By Lauren R. Giannini
Christine Vanneck lives by lessons she learned from her polo-playing grandfather, John Vanneck. “He always said don’t push the envelope, because the envelope will break,” she recalled. “We don’t push our horses, but they learn everything important by the time they are yearlings: to stand quietly for grooming, the farrier, the vet, lunging, free jumping and to load on a trailer. They are de-sensitized to everything, including noises, flapping flags, tarps – all the scary things in show rings – and crowds of people. They are ready for competition.”
In 2004, Christine and her daughter, Sarah Owen, established Muny Sunk Stables, a small individualized breeding operation near Tryon in Hendersonville, North Carolina. They named it Muny Sunk for Christine’s great-grandparents’ estate in Long Island. For many years they traveled the circuit up and down the East Coast and hit shows at the Kentucky Horse Park, while continuing their breeding program at home. They do the horse care themselves. Sarah starts the babies and also presents the foals at their dams’ sides for the Keurings (breed inspections).
Recognizing American Breeders
As an American breeder, part of Christine’s mission is to change the way people view American-bred horses. “U.S. breeders deserve more recognition,” emphasized Christine. “For many years Americans have gone to Europe to buy prospects for dressage, show jumping and eventing, as well as the more recent move to Warmbloods for the hunters. There are some outstanding Warmbloods and crossbreds to be bought right here in the United States. I think that the young prospects we offer are as good as anything you can buy in Europe and ours go to new owners with their training foundation already firmly in place.”
In this lukewarm economy, people look for bargains abroad, but there’s a lot to be said about “buying local.” Christine and Sarah offer worthwhile alternatives to expensive trips abroad. Their Muny Sunk Warmbloods carry higher price tags than the average foal might fetch in Europe, but buyers abroad are making similar financial investments – with one major difference: Muny Sunk’s young prospects already know their jobs, unlike in Europe where many young horses are untouched by human hands and are not trained at the time of sale.
“People come to our farm to see our young prospects and react to the price tag, thinking that $15-18,000 is too much to ask for a youngster, but we’ve already done the training,” explained Christine. “You are buying a well-bred prospect that already knows what to do. If our yearlings don’t sell by the time they’re one-and-a-half, they get more training, they grow up a little more. By the time a buyer comes along, their price has gone up to keep pace with their skill level.”
You get what you pay for, after all. Muny Sunk’s prices reflect stud fees and the costs of maintenance. Expenses include the cost of the breeding (shipped semen), prenatal care, foaling, feed and hay, farrier, dental and vet bills, plus training costs. “It is an illusion to think that you will save money by buying a cheaper yearling abroad,” stated Christine. “Add on airfare and you’re spending a comparable amount to buying an American-bred foal who is ready to show in hand. When you buy in Europe, there’s the additional outlay of beaucoup bucks for basic training.”
An untouched older equine with its bigger size and commensurate strength, but with no basic manners or work ethic, can be a recipe for disaster. Sarah and Christine jump-start the educational process by installing the young horse’s foundation for you. They take great pride in selling their “value added” young horses. Muny Sunk offers a win-win situation.
The Vanneck family has been involved with horses for several generations. They started breeding Standardbreds in the 1980s. When Christine’s grandmother, Barbara Vanneck, died, and the demand for Standardbreds trickled out, the family operation shut down. However, Christine had horses in her blood, which she passed on to her daughter, Sarah.
Sarah started riding at the age of six and spent several years at Helen Varble’s Wellington Show Stables and Riding School before working with Judy Young in Camden, South Carolina for the duration of her hunter career. She moved on to ride for about four years with Betsy Pack at Stoney Knoll Farm in Columbus, North Carolina. For three years, she did the jumpers under the tutelage of Sergio Campos.
“There were a lot of highlights in my showing career, various year end and USEF zone accomplishments, but here’s what is really prominent in my memory,” recalled Sarah. “Winning the 2005 Barry Lane Memorial Children/Adult Grand Prix with Arko – there were about 90 in the class that year and I was stressed, trying to run back and forth between the jumper ring and the hunters. She Can Dance was a fiery little mare I rode and we had an enormous amount of success together. One summer in Tryon we won the classic two weeks in a row and that same year at Blowing Rock we won the classic and received circuit champion as well. Another accomplishment was getting on Shakira for the first time ever and going directly into the show ring – that was an experience I will never forget.”
Muny Sunk Promises and Delivers
A career-ending shoulder injury in spring 2012 forced Sarah to retire from showing, but that doesn’t mean she stopped riding. Now 21, Sarah divides her time between working with the horses and earning her college degree in Landscape Architecture. Her mother, on the other hand, acquired so much hardware in her neck from surgical repairs that doctors begged her to give up riding. Christine admits that she cheats once in a while (don’t tell anyone).
Christine and Sarah bring a substantial amount of pragmatic horsemanship to their partnership acquired from years of “continuing education” in the field, in the barn, and on the show circuit. They do everything they possibly can to provide the best care and support system for their horses 24/7, day in and day out. To oversee the foaling process, they bring in Rose Maguire, an experienced vet-tech with more than 3,000 deliveries to her credit. “Breaking” isn’t quite the term for what happens at Muny Sunk when the youngsters feel Sarah’s weight on their backs for the first time, because they have been so well trained since birth.
“I’m still starting the babies, just no more competitive riding,” Sarah said. “I bring the babies along from start to walk, trot and canter so that they listen well, have manners and move off your legs. I do all the flat work to prepare them for jumping and when they’re ready, mentally and physically, we send them off to the most suitable trainer to get started over fences.”
To continue Sarah’s work with the youngsters, Muny Sunk utilizes reliable professionals for training over fences and showing – hunter riders such as Liza Towell Boyd and Don Sheehan, three-day eventer Beth Perkins and jumper rider David Jennings.
“We like to match the personality of the horse to how the professional rides,” Sarah explained. “I like a good foundation of dressage, because it is so helpful in the jumper ring. We want our horses to flex into the rider’s hand, to move laterally, to extend and to collect. Dressage helps strengthen and develop the horse for jumping. We breed from our own knowledge and experience in order to produce versatile and athletic horses. We look for the right stallion for each mare, but what the offspring is suited to do really depends a lot on the mare and how the foal develops.”
Shakira Do Jacare provides an excellent example of how well Christine and Sarah are at “reading” their horses. The mare was notorious for not wanting to go into a practice area, but settled in and started cooperating soon after she moved to Muny Sunk. A lot of patience and consistent flatwork was involved to persuade Shakira to jump in the schooling ring. Their approach involves getting to know the individual equine and figuring out how to unlock the talent and work cooperatively toward the same goals. Therefore, Christine and Sarah focus on breeding only top-level jumpers from Shakira.
One of their other broodmares did amateur jumpers, but has the movement and is quiet enough to produce hunter prospects. Another mare they have was bred for dressage and Sarah said, “she did really well with me in the children’s jumpers and she produces offspring for everything, depending on the sire and his attributes. Her 2012 foal has superb movement, is very elastic and athletic, and with her bloodlines we think she will be a good prospect for dressage and eventing.”
Depending on what you want, you can probably find a young horse whose attributes, genetics and training satisfy most of your wish list. One thing you can count on is absolute integrity from the Muny Sunk ladies about their Born in the U.S.A. horses. Moreover, if they don’t have what you want, they will suggest other breeding farms that might.
“We make a point of being completely up front and honest with our clients,” emphasized Sarah. “For many years I have made mental notes on how a certain horse rides and goes around the ring, how well they jump and move, all pertaining to their sire or dam – and I think the mare line is even more important than the sire! When you learn what bloodlines produce certain qualities, you can get into the key points of finding the one stallion that will cross best with your mare. My mother and I have talked with trainers and other breeders about the quality of said horse – this is knowledge you will never stop using. The most important lesson I have learned is that you never stop learning – go through life and absorb as much information as you can. That’s what we share with our clients and prospective buyers – information about our young stock, about their breeding, about why we think this might be the horse that can help you to ride closer to your goals.”
For more information, visit www.munysunkstables.com
About the writer: Sidelines’ Lauren R. Giannini is an award-winning “wordsmith” specializing in stories and photos about the equestrian world. Crazy about horses her entire life, she lives in the horse and hunt country of Virginia. Lauren’s motto is “write, ride – not necessarily in that order!”