Written by: Dave Briggs
Sherry McLean is bringing her expertise and work ethic to her own breeding operation.
“If I survive it will be out of sheer stubbornness,” Sherry McLean said laughing.
It’s early in the afternoon on a Monday in March. McLean is low on sleep, but carefully watching a mare whose water just broke.
After more than 30 years working with and for other people, McLean is now master of her own Ontario breeding farm — Northern Dawn.
“At least when I’m working this hard I have a purpose,” she said. “I feel like I’m trying to fulfill something that is a part of what I always believed in — to have my own place and to have nice mares. It’s going to take awhile, maybe, but I want to compete across North America. I won’t be just satisfied with just being competitive in my own backyard. I’m working hard because there’s something about wanting to do well at what you do. It’s just part of dreaming.”
McLean’s dreams are infectious and have no limit.
“I’d love to start out with being a Queen’s Plate winner and maybe a Kentucky Derby winner. I’m not there yet and I’d settle right now for just a good horse, but I know it takes more than one horse. You have to have a plan and you have to have mares that are actually producing.”
She said being the front person of an operation has its challenges besides the obvious ones of being in a difficult industry at a trying time.
“You have to put yourself out there, which is a little tough for me. You’d never believe me if I said I’m actually pretty shy,” she said. “It’s taken a long time to get to the point where I’ve got to put myself out there. I was happy to take a backseat for years at (Gardiner Farms). I enjoyed what I did and I was part of it, but now I have to work so people know I exist. It’s very important.”
McLean grew up on a cow-calf farm in Northern Ontario in the westernmost edge of the province, close to Winnipeg.
“It wasn’t really a town. It was the Rainy River District,” she said. “We always had horses on the farm to use on the cattle. I showed western growing up and doing all that kind of stuff.”
She left home to attend the University of Guelph. While earning a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and Science she put herself through school working at a number of farms — the first was the famed standardbred operation Armstrong Bros. Farm in Inglewood, ON.
“I also worked for Danny O’Callaghan on the farm during that time period. I broke horses at another farm at the same time. I was quite busy and trying to pay bills,” she said.
She stayed at Armstrong Bros. through university and did everything from working with yearlings to working in the breeding shed collecting stallions and inseminating mares at the dawn of transported semen and artificial insemination in the standardbred industry. After graduation, she spent some time working in Australia at standardbred farm Alabar Stud where she was exposed to ultrasound technology first being used in the equine breeding industry.
“I participated in a lot of interesting fields — the beginnings of ultrasound, the beginnings of transported semen. It was fascinating and I enjoyed it and some of my education definitely associated with all that,” she said.
All that experience helped her land a job at Gardiner Farms in Caledon East, ON in 1988 working side by side with Dr. Mike Colterjohn.
“I did the stallion work and then it went from there. If you take on responsibility, it keeps getting handed to you. That’s kind of what happened. I know Mike Colterjohn was my boss, but that was a big farm and it took a lot of work,” she said.
“At that point we had Armstrong and Gardiner and we were both running around like idiots, but working. There were points in time when (Gardiner) was between 300 and 400 mares.”
She said she has many good memories of Gardiner, a farm she said was good for her soul.
“It was a beautiful place to be, a beautiful farm. I loved it. I had access to the Gardiner home property and used to swim there all the time in the summer,” McLean said. “I enjoyed the horses immensely… I was riding and breaking and handling stallions, foaling out mares. I had to work really hard, but I really got to participate in the raising and development of the horses on the farm. I had a lot of say while I was there… We developed a nice mare herd.”
McLean remained at Gardiner for some 25 years with her and Colterjohn as the farm’s driving force. After Colterjohn died of cancer in 2012, McLean stayed at Gardiner a few more years, “and then left because I needed to have something that I was aiming for; that I wanted to accomplish. That kind of got lost. All the work that we put so much effort into, that all changed with the sale of horses and everything.”
DAWN OF NORTHERN DAWN
She admits she couldn’t have picked a worse time to start her own breeding farm. Colterjohn died around the same time Ontario’s Slots at Racetracks Program (SARP) was cancelled, throwing the industry into turmoil.
“Foolishly enough, I went out on my own and I’m working very hard to keep going,” she said.
“It was really bad. You can imagine just trying to decide to start and stay at the same time that happened and then watching all the good mares we worked so hard to breed and raise good babies out of, leave. It was a tough time, but at the same time, that’s what makes you decide to stay or go. I almost got out a couple of years after that, but things changed.
Despite the challenges, she said she was destined to do it.
“It’s what I know… I don’t even know what I’d do if I quit,” she said.
McLean’s longtime friend and colleague Dr. Moira Gunn said she has every reason to believe McLean’s farm will be an unqualified success because, “everyone in the industry knows, likes and respects Sherry McLean.
“Everything I think of about Sherry is how dedicated she is to the well-being of the animals. She loves the horses. She raises a beautiful yearling. She really knows how to feed and raise a horse and turn it into a professional athlete. She is also so good at helping other people with their animals… She has always been there for other people in the industry. She’s selfless that way and has a tremendous work ethic. Everybody is well aware how hard Sherry works to make sure all the horses are so well looked after, so well raised. She does every aspect of this industry, from the breeding shed, handling stallions to the mare care, the nutrition, to foaling out foals, raising them through to the yearling stage… There’s very few people in this industry that have the talent and skill set that Sherry has and, let alone, continue to do that entire skill set throughout their career.”
McLean, ultimately, landed on a 100-acre spread “in the hills of Hillsburgh” Ontario that she called Northern Dawn thanks to a suggestion from her sister. The name is an ode to both Northern Ontario where she grew up and “a new beginning, a new day” she said, explaining Dawn is also her middle name.
“It’s a beautiful property,” McLean said. “It has an area on it that’s some bush and rougher area, which I enjoy hiking around in. Then I have a number of paddocks. I have about 50 and 60 head I’m dealing with at all times.”
She has a staff of about five, including two other full-timers and a few part-time staff.
McLean also has a stallion — multiple graded winner Reload.
It is a fitting name for a woman that started over on her own.
But, at first, the last thing she wanted was a stallion.
“I was approached about looking at a horse to stand. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that. I just moved. I have no idea where I’m going, what’s happening. I haven’t even got enough fencing for horses, yet.’”
A call a few weeks later asking her to come look at Reload caused her to reconsider, especially since the stallion is the half-brother to Philanthropist, the stallion McLean worked with at Gardiner before he was exported to South Africa. So she jumped on a plane the next day and quickly made a deal to stand the son of Hard Spun out of the Mr Prospector mare Hidden Reserve.
“Then I had to work really hard to find backers to support him. So, I have some good backers in the horse. I think he’s a nice horse and he deserves a really good shot at this. Unfortunately, the Ontario market is tough, but you shouldn’t shoot a horse down just because of that. He’s a decent horse. Now I’ve got babies on the ground that I really like,” McLean said.
“Some people like to gamble. I’m probably taking as big a gamble as anybody can doing this.”
Owner and breeder Frank Di Giulio, Jr. said he’s known McLean for the better part of 20 years, has consigned horses with her in the past and ended up buying a small share in Reload. He bred two mares to the stallion last year and has one foal on the ground already.
“I just try to give a little bit of business her way when possible,” he said. “The word enthusiastic comes to mind. She loves the industry and is just trying to go forward and be positive about it. I admire her for that because it’s difficult these days to stay positive sometimes… She’s a hard worker, obviously, so hopefully good things will come her way. You won’t find anyone saying a bad word about her, that’s for sure. She’s very well liked.”
Slowly, but surely, Northern Dawn is on the rise.
“I’ve got good babies on the ground that’s number one. Then you hope you have nice yearlings and they grow up to be nice horses,” McLean said. “It’s a numbers game and you have to have the numbers you need to support (Reload). That’s going to be really important. I worked hard last year to get them. I bred the second most mares here in Ontario and with it being a new sire and with good quality mares, I’ve tried to bring quality into the mix. That’s the key. We want this horse to make it. He isn’t the only horse. There’s going to be another horse after that. That thing is, if you don’t try, you don’t know where it can take you.”
Having gone through the process of building up Gardiner, she said she wants to follow that plan to return to success with Northern Dawn. Through it all, she said she swears she still hears Colterjohn’s voice in her head. He serves as a major inspiration to her to this day.
“I think it was his own fortitude that I admired so much. When he was sick, he still didn’t quit dreaming, or quit trying. He just didn’t quit,” McLean said.
It helps, she said, that her passion for horses is boundless.
“I love the horses and as much as this is a very tough industry, it’s hard not to look at them and dream about next year… There’s disappointments, but you have to have something to get up for in the morning and this is what I get up for.
“I want a good group of mares that can produce good horses time after time. I want to raise stock that I’m very, very proud of,” she said.
Then, maybe, she can relax.
“Hopefully, by then, I won’t have to work as hard,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be too old to work that hard by that time. By that time I hope to be bossing people around, maybe. I want to make my mark. I’m not sure why or what mark I want to make, but just to myself. I want to say ‘Look it, I did this.’”