Marie Le Menestrel & Meadowbrook Farm: Breeding Athletes for the Future

A 2015 colt by Cabalito (Hanoverian) out of a Thoroughbred mare. An Eventing prospect! Photo by Lindsay Johnson.

A 2015 colt by Cabalito (Hanoverian) out of a Thoroughbred mare. An Eventing prospect! Photo by Lindsay Johnson.

Marie Le Menestrel’s passion for horses started when she was a young child following her mother around at show jumping competitions in her native country of France.

Coming from a family of horse enthusiasts, it was no surprise that Marie began riding at the age of six, and continued to develop her zeal for horses as she moved to England, and then finally to the United States, where she began her fascination with breeding sport horses. Now, in just a few days time, she has a horse from her own breeding program heading to the Pan American Games with USEA Leading Lady Lauren Kieffer as jockey.

After studying dressage for a few years in the late 80s, Marie became interested in breeding, as she came by the idea honestly after watching her grandmother breed racehorses for years. Beginning on a very small scale with only one or two foals each year, she studied both warmblood and thoroughbred bloodlines with acute attention, educating herself on pedigrees and the methods involved in combining them for sport horse foals.

“Initially, the focus of the breeding was to produce excellent dressage horses, and the quality of movement was really important. I’ve always been drawn to real athletic horses that were more of a thoroughbred type, so eventually I just ended up having horses that could move well and also jump and gallop. All of them were always at least a quarter thoroughbred,” Marie spoke with me from her tack room at Meadowbrook Farm in Barboursville, Virginia.

With over two decades of breeding sport horses under her belt, Marie breeds horses for pure Dressage, for Hunter/Jumpers, and also for Eventing. Her operation is a little bigger now, with 10-12 mares in rotation producing about six foals each year. Alternating mares, she admits, is not the most commercially efficient way to do it, but she keeps her mares for a very long time, and really likes the collection that she currently has.

“My goal is to produce an athlete that is also user friendly, so temperament is very important. A high percentage of the clients who are buying horses are also amateurs, so you have to breed horses that are rideable.”

“As far as matching a stallion to a mare, I find that it’s more of an art than a science,” says Marie. “There are definite structural, conformational and general soundness issues that you have to respect in your decisions, but at the end of the day it’s just a good feeling about a cross that I get. You have to do your homework, and the pedigrees have to be compatible, but you don’t want to get too stuck on just the pedigrees either.”

Lauren Kieffer and Meadowbrook's Scarlett at Great Meadow Pan Am Selection Trials.  Photo by Jenni Autry.

Lauren Kieffer and Meadowbrook’s Scarlett at Great Meadow Pan Am Selection Trials. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The secret to her success is also decidedly mare centric, as are many longstanding breeding operations. Many of Marie’s broodmares are indeed products of her own program, and she keeps them to continue reinvesting in her system. Alongside a good group of broodmares, Marie stands four stallions, all of which are U.S. bred sport horses.

“I keep my mares a long time, and their daughters if they are good. If I do my job right and I believe in what I’m breeding, I should continue their bloodlines. You have to have a long term focus in the way that you are going, and be loyal to your bloodlines and your mares, really more so than the stallions, because they are more important.

With her homebred mare Meadowbrook’s Scarlett heading to the Pan American Games this coming week, Marie readily admits that it’s been hugely rewarding to watch the mare succeed with Lauren Kieffer in the irons.

Attending an event in 2011, Marie watched Lauren warming up a young horse, and immediately was attracted to her style of riding and her quiet way with the youngster. Through a mutual friend, the two connected, and Marie sent two horses to Lauren, one of which was Meadowbrook’s Scarlett.

Lauren and Scarlett have a great partnership, and Lauren has done an incredible job of training the mare up the levels. I was very lucky to find the right rider for this mare, and she was in a position at that time to put a lot of time into her from the very beginning.”

Initially, the four-year-old Scarlett was to be started in her career and sold as a prospect, but that soon changed. “Very quickly, I realized I didn’t want to sell Scarlett. In her very first show at Middleburg Horse Trials, I watched her jump in the warm up and I told Lauren, ‘That mare is a freak!’.”

A freak indeed, as in four years of competition, Scarlett has completed 34 events with zero cross country jump penalties, 14 wins, 29 top-five placings, and only five rails total. I’m not sure there is another three-star horse in this country with that kind of record.

A 2015 colt by Quite Easy III (Hanoverian) out of Allegria. A hunter/jumper prospect. Photo by Lindsay Johnson.

A 2015 colt by Easy Street (Selle Francais/Holsteiner) out of Allegria. A hunter/jumper prospect. Photo by Lindsay Johnson.

A horse like that is really a gift, because even if you do everything right in your breeding operation, you could breed for years and not get that. She makes us all look good. The best thing about her is her loving personality. She’s a barn favorite at Lauren’s stable.”

Scarlett is out of a mare named Bliss (Dutch Warmblood x Thoroughbred), and by her stallion All In Black (Holsteiner x Hanoverian). Her pedigree includes the well known sires Contender, Voltaire and Secretariat all in the third generation. The first two represent some of the best jumping blood in Europe, and Secretariat doesn’t hurt the ability to gallop well.

Nowadays the Eventing has gotten to such a high level that the horses have to be really good jumpers, really good dressage horses, and have a good gallop for cross country. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are finding really good jumping lines and really good dressage lines in the top eventing horses now.”

While attending the Pan American Games to watch Scarlett and Lauren represent the United States will certainly be a highlight for Marie, her heart remains at home. “It’s very rewarding to watch the horses that I bred go on and be competitive, but my favorite thing is always the mares and the foals. I really enjoy being able to help Lauren’s career, but mostly I like being on the farm with the next generation of athletes.”