If you are in the Arabian horse community for very long, the chances are you will hear people talk about how much they enjoy meeting and making friends with other Arabian owners and breeders. I have been out of the country in the past to see horses (the Brazilian Nationals and the Salon du Cheval come to mind) and can testify to the special bond of Arabian horse people not just here, but worldwide. And as many of us have, I’d heard the stories of Poland—of the magic of its horses and its people, and how as engaging as the Poles are when they travel here, they are even more amazing in their own country. So, in June, when my parents and I had the opportunity to travel to Poland for the first time, we signed on with enthusiasm.
We weren’t sure what the trip would be like. We have appreciated Polish horses for years, but we haven’t been “pure Polish” breeders. We were prepared to be impressed, but we weren’t born yesterday; it would have to be pretty special to rock our world. I don’t know how else to say this: it rocked our world.
Here is my diary of my first experience in Poland. I hope that every Arabian breeder, regardless of the bloodlines in their program, is able to visit the stud farms of Poland and, as my mom and dad and I did, create their own wonderful memories.
The idea of going to Poland began for us last spring, when Gene LaCroix was visiting at Cedar Ridge. What a golden opportunity it was to do it with Gene! After all, he had been with his father back in 1962 when they selected *Bask—who could ask for more history? It got even better when Scott Benjamin (who knows more about Polish horses and their pedigrees than just about anyone except the stud directors and breeding managers) and Anette Mattsson, also extremely knowledgeable about Poland and its breeding program, got involved.
So, on Sunday, June 22, around 2:30 in the afternoon, we boarded a plane in Minneapolis. By the time we arrived in Amsterdam eight hours later (about 6 on Monday morning, with the time change), we were talking nonstop, remembering all the great times we’d had together. It was perfect preparation. We didn’t know it then, but we had embarked on what would be a very special chapter in the Ames family record books.
Monday, June 23rd
Our connecting flight into Warsaw landed at about 10:30 a.m., and we met the group we would be traveling with at the airport. In addition to Gene and Anette (Scott arrived the next day), we were joined by Sophie Dia Pegrum and Jen Miller of Horsefly Films, who would photograph and take video of the trip, and several others. Most were from the U.S., but we also had a representative of France and two from Namibia. It was a great group, and one we would appreciate more and more as our journey unfolded. Some of us had been in the Arabian breed forever; some were new. Some competed in the show ring, while some had other interests (our new friends from Namibia, Henning and Barbara de Toit, are endurance riders). Some bred horses, and others were considering starting their own programs. We had every viewpoint and background you can imagine.
Our mind on our business, we skipped freshening up and boarded a large, comfortable bus for the two-hour trip to the Russian border, where the oldest of the Polish stud farms, Janów Podlaski, is located. Our destination, though, was our hotel, the Pensjonat Zaborek, about 30 minutes’ drive from the stud farm. This is an outstanding “bed and breakfast” that I would recommend to anyone visiting Janów. I have to admit that when our bus turned into the narrow road that leads to Zaborek, I wondered how we would ever fit through, but we did, and as we approached the main cottage, we saw a beautiful pond and gardens dotted with charming buildings. Some of them dated to the 19th century, and it was easy to appreciate the character of the architecture and the careful, true-to-the-culture decor of the rooms.
We were greeted on our arrival by Zaborek’s owners, Lucyna and Arek Okon, who helped us all get settled. Then we met for our first meal together, and you could just tell that it was going to be a fun group to travel with. I was pretty tired by then, having been up for more than 24 hours, so I called it an early evening, but the rest of the group toured the grounds and learned the history of the plantation.
Tuesday, June 24th
I woke up to a familiar sound that I had heard as a child—my dad running up the stairs, yelling for me to wake up. What he forgot was there were 12 other people in the rooms upstairs! My dad is one-of-a-kind. He has a heart as big as, well, a Percheron (his other equine love, in addition to Arabians) and a personality to match.
After breakfast, we boarded the bus to Janów. I had always seen pictures of the farm and had a vision in my mind of what it would be—the historic old clock tower, the atmospheric forests, the quiet pastures. And it was exactly what I thought and more. I will never forget coming through the gates and seeing, at the end of the lane, the peaceful lawn and the old white tower.
That first day, we toured the farm’s barns and viewed the horses. We even got a carriage ride to the river that was on the Russian border. The horses were incredible, no question, but what was most amazing to me was how the staff moves the horses to and from the pastures each day. All of the horses are very well disciplined and they know the routine, even the foals. At the command of grooms who ride bicycles, when they come out of their barns, they head as a group down the road to their pasture, through its open gate, and out into an expansive landscape of acres and acres. At the end of the day, they reverse the action—and I don’t mean they are trotting docilely. They are galloping in a large group, dust rising all around them if it’s a dry day. The mares go right to their stalls or, if they are in one of the open-room barns, to the spot on the wall where each is tethered each night. It’s very impressive, and no matter how often you see photos and videos of it, it is still amazing in real life.
We saw the stallions too, more than 20 of them, the best-known being Piaff, Dostatok, Alert, Ararat, Poganin, Equifor and Pegasus. Sadly, the lovely Album (Europejczyk x Alejka, by Palas), passed away just five days after our visit.
Words really can’t express the emotions I had at Janów. There was something about the farm’s atmosphere—you hear it described as “historic,” but historic in person is something else. It is almost like you can feel the generations of horses and people who have lived there, lived where the most important business—the only focus, really—is raising fine horses now and for the future. That is pretty heady stuff.
That evening, we began a practice which added a lot to our trip. After dinner, we all gathered to discuss what we had seen that day and what it meant. That first night, Gene made a presentation on form to function as it relates to horses. I have seen him do this before, but every time I learn something new. By the time we headed for bed, I knew that we had started what was not only a very enjoyable vacation, but also a high-intensity study of breeding Arabian horses.
Wednesday, June 25th
Horse racing is very important in Poland. Traditionally, it has been used to prove the horses’ soundness and athletic ability more than to demonstrate speed, but it goes without saying that every stud farm and owner likes to win races too! This morning, anyone who wanted to view race training headed to Janów at 6:00 a.m. to see the horses in training gallop on the farm’s track. We also met Janów Podlaski Director Marek Trela, who had not been there the day before. He put on a presentation at the stallion barn, and then led us through the barns with the mares and foals. Finally, we watched a presentation of the mares with their offspring by family. You could see the bloodlines’ characteristics through generations, as well as the variations which occurred when the mares were bred to different stallions. As Janów is home to about 100 mares, you can imagine the care and thought that goes into breeding them.
We then returned to Janow for our evening forum. When we arrived, we were greeted by local musicians playing Polish melodies. You can guess the emotions that elicited: we could almost feel Poland’s history and heritage in its music.
Then we convened for a presentation on the history of Janów and how they go about their breeding program, which was fascinating. Scott gave us background on Janów’s famed “P” line of mares, which we would see in use also at Białka. The “P” line was founded by the mare Piewica and now is seen especially in branches through Pentoda and Pilarka. He used this discussion to make a point which I think probably resonated with all of us, and that was that in breeding, there are not “right” or “wrong” decisions. Breeding is about philosophies, ideas and methods of approach, and he illustrated the point with the mare Pipi, who produced countless international champions—only three of them by the same sire!
Thursday, June 26th
This morning, we departed for Białka Stud. As our bus pulled in, I was conscious that here was another look at history, newer than and perhaps not as intimate as at Janów, but just as valid. You can feel the farm’s character in its beautiful barns, and although it has hosted Arabians for only about 30 of its 84 years, its traditional equine importance is very evident. We were greeted by Director Marian Pacewski and Breeding Manager Renata Kurzynska, and taken to a tented area from which we would look at horses (thank heavens, because we had a major rain storm that afternoon!).
We began with a presentation of Biaka’s stallions, Pesal, HK Krystall and Amanito, and then a few of their sale horses were brought out.
That is when the morning became especially memorable for the Ames family. We saw a mare that touched us as perhaps no other horse had. When the handlers brought out Perfirka, an 11-year-old grey, all three of us rose out of our seats to take a closer look. By Gazal Al Shaqab and out of the Ernal daughter Perforacja (the “P” line), she was everything we would want a broodmare to be. We later learned that she is Lot 2 in the Pride of Poland Sale in August, so I guess we didn’t exactly find a diamond in the rough!
After the presentation, we enjoyed more Polish hospitality as the stud farm hosted a special barbeque for us. The weather may not have been cooperating, but the food was fantastic and they made us feel so welcome. Following lunch, we returned to our equine studies, as we were introduced to the Arabian horse families that make up the stud’s program, and then we toured the barns. That evening at our forum, we enjoyed a lively discussion of the bloodlines we had seen and how they are bred at Białka.
Friday, June 27th
The next morning, we departed our hotel (the Zamojski, in Zamość) at around 10 and returned to Białka. To everyone’s delight, the sun had come out, and upon arrival, we took a long stroll among their yearling and 2-year-old colts. Once again, we got to see the process of the horses going out to pasture, and once again, it was impressive. We all got to pick a favorite or two out of the group, and then we all broke for lunch at a charming restaurant called Karczma Stajnia. I loved its character and atmosphere, and the food was delicious. We then made one last trip back to the farm, where we could select a horse or two that we wanted to see turned loose. Of course, my family had to see Perfirka.
That night, our forum was extra special, as that was when we started seeing the Horsefly films and photos of the horses on our trip so far, and that added to our education. Scott directed our discussions, dissecting the various bloodlines and helping us identify what we thought worked and didn’t work among them. Because we had several different interests in our group, it was really fascinating to hear everyone’s opinions.
Saturday, June 28th
In the late morning, we departed for Warsaw, where we were scheduled to attend the races at Służewiec Racetrack in the afternoon. What made this even more fun was that one member of our group, Helene Zaleski, of Lutetia Arabians in France, had a horse running in the fourth race. The track is beautiful, and located right in Warsaw. We went directly to the backside, where Helene’s trainer, Bogdan Strójwas, who also trains for Janów Podlaski, gave us a tour.
Then, with first post coming up, we headed to the clubhouse. Before the fourth race, we all placed our bets on Helene’s horse, Wameria, a mare by Amer d.b.—and did she reward us! She won the featured event that day, so we not only got a return on our betting investment, but also were invited to enjoy a special champagne toast.
After the races, we made our way to our hotel, the Polonia, which is located in one of the oldest buildings in Warsaw. That night, we walked around Old Town and had dinner at a great little café.
Sunday, June 29th
After all the action of the past few days, I think we were all ready for some down time. In the morning, everyone took the opportunity to sightsee at their own pace. Then, around 1 p.m., we boarded our bus for the drive to Pińczów, where we booked in for three nights at Hotel Nad Stara Nida. There we were allowed a unique glimpse of Polish life, as when we arrived, a wedding celebration was going strong—on its third day! They were having a grand time.
This evening, we again watched film of some of our favorite horses that we had seen, and Scott and Anette built on the experience by sharing footage of some of the horses’ ancestors. We could really see how the style of horses in the Polish breeding program had evolved over the years.
Monday, June 30th
Bright and early, we headed to Michałów Stud. Already, we were sensing that our great adventure was nearing its end, but we were so fascinated by what we were seeing that even a bad turn in the weather couldn’t dim our enthusiasm. Luckily, Michałów had a covered arena in which to present their horses, so we were comfortable as we viewed their stallions and show horses. Director Jerzy Białobok and his wife, Urszula, who is the farm’s breeding manager, offered insight into their program, which has produced an amazing group of horses. Among the many stallions led out were Ganges, Ekstern, Wachlarz, Eldon, Grafik, Gaspar, Eryks, El Omari, Empire, Kabsztad, Equator, and of course, a face we knew from back home, Vitorio TO, who is on lease to Michałów.
After lunch on the farm, we walked the barns—and we could see why this farm has always been known for its outstanding broodmares. One after another had her own unique look.
In the evening, we retired to the farm’s offices for our forum, and each of us selected a few horses that we would like to see again. Again, we followed the ancestry of each horse, studied their conformation and discussed the various breeding crosses. Scott offered us background on the leading mare lines at Michałów, the “E,” “W” and “Z” families. As a special treat to end the evening, we enjoyed a vodka toast with the director and his staff. Na zdrowie!
Tuesday, July 1st
It was hard to believe that our last day was upon us. We started it with a walk to Michałów’s mare and foal barn, where we saw a presentation of the farm’s mares and foals. I found myself getting caught up and looking ahead to the mares that were waiting in the paddock to be presented. Again, I couldn’t help noticing that each mare and foal had a unique look. That day there must have been about 30 that I wanted to take home.
Then we headed back to the show barn, where Helene Zaleski presented for us her collection of horses, a wonderful group of mares that she can be very proud of. And after lunch we enjoyed a wagon ride to the Michałów stud barn, where we saw the farm’s young colts. This was the closing to a trip that I will never forget.
What I learned most from our nine days in Poland was the value of patience. As Scott emphasized for us, the Polish horsemen breed one generation at a time, but with an eye toward the future. Each generation adds something, but you don’t expect to get “the whole package” in each generation. By spending so much time on the farms and seeing so many horses, we could see the structure of their program. The mature horses are the best ones, the ones they have selected to keep and use; in the yearlings to 3-year-olds, we saw the ones that are just entering the testing phase, where the Polish horsemen will evaluate them to see what they have. Obviously, just as we saw superstars in the making, we also saw youngsters that may not develop into long-term residents of the studs, and that is where our understanding of the Polish Arabian and how it is created grew by leaps and bounds. In my opinion, the principles we saw in action there would be valuable in any Arabian breeding program.
I would like to give a special thanks to Anette Mattsson, Scott Benjamin and Gene LaCroix, for providing us all with an unbelievable experience. And thank you, Anette and Horsefly Films, for sharing such great photos. For readers that would like to view the videos and photos from our trip, please visit the Arabian Horse Times website.