"These are very competitive horses," Dale says. Their origins can be traced to the 1730s, first chronicled in the Lower State of Saxony in northern Germany, he continues.
"They are as rugged as steel gates, revered by German soldiers for their obedient manners, and cherished as friends, too," Jo Ann adds. "They were first used exclusively as harnessed carriage drawers and then later as military workhorses."
On this bright day along the headlands, the Thomases were awaiting the arrival of a new foal, always an exciting event for this couple. "It never gets old," Dale says. "It's like a runner coming out of the blocks on a hundred-yard dash. The adrenaline is always flowing when these mares are due to drop a newborn." As we spoke, their pregnant mare stood in a special stall; she was minutes away from producing. After 11 months in pregnancy it's uncanny how close these mares deliver "on time."
Jo Ann agrees. "You get nervous when the end of that eleven-month pregnancy arrives," she says. "Although this is a business venture, we treat these animals like family members," even to the extent of staying in the barn with the mothers or monitoring them by video in the last fidgety pre-birth days. "They know you care," she adds.
The Thomases began breeding show and race horses in Maryland in the 1970s and bred their first Hanoverian in Texas in the mid-1980s. They crossed some of their thoroughbred mares with Hanoverian stallions, and then imported one Hanoverian mare from Canada and two from Germany. Eventually they focused exclusively on breeding Hanoverians.
"Jo Ann knew Hanoverians had dispositions quite the opposite of the thorough-breds we started out working with," Dale recalls. While thoroughbreds may be skittish and temperamental, Hanoverians are good-natured and easily approachable, he says.
Every approved Hanoverian mare must pass a rigid inspection for conformation and movement. To attain premium status, they must also pass performance tests and produce a foal. All of the Thomases' mares have achieved the Elite or State Premium status, and the horses' inspection and test scores are made available to potential buyers.
Young stallions are tested over a 100-day period. Eventually they are rated for their jumping abilities, character, endurance, and willingness to perform. Finally, they must exhibit the famous high-stepping gaits.
The Thomas farm is much like those found today in northern Germany, with wide, grassy hillside pasturelands. "We’ve visited the area where these horses originated," Dale says. All the Thomases' brood mares are registered under the auspices of the Verband German Society of Hanoverians as well as the American Hanoverian Society in Kentucky.
A typical day on the Vista Ridge Farm consists of feeding, currying, cleaning stalls, and caring for the mares, colts, and fillies. Recently the Thomases sold two yearling colts to a 16-year-old in Connecticut. Six months later, the girl e-mailed the Thomases to say a gentleman in Virginia had offered her $125,000 for one of the colts. "She turned them down," Jo Ann says. "I wouldn't sell those beautiful creatures for a million dollars," the girl wrote.
As for the Vista Ridge pregnant mare, she produced a healthy, spring-legged colt.