When Joni Werthan left home in 1977 for college in Boston, Mass., she didn’t anticipate that one day she’d operate one of the most successful hunter breeding farms in the country.
As she packed her bags for the long trip from her home in Tennessee, Werthan thought she’d be pursuing a career in fashion design. Now, almost 30 years later, she’s the owner of Warioto Farm Inc., one of the leading show hunter breeding farms in the United States.
Instead of designing clothes, Werthan, with the help of the farm’s general manager, Julie Bush, strives to create ideal sire-dam matches.
Nestled in the rolling hills of Franklin, Tenn., Warioto Farm is home to an average of 50 horses, including the five stallions: Zarr (Hennessey–Zierde), owned by Warioto Farm Inc.; Viscount (Shines Delight–Jay Lea), owned by Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Hooker; Skips Omega King (Skipper King Wimp–Pokey Cupid Bar VF), owned by Warioto Farm Inc.; Perrel (Tamersale–Galavic Imperial), owned by Mrs. R. Braga; and the young stallion Sainted (Saint Nick–Mississippi), also owned by Warioto Farm Inc.
“Zarr was a passionate find,” said Werthan. “I saw him as a yearling in Kentucky and thought he was the most beautiful and effortless mover. I had to have him.”
An injury at age 2 took Zarr out of the show ring, but his offspring are winning all over the country. At this year’s International Hunter Futurity competitions, three of Zarr’s offspring–Jasmine, Kugar, and Just Dessert–were all winners in their respective divisions. To add to the excitement, Zarr won the high-point get of sire for 3-year-olds at the International Hunter Futurity Inter-national Competition held Sept. 21 in Lexington, Ky.
The 10-year-old, dark bay Trakehner was also represented at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) in May, where his son Spanish Spear took home the award for best yearling, best Pennsylvania-bred, and best young horse. Zarr also sired two more Devon winners–Follow The Moon and Anastazia.
“Having Zarr’s offspring perform so well at IHF and Devon gave Julie and I a tremendous amount of satisfaction, because it reinforced our belief in what we’re doing–providing people with happiness,” said Werthan.
Joni Werthan’s grandfather, Joe Werthan, and father, Howard Werthan, opened Warioto Farm Inc. in the late 1930s as a gentleman’s farm with a focus on American Saddlebreds, and they operated the business for almost 30 years before closing the doors in the early 1960s.
Almost two decades passed before Warioto’s doors were reopened and the family tradition continued. But this time, Werthan decided to operate the farm in a different way.
“As a child, I used to read the Chronicle because it was the peak of the horse show world. I would stare at photos of horses and ponies from Hobby Hill Horse Farm and think that I wanted to have horses like that one day,” recalled Werthan. “Those photos were the instrument I used to help define what I wanted to do in the horse business.”
After finishing college, Werthan returned to Tennessee and started her breeding,business.
“I reopened Warioto with the determination to breed show horses with beauty, brains, and talent all in one,” recalled Werthan, who was only 27 when she revived the family business in 1981.
The young Werthan was aware that opening a business would be a complicated venture, so she enlisted the help of her friend Julie Bush. Bush shared in Werthan’s dream of breeding show horses.
“We had been through a lot together, and we both had the stubbornness and determination to make the business a success,” proclaimed Werthan, now 52.
“I’m as much a part of the farm now as it is a part of me. Joni and I are like sisters and best friends, but we bring different things to the business,” said Bush, who’d worked for a veterinarian before she went to work for Werthan.
When Bush decided to work at Warioto, she didn’t know if she would be there a week, a year, or 25 years, but what’s kept her there for more than two decades is the excitement of knowing that each day will bring something different.
“It’s hard to say what my favorite part of working at Warioto is because the farm is always evolving–from breeding to showing to training and sales. It’s never boring and never the same,” said Bush.
And she insisted that it’s not hard working for a close friend. “We have a great deal of respect for one another and add to each other’s professionalism,” Bush said.
The Right Ingredients
Over the years, Werthan and Bush have found the right ingredients in stallion-mare combinations to produce quality show horses for their diverse clients.
“For the most part, clients are realistic as to their mare’s strengths and weaknesses, and they have in mind what they’re looking for. We direct them with our knowledge about what our stallions have thrown in the past and try and help produce the perfect match,” explained Werthan.
“While I don’t have any goals in terms of the number of horses we breed at Warioto, I do want the farm to have a legacy. For three generations we have provided great horses for a number of people, and I hope we keep going in that direction–providing quality, authentic show horses,” said Werthan.
Two new additions to the team producing those show horses are Haley Deffa and Travis Lubow. Since the middle of the year, Deffa and Lubow have based their training and showing business out of Warioto, allowing their clients to keep their young horses at the farm while training and showing.
One of the stallions that stands at Warioto Farm and helps produce outstanding show hunters is the 22-year-old chestnut, Thoroughbred Viscount.
“Viscount throws great babies with the same disposition, determination and ability,” said Werthan about the stallion whose son, Count On Me II, was the 4-year-old performance champion at the IHF finals.
One of the most beautiful babies ever born on Warioto Farm, according to Werthan, is the Hookers’ Paradiso, who traces his bloodlines to both Viscount and Zarr and was born in 2001.
“Paradiso was without a doubt the perfect baby we dream of. When he was born, I remember turning to Julie and saying ‘Wow! He’s just perfect,'” recalled Werthan of the horse who is now winning in the pre-green division.
So taken was she with Paradiso that Werthan has since bred three full siblings.
But the sweetness of successes like this is measured not only by triumph, but also by tragedy.
“It makes the good times sweeter when you have bumps in the road,” said Werthan of the cycle of life that operates naturally on the farm.
In her 25 years of being in business, Werthan has seen mares lose their foals just before delivery; she has witnessed a foal who was born six weeks premature die from pneumonia after spending weeks under intensive care; she was faced with the disappointment of having to euthanize a foal who broke its leg in the paddock; and she has lovingly and humanely destroyed broodmares who were at the end of their lives.
“Warioto is more of a family than just a business because of the interpersonal relationships created both between the people who work here and our clients,” said Werthan.