Tish Quirk Won't Settle For Anything But The Best

Dec 3, 2006 - 10:00 PM

Sept. 17, 2006, was a day sport horse breeder Tish Quirk won’t soon forget. In fact, when Quirk talked about this sunny Southern California day, her voice still cracked with emotion when she recalled how the decades she’s devoted to her Dutch Warmblood breeding operation came full circle–and for emphasis, the circle was tied with a bright, orange ribbon, the color of the First Premium.

“It was an amazing day,” said Quirk of the KWPN North America keuring held at Eureka Farm. “After all these years of work, the KWPN finally recognized hunters. Just The Best has been a KWPN Dutch hunter foundation sire for a few years. And now the KWPN has inspected young hunters for the first time. It was 10 years in the making, but it finally happened.”

Quirk’s homebreds earned first premium orange ribbons, and her mare Just In Time (Just The Best–Beach Boy) earned her star, and they all earned titles as the best in North America.

Quirk, 61, Carlsbad, Calif., has been on the forefront of sport horse breeding since the early 1980s, when she and her husband John Quirk imported their foundation sire Best Of Luck (registered name Octrooi) from the Netherlands.

Tish was actually ahead of her time–when the heavier warmbloods were still all the rage, she chose a stallion that was 3�4 Thorough-bred blood (Lucky Boy–Ilonka, Koridon).

Back in 1973, when Best Of Luck was foaled, he was a product of the Dutch breeders’ desire to add Thoroughbred blood to their lines. However, early in his career his foals didn’t always excel in the inspections due to their lighter type.

How times have changed. At the Sept. 17 keuring, the KWPN/NA report recognized Quirk’s accomplishment: “There was much discussion of that 75 percent Thoroughbred blood at the time, and comments at the early inspections were that Best Of Luck’s offspring were too light in type, especially the legs. But with the evolution of the ‘modern type’ as well as the propounding of inclusion of Thorough-bred blood in all warmblood studbooks, Best Of Luck is smiling down from his stable in the sky� and Tish’s belief in her very talented boy has come full circle.”


The One
Tish didn’t begin her life as a horseman with breeding sport horses as her focus. She first rode on a ranch herding cattle, and then she barrel-raced and showed western before discovering hunters, jumpers and eventing.

She enjoyed riding and showing as junior and then as an amateur while her husband imported horses for training and resale with Hap Hansen as their primary rider.

This was the early 1980s, and warmbloods were just becoming popular in the hunter divisions. The Quirks’ agent in the Netherlands, Jan Maathuis, wasn’t familiar with the attributes of the top hunters, so John and Tish asked him to visit them in California to see for himself. From then on, Maathuis developed an eye for a hunter. And it wasn’t long after his trip to the States that he called John and Tish in California.

“He said, ‘I’ve found a special horse for you–not a horse to sell, just for you,’ ” Tish recalled.

Because Tish, also an equestrian photographer, was overwhelmed with work after a trip to the Spruce Meadows Masters (Alta.), John traveled to the Netherlands to see the horse.

“John called me twice a day,” said Tish, laughing. “He said, ‘You won’t believe what I’ve bought you. You’ll never get beat.’ “

When the 10-year-old bay stallion arrived at the farm, he was everything Tish had hoped for and more. With a wry smile, Tish added that the only time she did get beat in the show ring was when she made a mistake. “No pressure,” she said laughing.

In Europe, Best Of Luck had competed in the open jumper divisions, but when Tish saw his form and movement she realized his true niche here in the United States was as a hunter. She and Hansen campaigned Best Of Luck in the amateur-owner and regular divisions for almost two years, then she began to consider standing him.

“Just about every time he showed, someone would offer to buy him,” Tish said. “He was never for sale, though. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was my responsibility to do what was right for the horse and the breed.

“And the longer I do this, the more I realize the importance of this bloodline and my responsibility to the horsemen of the future who will own these horses,” she added. “These are such good horses, not only in athletic ability, but also who they are. A lot of them never see the show ring. Their people have different wishes. It’s not great for me as a breeder, but sometimes it’s just as important. There are horses that could win at any A-rated show. But they will never have their picture in the Chronicle, but their pictures are all over their owner’s house. They’re fulfilling the dreams and wishes of their owners, and they’ll have happy homes for the rest of their lives.”

Nancy Johnson, Cochranville, Pa., is one such owner. She admitted that her horse, Truly The Best, could easily excel at the top levels of the hunters or jumpers with a more ambitious rider–even her trainer Laurie Jakubauskas jokes with her about it–but she’s so enamored with her horse that she could never part with him.

“I don’t have the time, money or desire to do the amateur-owners anymore,” said Johnson, who balances riding with work and a family. “I do the adult amateurs on the local level and he paper chases and trail rides. He doesn’t know he should be going to Florida next month, and that’s OK.”


Lucky Boys
When Tish and John imported Best Of Luck, his sire, Lucky Boy, was already a household name in Europe and becoming recognizable to fledgling warmblood aficionados in the United States.

Lucky Boy, a Thoroughbred, was foaled in 1966 (Compromise–Sejane, Ksarinor) and was bred in the Netherlands. He was added to the KWPN studbook, and his incorporation into the breed propelled Dutch horses to the top in show jumping. His most famous sons were Melanie Smith’s 1984 Olympic team gold medalist and 1982 World Cup Final winner Calypso and the 1988 German Olympic team gold medalist The Freak, ridden by Ludger Beerbaum.

Twenty-seven of his sons were licensed for breeding, and in the Netherlands there are five approved sons from Lucky Boy daughters. One of the most famous is Twiggy (dam of Creeol), a full sister to Best Of Luck.

Despite the success of Lucky Boy’s offspring and his positive influence on the Dutch breed over time, Tish recalled that during the early 1980s when she and John purchased horses there they were regularly shown Lucky Boy get.

“When we looked at horses we liked, we first considered them as individuals,” she said. “If we were really interested, then we looked at their pedigrees, and many of them turned out to be by Lucky Boy. We basically bought every Lucky Boy horse we saw because it fit our market here the best.

“There weren’t a lot of Lucky Boy stallions,” she recalled. “Maybe they were a little slow to mature, and a little light in the rider’s hand and a little light off the rider’s leg. Many of them didn’t love a German-type ride, either. They were perfect for the American market, but by the time we saw them, most were gelded.”

It didn’t take long for Best Of Luck to become a sought-after stallion in the United States, especially after his get began winning regularly in the hunter, jumper, dressage and eventing disciplines.

Best Of Luck offspring did especially well at the West Coast International Hunter Futurity, where his list of champions includes dozens of names. A few of his most famous hunters are January’s Best, who was circuit champion at HITS Indio (Calif.) and on the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), green hunter champion at Devon (Pa.) with Peter Pletcher, and Stormy Good’s Stroke Of Luck, also green conformation hunter champion at Devon (Pa.) and grand hunter champion at Capital Challenge (Md.) with Charlie Weaver.

The Best Of Luck son, Surprise, ridden by Carol Wright, was amateur-owner jumper champion on the HITS Arizona circuit before winning the puissance at Monterey (Calif.) and the 1990 $50,000 LA National World Cup qualifier.

As Best Of Luck’s get began to excel, Tish naturally began to think about the future. So in 1991, when a foal was born out of a mare named Timely Persuasion, Tish took one look at him and decided he would be the one to carry on Best Of Luck’s genes. She named him Just The Best.

Breeder Ingrid Kirkland, Pound Ridge, N.Y., chose to breed a mare to Just The Best three years ago, and she was so impressed with her first foal that she now has two more on the ground.

“I wanted to make a change in my program, and when I saw the video of Just The Best I thought he was beautiful,” she said. “I liked the way he was put together and the way he moved. He’s a substantial horse, with lots of bone too. What’s also nice is his big, beautiful eye. He has the qualities of the warmblood that I would like to cross with the Thoroughbreds. He’s a warmblood, but he’s very elegant.”

With Just The Best’s strong Thoroughbred influence, Tish believed he’d carry on Best Of Luck’s career breeding hunters. At the time, she said she decided to expand her business and search for a mare who could bring jumper bloodlines into the mix–that mare was Inetta.

“I had looked at more than 100 mares, then when I saw her and her pedigree, I knew she was the one,” said Tish. “She brought Zeus and Ramiro into the line, and she had Lucky Boy as well. I knew I wanted to double up on Lucky Boy.”

Inetta, now 15, has been inspected twice by the KWPN/NA and earned the best North American mare title both times, first as a star mare and then as a ridden mare. By virtue of her offspring’s stellar record in the IHF this year, Inetta was inducted into the IHF Hall of Fame.

Inetta became Tish’s most important mare, and with Best Of Luck she produced Tish’s second stallion, More Than Luck, born in 1994. In addition to conformation hunter championships, More Than Luck also competed with Hansen in the open jumper ranks, including the $50,000 Budweiser Speed Derby at the 2000 Olympic Selection Trials (Calif.).

When the inevitable day finally came when Best Of Luck passed away–in 2000 at age 27–Tish was well on her way to continuing his legacy with his sons and daughters.

“I still believe he was the best horse ever,” said Tish of Best Of Luck. “And if you’re going to stand a stallion, you’d better believe that. Stallions produce lots and lots of offspring, so it’s important that only the best ones are reproducing.”

She stressed great minds as a requirement for stallions. “If they can’t be gentleman, they can be geldings. “Best Of Luck blood runs true,” she continued. “I see Best Of Luck so clearly in Just The Best and More Than Luck and in their babies. He’s there in every one of them. And that’s another important key in breeding–if he isn’t prepotent, he’s not doing his job.”

Johnson chose to breed her mare to Just The Best after researching stallions throughout the country via the Chronicle’s stallion issue. Her mare foaled in 2000, a colt, and Johnson was thrilled.

Sadly, at age 6 months he fell in his paddock and broke his shoulder. “Even Dr. Dean Richardson [of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center] couldn’t save him,” recalled Johnson. “We had to put him down, and I was devastated.”

Johnson tried to rebreed her mare, but she didn’t take, and that’s when Tish stepped in. “She knew how devastated I was about everything,” said Johnson. “Tish called and said, ‘By the way, I’m sending some photos of some Just The Best babies that a client is selling.’ I left [on a trip] before the photos came, but my husband opened them. He called Tish and said, ‘Which one should we buy for her?’ Tish picked out Truly The Best, who was also foaled in 2000, and we bought him sight unseen on Tish’s recommendation.”

Johnson said that “Tony” has become her horse of a lifetime. Johnson cares for him herself at home and even backed him as a 2-year-old in two days with help from another adult friend.

“We love this horse so much,” she said. “These horses are all this easy to deal with. They have great dispositions and personalities. Just The Best stamps his foals. I never thought I would love another one as much as I did the one I lost, but it’s like they’re the same.”


She’s Always Smiling
Throughout the past 25 years, warmbloods have become the dominant force in the show hunter division, replacing the Thoroughbred as the breed of choice. Breeder Tish Quirk has observed and participated in this evolution while the horses she’s believed in for more than two decades have risen to the top. But while she continues on with the Lucky Boy line, she’s not stagnant in her objectives.

“That’s the greatest thing about this business. With each year there are more foals, more aspirations and more goals,” she said. “It’s a constant learning process, whether it’s hands on with the breeding and foaling, knowing which crosses work best, or what the American breeder currently needs. It just snowballs. The more you learn, the more you realize you have left to learn.”

In the early years of Quirk’s sport horse breeding education, she remembered the general consensus was that you didn’t breed for hunters, they just happened by chance. Now, as she sits in her farm office, surrounded by dozens of framed photographs of her homebred hunter champions, she absolutely disagrees.

“You do have the freaks who show up in any breed who become famous, but you can breed for top hunters,” she said. “Now we know better. There are lines that have everything we’re looking for–the athletic ability, the movement, the jumping, and, most importantly, the minds.”

Even though emotion is clearly a part of Quirk’s constitution, she said she works hard to not allow that to become a part of her business. And, if you know her, you realize that must be one of her most difficult responsibilities.

“You study, you do your homework. In this business, you have to base your decisions on good horsemanship,” she noted. “You have to start with the best horses, and each foal that hits the ground teaches you more.”

Despite the success of Quirk’s breeding program, which has produced multiple champions in the U.S. Equestrian Federation awards, USEF Zones, PHR Silver Stirrup awards, International Hunter Futurity, KWPN/North America and many more including this year’s West Coast Best Young Horse at the Sallie B. Wheeler/USEF National Hunter Breeding Championship, the work hasn’t become any easier over the years, or if it could have, she hasn’t allowed it.

“I’ve gotten old doing this,” said Quirk laughing. “But it keeps me young. I have wrinkles and gray hair now, but I’m smiling all of the time.

“This breeding program and these individuals have made me who I am, and that’s a big responsibility,” she added. “I have to try and live up to these horses, to earn the right to have these horses in my life and to control their lives. It’s my responsibility, and I take it seriously. I never want to breed horses that won’t have good lives, won’t stay sound or can’t compete because of their minds. I want to breed horses that are everything their people want them to be, then both sides will be happy, people and horses.”

Quirk acknowledged that her strong feelings about the business have helped her survive its challenges. “Breeding horses isn’t a job for everyone,” she said. “You don’t get rich. You have to struggle, there are incredibly hard times, and there’s exhaustion and frustrations. But the bottom line is that I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There’s nothing in this world that could take its place.”


They’re Multifaceted
Surely one of the first words Tish Quirk spoke as a baby was “horse.” She’s a fifth-generation horseman, from a family of ranchers and farmers, who grew up in New Mexico on the back of a pony.

“In my office in the barn I have the hubs of the covered wagon wheels that my great grandfather came West with, in 1911,” she said. “My father made them into lamps.”

And even though she diverged from her path a few times–to attend Stephens College (Mo.) and pursue a modeling career with the Ford Agency in New York City–horses were never far from her mind.

Her husband John Quirk also had multiple careers, including Navy fighter pilot, entrepreneur, novelist, horseman and magazine editor/publisher. After retiring from the Navy, John started an automotive engineering business in Detroit. “He got John DeLorean his first big promotion at General Motors,” recalled Tish.

Before he met Tish, John was a prolific writer, having published many books including No Red Ribbons, The Hard Winner, and an adventure series. He was a minority owner of the San Diego Chargers football team in the 1960s, and while he was writing books, he got involved in research and development with an inventor who specialized in fuel converters and linear motors.

In 1968, Tish and John married in a fairytale wedding in Palm Springs, Calif., at musician Hoagy Carmichael’s home, and the two immersed themselves into the celebrity scene for several years. “We played in the jet set for awhile,” said Tish. “It was at its height and it was fun.”

Tish was in the young actors program at Columbia Studio, but said she didn’t have the heart for it. “The modeling was fun, though, and I’m glad I did it. I liked the modeling because I could control my schedule. It wasn’t long, though, before I was turning down modeling bookings to ride,” she said.

Eventually, the call of the horses brought them back into the sport, and Tish and John established themselves on the West Coast with Horses magazine and in sport horse sales, showing and promotion. John wasn’t into horses until Tish came along, however. “He thought people who did horses were kind of strange,” she said with a laugh.

In order to fulfill a niche in the equestrian journalism industry, they founded Horses magazine in July/August 1980. The slick, color monthly featured competition coverage, profiles and many of Tish’s award-winning photographs. They published the magazine for about 12 years, and John established his career as a prominent equestrian journalist and organizer of World Cup Finals, while Tish kept her camera clicking at competitions throughout the country and world.

Tricia Booker

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