who adopted a caring role
(First published in Eventing Magazine - February 2006)
Since starting the National Foaling Bank in 1965, Johanna Vardon has helped people through the traumas of foaling, as well as bring foster mares and orphaned foals together. She talks to CAROLE MORTIMER
JOHANNA Vardon MBE is the perfect hostess. As she shows me around her unique set-up, the animated conversation jumps from one topic to the next, occasionally hi-jacked by a memory of a more pressing reminder.
"Of course I was never meant to do all this," says Johanna, waving her arm to encompass her house, yard and paddocks, which have been home to seven generations of 487 home-bred horses and the National Foaling Bank over the last 40 years. She explains: "I was originally accepted by Sadler's Wells Theatre company."
Her petite stature, combined with seemingly limitless energy, would surely have lent itself to the art of dance. That her dog is a beautifully coiffured white poodle called Gigi, who constantly skitters around the garden only enhances the image. But Sadler's Wells' loss was clearly the horse world's gain.
"Come here and I'll show you how to make something out of nothing," she beckons as we purposely head off towards the yard - currently devoid of horses but home to an assortment of ducks.
"If I ever give up horses I'd seriously start breeding ducks," she smiles. The charming collection waddles around our feet towards the plastic paddling pools. "I have a beautiful lake, but foxes are such a problem," she says despairingly, by way of explanation for their confinement.
But we digress. Back on track Johanna proudly describes how, short of money and in defiance of her bank manager, she built 12 boxes using six complete units and 12 doors. A brick-laying course enabled her to extend the buildings, which she roofed with salvaged tiles, learning how to lay them herself. She then turned boxes into multiples for mares and foals by the use of home-made partitions.
All of which," she declares triumphantly, "meant I was able to take up to seven adoptions - that's 14 extra animals on the yard - at any one time
I'm an amazing person in a crisis," says Johanna, clarifying her reasons for the job that took over her life. For 40 years Johanna has masterminded 16,000 sad cases of having to match orphaned foals with foster mares.
"I have a lateral brain and I've had to learn to be practical. When Father died we were left penniless. We used to have an indoor staff of five. My mother had never wielded a broom until we came here."
'Here' is the Vardon family's large rambling house and its 15 acres, situated in a peaceful part of Shropshire.
Horse breeding first began with a pony "found in the kitchen on Christmas day".
The mare, named Crown Jewel - - after a character in the Flicka stories - - initiated Johanna's prefix followed by the pattern of gemstones as names. She admits to still owning 40-50 horses, although professes "not to count as it makes me hot under the collar.
"I wish I could sell, but every one only wants a half-made eventer," she snorts.
By rights, riders should be knocking on the door of the breeder who has produced such eventers as Crown Feldspar, Crown Derby and Crown Amazonite. There are also the show jumpers Crown Cornelion and Crown Rhodonite, a member of British Young Rider and Nations Cup teams with Emma Shaw, as well as the ill-fated Grand Prix dressage stallion Crown Marcasite, described by Johanna as "the dream of my life". Crown Derby, who is competed at advanced level by Christine Hardinge, and Crown Cornelion, sire of The Tourmaline Rose, currently stand at End House Stud in Lancashire.
The National Foaling Bank was initiated in 1965 after one of Johanna's own mares lost a foal. In her first year she dealt with 100 cases, rising to a peak of 668 in 1996. A large enamelled 'By Royal Appointment' sign sits proudly above the central stable, testament to the seven adoptions for Royal household. As she says, with a twinkle in her eye: "You never know what the next phone call will bring."
The plaque's presence is almost usurped by the yard's equally eye-catching stable doors, gaily painted in stripes of blue and green.
"They're my former racing colours," Johanna explains, before adding: 'And each one takes a week to repaint." Evidence of this meticulous process is currently under way in an empty stable.
With the phone constantly by her side, Johanna explains that the first calls for help normally start in late December - "usually dead twins" - peaking in the natural breeding season of May and June, before tailing off in August.
"It's not just the newborns that need help. Mares and foals get killed, or mares run out of milk or turn to savaging. We had a lot of savaging mares last season," she says in her matter of fact manner.
The costs associated with the service are now in the region of £15,000 a year.
"And that's not me on the telephone for 20 hours a day," she says emphatically.
In the past Johanna has energetically thrown herself into various schemes to raise money to support her cause. For 12 years she single-handedly baked 2,000 cakes, selling at four markets, as well as publishing books and stallion guides. The most recent scheme is the Vardon Trust.
But besides breeding, showing, building stables, making cakes and publishing books, adoptions are what Johanna is obviously exceptionally good at. In 2001 she received the Animal Health Trust award for voluntary services.
"There is no difference between me and the Samaritans," she says. However John Baxter, her husband of 25 years, begs to differ. "The Samaritans just listen, you talk," he points out, before adding: "Johanna is patient and understanding. Phone conversations may be repetitive for us, but it is personal to the person on the end of the line and, in most cases, you have to go back to basics."
"And," Johanna chips in, "many people are stumped when it comes to skinning their own foal. It's not everyone's cup of tea," she says phlegmatically.
"Occasionally people write letters, which is very nice, but all the work comes at a price - of freedom, sleep and money," says John a little wearily.
Brushing these problems aside, Johanna waves her elegant hands in the air. "I have the gift of healing in my hands," she says. "I would move heaven and earth to help save lives."