What do you get if you cross…?
Extraordinary Equines is a former dairy farm, turned animal attraction that lives up to its name, as Sam Fraser discovers
Published in August ’11
‘Crazy or courageous? Only time will tell!’ laughs John Drake as he shows me around Dorset’s newest and perhaps most unlikely attraction. ‘Extraordinary Equines’, based at Vale Farm in the village of Sutton Waldron, between Blandford Forum and Shaftesbury, is now home to a host of unusual animals more usually found roaming African savannahs or galloping the Wild West of The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
‘We have over twenty-five different breeds, from Mammoth donkeys to a tame Zebra,’ explains John who runs the centre with partner, Christa Slee, and his children, Ben, 21, Lucy, 20 and Robert, 16. It’s all a far cry from his days as a dairy farmer.
‘My family has farmed here for over forty years,’ he says, ‘but a series of events led to the decision to give up the dairy herd. The children weren’t interested in continuing with it, and the final prompt came when new legislation regarding the storage of slurry came in. We’d already diversified into holiday cottages – we’ve had three on site since the year 2000 – and were developing our “Pets’ Corner” as a resource for our holiday guests, when we stumbled upon this idea.’
The sale of one hundred and sixty dairy cows in 2009 enabled John to invest in the equine stock, which is now attracting visitors from all over the world. Christa explains: ‘In the first instance, we were researching miniature ponies and donkeys on the internet when we came across a French Poitou. The Baudet-Poitou is an unusual donkey breed from France and that really fired our imagination, so we began to explore the world of rare breed and cross-breed equines.’
Christa had kept horses herself and was keen to develop the farm as a breeding centre: ‘We started out breeding miniature ponies, but foaling miniatures proved to be enormously challenging. Miniatures are really freaks of nature and are totally reliant on human intervention when it comes to successful birthing; because of the thickness of the amniotic sac, they can’t break it with their tiny, soft hooves and commonly suffocate if it is not broken for them within three minutes. One of our miniatures was so ill after her labour that she and her foal had to live in the house with us afterward – for four months! Following that experience, we’ve opted to breed from our American Mammoth Jackstock, as demand,’ like everything else with these gentle, easy-going donkeys, ‘is huge.’
Standing beside Louie, an American Mammoth jack (as gentlemen donkeys are termed), the word ‘huge’ certainly springs to mind.
At nearly seventeen hands high, he is an extraordinary and most unexpected sight. For those whose only experience of donkeys comes via Christmas card scenes of the stable at Bethlehem, this super-sized animal is rather shocking.
Flown in from the United States along with fourteen other animals now living at Vale Farm, Louie endured a long flight and a month in quarantine before he was finally able to kick his heels in the Dorset countryside. And kicking his heels isn’t all he’s been up to. ‘Louie has already sired two foals to two of our Mammoth jennies,’ says Christa. ‘Ferrero, a red dappled Mammoth colt arrived in April and another colt, Wadronz Hero, was born at the beginning of May.
‘Because of their gentle natures, they make ideal trekking or trail riding animals,’ explains John, ‘and demand across Europe is high. We’ve already sold to buyers in Finland, France and Germany.
‘A riding donkey will never throw you,’ adds Christa. ‘A horse might buck you off when it hits an obstacle, but a donkey just stops! That makes them ideal for nervous or novice riders.’
John, who had no experience of riding before he met Christa, agrees. ‘The Mammoth donkey is great for first timers like me. My favourite is Annie, who spent much of her early life in an Amish village in the States, pulling carts. They decided she was infertile and sold her back to the breeder who sold her on to us.’
Christa’s interest in horses and tireless research has resulted in a collection that is the envy of many breeders and enthusiasts across the globe. We’ve managed to acquire some very special animals,’ she says. ‘My favourites are our American Bashkir Curly Horses whose temperaments are so lovely. They really are super friendly and great around children – as well as being perfect for people with allergies as their curly hair is the result of a genetic mutation which makes them hypo-allergenic.’
Many visitors will however, be drawn to the more flamboyant cross breeds, such as the Zeedonks, Zonkeys and the Zorse, who all live side-by-side with Waldronz.com, a tame Zebra colt. ‘Our three Zeedonks – Janie, Johnny and James – all came to us from Holland,’ says Christa. ‘They were the unexpected progeny of a Jack donkey who’d been living with their respective Grants Zebra mothers for ten years without a hint of reproducing. The owner had given up on cross breeding when one day he went out to find a new Zeedonk foal. And in the next few weeks, two more were born. We are so thrilled to have them all together here and are really enjoying learning how to handle them.’
Rarer than the Zeedonks and the Zonkey, ‘Zambi’ (mother a mammoth donkey and father a Grevys Zebra), is the Zorse, Zulu, a striking three-year-old gelding who is a Blue Roan Quarter horse crossed with a Grants Zebra.
‘Zulu hasn’t been with us very long,’ says John, ‘and we’re still learning about him. He’s broken to ride, so our neighbours are going to get a pretty big shock as they see him, with his zebra markings, trotting down the road!’
Perhaps the most valuable asset at the centre however, is an American Paint stallion by the name of ‘Huslers Revolution’. With eleven Grand and Reserve championships to his name, this stunning horse with his distinctive ‘paint’ markings of black and brown, was much fancied by a number of breeders when he was put up for sale.
‘He’s from the USA,’ explains Christa, ‘where these horses are very popular. They really are the original Wild West horses, like the Spanish Mustangs and the Criollos brought to the Americas by the early settlers – we have a number of those too. Husler had three thousand Facebook friends when we bought him.’
There are some more recognisable horses at Vale Farm. The Shire horse Mai, for example, is an award winning beauty of considerable stature, but she is dwarfed by her companion, Clarissa, a Dutch Trekpaard standing over sixteen hands high.
‘People often think she’s a rhinoceros when they first glance over,’ laughs Christa, ‘because she has such an enormous bottom! She came to us from the New Forest. These horses were bred in Holland after the first World War for heavy draft work. We ride her locally and she certainly turns heads.’
Elsewhere on Vale Farm the quirkiness continues. Freddie, the fallow deer, lives with a red deer by the name of Wilma, but eschews her friendship in favour of that of a pied turkey stag. Miniature Ouessant sheep share the postcode with Kune Kune pigs and Miniature Shetlands.
‘We think we’re the only centre of our kind in the UK, if not in Europe,’ says John.
‘We’re getting some great feedback from visitors so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all!’
Extraordinary Equines is open every weekend until September 4th, 10.30am – 4pm.