Emerging from the storm

Neil and Melanie Wrynn were married on St Valentine’s Day 2015 and have been living life at full speed since then and loving it.
Three children later, residing in their newly-built home alongside their purpose-built equestrian facility where they run their own business, Ardeo Sport Horses, the couple reflect on their life over the past five years.
“It’s like Mario Andretti said ‘if everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough’,” commented Neil, “The days can be fast here where hurry is our norm. If we are not running at fever pitch, it would be impossible to get through our long list of tasks.”

Ardeo Sport Horses is a branded horse sales business, with many graduates now competing all over the globe. The enterprise, which also involves coaching and livery, is based at Mount John, Newcastle, Co Wicklow, roughly 21 kilometres south of Enniskerry from where the Wrynns previously traded.
“At the beginning I wondered would we ever see the fruit of our labour as we suffered so many difficult days trying to get the business established as a profitable means for living and raising a family,” said Melanie. “There were many moments along the way when, feeling out of our depth, we discussed giving up and retuning to Neil’s past in IT sales and mine in social work.

“However, it had always been our dream to have our own place where we could live and work on site so that we could be with our children – Ruby (four), Timothy (three) and Abigail (17 months) so we pressed on. Now, looking back on what we have achieved over the last five years, when we took many unfamiliar paths to grow Ardeo Sport Horses and build a family home, we are spurred on even more.”

When the couple were first married, they merged their separate businesses and were based at a rented facility right in the middle of Enniskerry village. The six-acre site wasn’t all that practical for their work with impossible access, steep terrain, no real turn-out and a stony arena, where the surface was either too deep in the winter or too loose in the summer. Nor was it a suitable base to bring customers.
Despite this, Neil managed to drive Ardeo’s horse sales successfully forward, travelling all over the country sourcing suitable horses for their customers, managing the yard and riding and competing all of the horses whenever Melanie was pregnant.

A considerable amount of time was spent transporting horses from the yard to hired facilities to exercise in arenas, graze, do fittening work and, most importantly, to show the horses to potential customers. Most days Neil would be on the road to various venues including Boswell, Barnadown, Killossery, Spruce Lodge and other locations.

“This was the only way we could produce our horses and have them ready for sale but, ultimately, we found it extremely difficult to have any credibility selling out of the back of trailer. With no long-term security of tenure, we soon realised that to ensure our future, both as a family and for our business, it was essential that we secure a permanent premises.”

An expensive business error on Neil’s part in 2015 was allowing Melanie fill the yard up with 15.2hh horses as, being pregnant, it meant she couldn’t ride or compete. Up to that point, Melanie had successfully produced a number of small event horses including her own very special five-star performer Rathmolyon Flight (or Biscuit as he is affectionately known), Roll On Dargle, Ardeo Fun Size and Ardeo Dime to name some of the smallest.

At Knockany in September 2018, Neil competed a 15.2hh Ramiro B gelding, Ardeo Romeo, who was later sold to an amateur in America. “I think Margie, you commented that day on how great it was to see these small horses making good weight carriers!” this writer was reminded by Neil who also competed Ardeo Berlin up to EI110 before he was sold to Britain’s Julia Norman. That partnership competed at CCI4*-L level last year and were due to move up a grade this season.

The Ramiro B gelding Wolf Ardeo Vegas, who represented the Irish Sport Horse Studbook at the world breeding championships for young event horses at Le Lion d’Angers last October with Eva Melly in the saddle, was another talented small event horse who Neil sold as a four-year-old.

At this time, a lot of the day-to-day production of the small event horses was done by one of Ardeo’s loyal students, India Ryan, who joined the team over ten years ago as an 11-year-old. India competed Perfectly Dun Ardeo onto the long list for the 2017 Junior European Championships before he was snapped up and shipped to Scotland.

Meanwhile, Melanie was spending her time trying to figure out how to design their own place from a greenfield site, deal with architects, engineers, financial advisors, banks and lending groups, and project-manage the entire build while being mother to extremely young children. She would often have her business meetings sitting among the toys in their very small cottage!

Interestingly the Wrynns chose to undertake building the equestrian facility and house at the same time having been advised strongly to do so separately. “Moving to our new base at Mount John, Newcastle, Co Wicklow over one year ago, has completely transformed the business,” stated Melanie.

It was a strategic move as not only is Mount John well located on the edge of the N11 with close proximity to all the main international transport links – road, sea and air – but the 21-acre site also provided flat and hilly terrain to put in top facilities. A great-aunt of Melanie’s had purchased the tillage farm in the 1950s, and it was passed on when she died with the Wrynns buying out the rest of the family. There were four acres of brambles to be cleared and a lower field where sheep had grazed which gave them a surprisingly biodiverse hay crop in their first summer.

“When the diggers broke ground on September 11th 2017, no one would have ever guessed the intensity of the workload up to that point which often required working through the night while the children slept. At this stage we had our planning permission in place, financial offers on the table with clear mortgage and commercial loan terms agreed and even an approval for grant aid through the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 (LEADER).

“The climb ahead was much steeper than we had appreciated in that special moment and, had we known, we might possibly have stopped the diggers! One of many difficult days included the bank announcing that they had retracted their offers for both the house mortgage and the commercial loan. Managing cash flow became a game of chess as we clung onto the experts and financial advisors who could see a credible business at the time and yet the reality of our bank balance brought bankruptcy ever so close and an understanding of the thin line between the two.

“Some days, as hard as Neil would try to row the boat, I could not plug the holes fast enough to stop the water coming in. The pressure to make sales can be overwhelming when overheads in this industry are so constant and so significant.”

Neil and Melanie are totally united with a ‘divide and concur’ mentality! “Neil is extremely easy going and was so relaxed through the whole build process, always in complete trust that my decor choices would be up to his standards – except when we got to the carpets that is and I found he suddenly had a strong opinion!

“Moving to Mount John over a year ago now has been like a dream come true for us and we pinch ourselves most days.

“Thanks to the brilliant Gary Rhodes of Equestrian Surfaces we ride on a laser-level flat, fully-irrigated arena with superb footing both in summer and winter. We also had the luxury of having Seamus Mullan, of Emerald Equestrian, put in a covered walker and lunge pen while, just recently, we completed an outdoor cross-country play-ground built by Tony McMenamin. He drew from William Micklem’s creativity with a superb design, providing us with nearly limitless options through our water, bank and ditch complexes.”

As mentioned in these pages recently, the Wrynns are very much involved with a tree-planting scheme which has seen them welcome several large and small business groups, including BAM, Earths Edge and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for tree planting days which provide corporate sponsors with an opportunity to off-set their carbon footprint.

“Andrew Byrne, who began working for Ardeo Sport horses in 2018 as he completed his forestry degree in UCD, proved to be a complete Godsend with his knowledge of trees. He took on the management of the corporate planting days, working closely with a great friend of mine, Imogen Rabone from ‘Trees on the Land’. They devised a plan to plant 12,000 native trees and hedgerows, running corridors of whitethorn, hazel and holly along the grassy stretches above and between the paddocks. These not only improve the soil, drainage and biodiversity but also shelter the horses from the wind whipping off the Irish sea.

“Mount John is one of almost 1,000 sites being planted under the scheme this year as part of the Self-Help Africa project. Agroforestry, as are learning, or threading trees into working farms, is a win-win project which will only grow stronger in the years ahead.”

When baby Abigail-Joy arrived in November 2018, Melanie was looking forward to some downtime from the business and be a mother to three children under three but having to adapt to circumstances is very much the nature of small businesses.

“Following a sudden change of plans, our rider Bella Innes Kerr returned to Scotland forcing me to squeeze back into my competition jodhpurs and face the event season with a string of horses and ten days of warning /preparation! Needing to draw the line somewhere, Neil refused to put his competition hat on to ride our super 148cms pony, Ardeo Rocketman, so that meant I was on board and Neil would stay at home with the kids.”

“Ardeo Arctic Wolf, who we bought from event rider Kim O’Gorman, became another favourite of mine last season, showing his beautiful temperament, loyally covering up my competition nerves and lack of match practice. His excellent form resulted in a sale to Texas.
“A company is only as good as its people and the hard part of any business is actually building a team who will embody your company culture and propel you forward.

“I couldn’t have done those 2.30am starts to Tyrella, exhausted from feeding Abigail, without Hattie Dinnis who joined Ardeo Sport Horses permanently over a year ago, having sold her a horse called Ardeo Quality Control a few years prior. Hattie has become an integral part of our team and our successes; exceeding all expectations, she was prepared to get in the boat and row with us.”

At any one time there are between 20 to 30 horses on-site ranging from four-year olds through to schoolmasters. Neil tries to avoid buying unbroken stock, focusing his time on sourcing good models with good temperaments. “Rideability and trainability sells,” says Neil who enjoys dealing with breeders and vendors and is always keen make new connections.

While Ardeo Sport Horses have some promising graduates starting to come through in Britain, including Debbie and Neill Nuttall’s Ardeo Premier (Alex Bragg), Ginny Kinlock’s Ardeo Brigadier (Georgie Strang) and Alison Garlick’s Ardeo Allegra (Louise Bradley), not to mention many quality amateur horses, their major market is largely the United States.

Neil finds video sales to be on the increase, having sold horses to the East and West coasts of America through this medium. Denise Rath, of Grey Fox Farm in Ocala, is a huge supporter of the Ardeo brand having purchased several horses over the past five years. “I feel like I know Denise really well, as we talk most weeks, but I’ve never actually met her,” revealed Neil. “Perhaps video sales might be our new norm.”

Alongside the horse sales, Melanie, who is a Horse Sport Ireland Level 3 coach, has built up a strong competition-coaching business both at home and abroad.

Lindsay Wagner, who was longlisted for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 for the United States, was expected to fly in to train at Ardeo Sport Horses this month with her recent purchase and compete at Tyrella. Instead, her gelding is grounded in Co Wicklow while Lindsay is stuck in Salt Lake City.
“The new facilities are a coaching dream,” enthused Melanie. “This year, we decided we would up our game and started to develop focused clinics for the Pony Clubs and Riding Clubs. We had a hugely successful week in February with over 50 students accessing training.

“We are always on the lookout out for up-and-coming riders for our horses as our own children’s activities start to take up our weekends. Ruby’s highlight last year was competing at Kilmacanogue horse show in the lead rein class where she won the purple rosette and is already planning on winning the pink rosette this year!”

This season, Neil and Melanie were looking forward to seeing Ardeo Rocketman be campaigned by a top pony rider. “Ponies have becoming a real interest of ours. Producing them is a lot of fun. We also have a really nice bunch of five-year olds in our barn this season by sires such as Tolan R, Grand Slam VDL, Future Trend, Numero Uno and Starpower. Neil, himself had been looking forward to getting some of his own personal goals back onto the horizon and return back to the Show Jumpers Grand Prix tour which he had so enjoyed with Clooney BZ, who was sold last summer to Carol Gee of Fernhill. This special grey brought Carol clear rounds at the Longines Global Champion Tour in London, Liverpool International Horse Show and all over Europe.

As with everyone else during these days of Covid-19 restrictions, the Wrynns’ plans are on hold for the present.

“As the country is in complete lockdown, we now find ourselves alone, without the incredible network of kind friends, family, childminders and livery owners to weather this storm,” concluded Melanie. “Facing 4,000 unplanted trees, and barns overflowing with horses, we are reminded of how lucky we are to have incredible people around us. Perhaps it’s a time to reflect on what life is actually about and to be thankful for who and what it has blessed us with.”

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