herself was an off-the-tracker who Jil, in partnership with her parents, sourced in Southern California where she grew up. Walton calls her “the beginning of it all.”

“My dad, my mom, and I would pick the ones that didn’t run and turn them into event horses and event them so I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Jil said. “Then I met one of my clients, Leigh Gray. [She] brought a horse to me to event for her [while] she worked at a vet hospital and had access to lots of Thoroughbreds. So [we] started developing a relationship with trainers, and good owners, that wanted them to go on to do something other than just sit in the field.”

Most of the horses carrying the “Leigh” in their name are former racers sourced by Jil herself, and her friend Gray. But it didn’t begin that way.

Among the horses Leigh sent to Jil to be retrained and homed was Truly Triton. A 1992 chestnut gelding out of Coastal Breeze and With Approval, it began as a rehabbing project when he came to Walton with a tendon injury. Over time however, the partnership competed to the highest levels, completing the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2004 and multiple top 10 finishes at the 4* level. As success came not only to Jil but with the horses Leigh was helping source, Jil felt a touch of inspiration.

“I decided I needed to give Leigh a little bit of credit,” she explains. “So then we started putting the Leigh on the end. I mean, it just kind of caught fire because there’s so many possibilities.”

The name options are pretty excellent (see above!). Indeed, Jil often gets messages with suggestions for Leigh names for future horses down the line.

She credits Leigh with an incredible eye for temperament and her own eye for confirmation, gleaned at her parents’ knees and her own 30+ years of experience. For soundness, she feels nothing can beat a good war horse — Thoroughbreds who have run for many years. Together, she and Leigh work in tandem to not only source successful sport horses but also to find the horse’s own passion.

“I tried to be responsible to the racehorses,” Jil says. “Some of them don’t want to jump. They don’t want to go eventing so we have one barrel racing, we have a couple that are ski-jouring.”

While Jil also breeds some of her own prospects (with the prefix JB for JARBA), her heart is firmly with the Thoroughbreds. The feeling of riding cross country on a horse with a high foundational level of fitness and forward training from their racing careers instills confidence and security. And she feels there is cause to be optimistic for the future of OTTBs in eventing.

“Before I felt like it was an uphill battle, 100%,” she says. “Thoroughbreds are getting so much more attention with the Thoroughbred Makeover and all of that. So I feel like people are more open to them now, which, for a long time, they haven’t been — so that’s rewarding to me.”

Leigh is winding down the non-profit that helped source these fine partners — the Thoroughbred Rehab Center — so there may not be a whole lot more “Leigh” horses coming through the pipeline. Jil herself is still trucking on with her part, having formed new connections and contacts in the racing industry to help retrain and rehome those horses who no longer can or want to race.

In an increasingly global sport where more and more often we see both professional and amateur members sourcing horses from outside our borders, we are seeing less and less of our own American Thoroughbred. While there is nothing wrong with finding quality wherever it may be, by casting a spotlight on our American professionals and trainers, our domestically bred horses can shine as well.

So next time you see that humor filled “Leigh” name, have a chuckle to yourself and maybe, just maybe, find your local OTTB trainer and see if you can find your next partner close to home.

Drop us a line if you know of another deserving barn, breeder, or trainer we can shine a light on!

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