The Arabian horse has found its way into the hearts of Signe and Thomas Kirk Kristiansen. With great passion and dedication, they breed stunning sport horses at Kirk Arabians, the Danish stud where they live.
Text Maria Graae Photography Daniel Stjerne / First published Spring 2014 The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 11
There’s something unique about the eyes of an Arabian that sets it apart from other horses,” explains Thomas Kirk Kristiansen, when asked how he got hooked on this particular breed only a few years ago. “The way they observe and give their full attention to the people around them is something special and makes them different from a warmblood.” For Thomas’s wife Signe, the love affair with one of the oldest, purest and most recognisable breeds of all began long ago, when she was a young girl. “My first horse was three-quarters Arabian,” she says. “I must admit I’ve kept the little girl’s dream about an Arabian stallion from my childhood alive.”
The two of them are young, hardworking and successful. Thomas is the great-grandson of Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of Lego, and has been a Member of the Board at the world-famous toy brand since 2007, which leaves Signe very much in charge of running the stud. She rides between four and six horses every day, and in addition to taking care of the day-to-day management and paperwork, she’s also a board member on several funds and involved in organisational work. “It’s only within the last year, really, that we’ve finally got everything organised and things are running smoothly. It’s wonderful to have such a great team of employees who take ownership. Stud Ask, which was founded by Thomas’s father and breeds and develop showjumpers, is our nearest and indeed only neighbour. It’s a village-like community here; it’s brilliant.”
Kirk Arabians is located in Martofte, North Funen, set in scenic surroundings close to Dalby Bugt. Green fenced fields and old fruit trees encourage wildlife to venture all the way up to the garden in front of the white farmhouse which is the hub of family life for the Kirks. The stable buildings and even the floodlit indoor arena are made of wood. “The wood gives the place a certain peace and calm which we both cherish, and it blends in nicely with the surroundings,” Thomas explains as we take a tour of the grounds and stables – where we are joined en route by the couple’s border terrier, who takes on full responsibility for everyone being happily entertained with his playful character and energetic charm.
The Kirk stud made headlines in 2010 when the then three-year-old stallion Zonyx was imported from Shadow Oak Arabians in the USA. If the iconic prancing-horse logo of Ferrari should ever come to life, it would almost certainly look like Zonyx: This athletic black stallion has an elegant demeanour and is in a league all his own. In his first two years, Zonyx ranked within the top five at the Las Vegas Arabian Breeders World Cup in 2009, Region III Sport Horse in Hand Championship in 2009, and Scottsdale Top Ten in 2010. Since being sold to the Kirks, Signe has educated the stallion in dressage and the two of them have enjoyed great results in the ring. “We were searching for offspring by Enzo, who’s Zonyx’s father,” explains Signe, “and we got talking with this breeder while we were at a show in Scottsdale, Arizona. It turned out the breeder had a couple of yearlings sired by Enzo, and the moment we saw Zonyx, we were blown away. The only problem was, he wasn’t for sale. That last night before we were to return to Denmark, Thomas didn’t sleep at all – that’s how badly he wanted to take Zonyx back with us. And by negotiating he succeeded at the very last minute.”
What was it about Zonyx that caught your attention, Thomas?
“His eyes and his movements grabbed us completely. I think there’s something about the colour as well – black gives him an undefined sense of mystique. In the three years we’ve had him he has completely changed the name of the game for us by raising the standard of the horses we produce enormously.”
Signe, do you two always agree when it comes to buying horses?
“With Zonyx there wasn’t a moment of doubt. And we mostly agree – by now we very much share the same vision when it comes to the type of horse we want to breed.”
Signe, what are your ambitions with the stud?
“With Kirk Arabians we want to raise the standard of the Arabian sport horse and make it even more suitable for dressage. We want to breed horses that are 155-160 cm, well mannered and easy to handle, and also have the correct biomechanics – for me, a good neck is half the horse. And of course the head should be the head of an Arab – you should never be in any doubt as soon as you see the profile.”
Signe had Shetland ponies as a child, but even though her mother rode as a young girl too, she is not from an equestrian family as such. “These days I’m a dressage rider by heart, but as a child I wasn’t schooled much. Instead I had great fun doing all sorts of crazy things – riding bareback and backwards, you name it.”
Thomas’s story is different. “I’ve ridden since I was four or five. I grew up around warmbloods and had the same stereotyped preconceptions about Arabian horses as most do – that they are of no real use and bad-tempered. I’ve moved away from the world of horses a couple of times, but there’s something about it that always pulls me back. I wish I’d known the dressage I know now back in my showjumping days, but then it was all about getting clear over fences for me.”
Signe and Thomas first crossed paths many years ago, albeit unwittingly. “I actually grew up on a farm not very far from here,” Signe says. “And I used to spend every summer and many a weekend at Schelenborg,” says Thomas, pointing towards his father, Lego-owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen’s home, a white manor house surrounded by green fields and woodland in the far distance. “There was this slightly annoying pony girl who’d build small horse jumps on the forest trails, so whenever we took our motocross bikes out for a spin we’d have to clear the way first. I realised years later that it was Signe who’d made those jumps, but we never actually met or knew each other back then.” “It wasn’t until I was training to be a veterinary nurse that we met,” says Signe, taking up the story, “when I spent six months at Stud Ask.”
So how did you get in to horse-breeding, Signe?
“We were living in an apartment in Aarhus, but we never really enjoyed pleasures of the city much, so we wanted a place in the country. Originally we were determined not to have our horses at home. We agreed it would be too much of a responsibility to be depended upon like that. But of course now we wouldn’t trade it for anything else. We first started out with the Arabian horses when we acquired an Arabian mare who was approved in Danish Warmblood, and then one thing let to another.”
When the couple moved to Martofte nine years ago, it was intended to be a temporary location, Thomas explains. “We were looking for other suitable locations. But we realised we were thriving here, and started to see a lot of potential in the place. So we stayed on. In the beginning there was space for four horses in one of the wings, but we soon realised that there wasn’t going to be enough room and so the building started.”
Thomas, it must been a privilege to custom-build the yard from scratch?
“Yes indeed, but to be honest it’s also meant years and years of construction mess, since we’ve built it gradually. Even now we’re in the process of renovating the main stable, so we can have all the stabled horses under the same roof.”
Why did you choose the Arabian horse?
“There’s already quite a few in our family who are very accomplished at educating warmbloods. We wanted to change the incorrect image that many have of the Arabian horse – that they are temperamental and only suited for show,” says Signe, and Thomas continues: “My father has supported and revolutionised warmblood horse-breeding in Denmark over the last couple of decades. Our aim is to change the way people perceive the Arabian horse, to make them see the enjoyment many riders could have from a smaller, more manageable horse. It’s about chemistry, really.”
Apart from the 25 Arabian horses, a few warmbloods also reside at Kirk Arabians. One of them is the gorgeous stallion Karolus van Wittenstein by Krack C, previously competed at Grand Prix level by Patrick van der Meer and recently purchased as a schoolmaster for Signe. “There aren’t many Arabian horses educated for Grand Prix,” she says, “and it’s hard to educate Zonyx to a higher level when I’m having to learn myself at the same time.”
The few warmbloods aren’t the only ones who stand out from the Arabians. In one of the spacious stalls, Hubert, a small fluffy pony, is busy munching straw. He is the mount of Signe and Thomas’s toddler, Irene.
“Irene has been with us in the stable since she was a baby,” says Signe, “and she wasn’t very old before she wanted to get up on the horses, just like we do.”
What are your hopes and dreams for Kirk Arabians in the future?
“The first generation of Zonyx’s foals are now three years old, so it will soon be time for them to prove themselves. Even though horse-breeding isn’t always a picnic, walking through the stable is pure therapy.” •