A Shining Jewel
A Shining Jewel
By Andrea Caudill
Regardless of which direction you look, Fazenda Gruta Azul is an immaculate, vibrant feast for the eyes. Start at the chartreuse palm trees and pink, white and red primavera bushes that line the red brick road leading up to the main house. Walk out into the rolling pastures and see the knee-deep emerald grass, dotted with herds of white- and clay-colored Nelore-Angus and Senepol cattle. Or, in the crystal air of an early morning, admire the golden light that washes over the horsemen of the Brazilian ranch, or fazenda, as they trot across the fields to gather the ranch’s award-winning remuda of American Quarter Horses.
That herd is itself a feast for horse people’s eyes, and in 2022, Fazenda Gruta Azul received the AQHA International Best Remuda award, which recognizes an outstanding ranch remuda of registered American Quarter Horses outside the United States. It is a recognition that was decades in the making.
Developing the Ranch
The ranch, which in its current form was founded in the late 1990s, began as a dream half a lifetime earlier. Its owner, Norberto Soares Leite, grew up in difficult circumstances in a poor region of Brazil. He was raised by his grandparents, and as a child, his respite came at their small ranch.
|The flora of Fazenda Azul is a feast for the eyes. (Photo by Bee Silva)|
“When I was growing up, my only play time was to ride horses,” Norberto says. “That was how we had fun. I used to ride my neighbor’s horse, and that was the first time I had contact with the Quarter Horses.” They took the horse to Brazilian match races, and Norberto was the jockey. He made many happy memories and grew to love horses and the culture. At 17, he moved to the southwestern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul and stepped into adulthood. He began working in a grain business, and five years later married his wife, Celina Arakaki Leite. A few years later, he partnered on the business, grew it and eventually sold it. They moved to Campo Grande (the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul) and turned a tiny beverage distribution business into a successful Ambev distribution company. As they built their careers, they welcomed two daughters, Simone and Patrícia. “My dad worked and worked and worked,” Patrícia says. “He and my mom, they worked to get everything we have today. They spent their lives working. We grew up watching them work, for us and our family.”
It took decades, but horses never left Norberto’s heart. When the opportunity came to bring his childhood dream to life, he purchased Fazenda Gruta Azul, which is located about an hour and a half away near the city of Dois Irmãos do Buriti. The ranch’s name translates to “blue grotto” and honors a famous nearby landmark by the same name. Norberto converted Gruta Azul to a cow-calf operation and in time acquired more land. In its current form, the ranch has about 7,200 cow-calf pairs, with about 3,000 head in its feedlot, and farms approximately 12,000 acres. In addition to its primary Nelore-Angus-cross cattle, the ranch also raises the Senepol breed, as both purebred or crossbred cattle. The massive ranch employs nearly 50 people, and the family works together in their businesses. Simone, who is married to Amilton Foizer, works in the beverage business in Campo Grande. Patrícia oversees the ranch office and the horses; her husband, Lucas Miglioli, is the ranch’s cow manager, and they are raising their two children, Sofia and Felipe, to appreciate ranch life.
“For me and my sister, and now my husband and brother-in-law and my kids, it’s important to keep this legacy they built through working hard,” Patrícia says. “With the city business and the ranch business, our family is united. I eat lunch with my family almost every day, and on weekends, everyone goes to the ranch. It’s the most important thing in our lives.”
|The horses in the ranch remuda, made up of geldings, are typically shown when they are young. Then they move into the remuda and help work the cattle in the vast pastures of the fazenda. The ranch cowboys use several horses a day in the course of their daily duties. (Photo by Bee Silva)|
When Norberto first acquired the ranch, it had cross-bred horses, but he rectified that shortly after taking ownership, switching the entire herd to Quarter Horses. At first, in addition to the everyday work at the ranch, the family used the horses for leisure activities, such as trail riding or jackpot ropings. But in the early 2000s, their focus changed.
“When we first met a cutting horse and realized what they can do, we fell in love with their intelligence and versatility,” Patrícia says. “From there, we directed our horse program to breed cutting horses.” Their first stallion was a grandson of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame stallion Doc O’Lena, and subsequent sires introduced to their herd brought the bloodlines of such famous lines as Haidas Little Pep, High Brow Cat, Playgun, Doc’s Oak, Peptoboonsmal and Smart Little Lena. Gruta Azul’s main stallion is the 2004 sorrel This Kats King, a son of all-time leading performance sire High Brow Cat and out of the King Peppy San mare Dox King Becky 095. Bred in Nevada by John A. Harrah, This Kats King earned more than $80,000 in National Cutting Horse Association competition before being imported to the ranch. In Brazil, he is the all-time leading cutting sire in both the AQHA and NCHA affiliates, with more than 1,000 points and nearly R$1 million (Brazilian real) in earnings. Other influential sires in their program are the Playgun stallion Play N Oak and their newest stallion, Niki Sixx, a performing son of Metallic Cat.
Influential broodmares for the ranch include the Sweet Lil Pepto mare Play With This Deal, the Haidas Little Pep mare Haidas Little Doc, the Peptoboonsmal mare KF Boon A Lena and the Docs Stylish Oak mare Docs Stylish Delite. These mares are among the leading cutting broodmares in Brazil.
The morning is just dawning, and the ranch horses are freshly saddled, trotting out into the pastures. It’s a process that occurs virtually every day. Brazilian pastures can sometimes be thousands of acres, and so ranch horses are expected to be able to cover vast amounts of ground. The ranch’s cowboys will check the herds and doctor the cattle as needed. They also inspect the pastures and water to ensure that there are no problems. At midday, they return to the barns for a brief respite before saddling a fresh horse and continuing their work.
The ranch horses must not only cover a lot of ground but also be able to assist with working cattle once they get there and be sensible and willing at all times. Norberto says that conformation and pedigree are the first things he and his family look at when evaluating horses for potential addition to their breeding stock. In addition, all of their stallions and almost all of their broodmares have performance records. Their horses are ideally of medium height and stout. “It can get really hot and humid here, so we want a horse that can handle it while working,” Norberto says. “The soil here is really rocky in some places, and it can vary widely in conditions, and we need a horse with good feet that can put up with the conditions. We also like a horse with good muscle and conformation. We want a show record, we want a good cutting horse, but it is very, very important that they have very good legs.”
An example of the ranch’s breeding program is 10-year-old Jazzy In Kats. One of the first foals sired by This Kats King, the homebred gelding earned more than R$20,000 (Brazilian real) in cutting competition and earned 33 AQHA points. He was a reserve futurity champion and multiple championship finalist and now has retired to work in the ranch’s remuda. “The ranch is intended to raise cattle,” Norberto says. “The selection (of our horses) is made to improve the cow sense and facilitate the day-to-day work of dealing with the cattle. While we breed and show cutting horses, invariably, our show horses end up being sent to the fields. Only geldings go into our remuda, but even the show horses spend some time roping, doctoring calves and everything a working horse gets to do at the ranch.”
“For us, it’s what a cow horse is made for,” Patrícia says, “Not only shows, but to be able to do anything needed on a ranch.”
|Norberto Soares Leite and his daughter Patricia work side by side on the fazenda.
(Photos by Bee Silva)
The broodmares are kept in herds of no more than 10, and the babies are handled from birth. They are weaned and halter broke, then returned to the pasture. Every April, the ranch hosts its production sale, offering top-quality yearlings, as well as proven saddle horses. “We have a big tradition of selling good working horses, both ranch and cutting horses,” Patrícia says. “Every year, people come to buy those broke, proven horses.”
The horses the ranch retains are started under saddle at 2 and are almost immediately introduced to cattle. Those with enough talent are pointed at cutting shows, while still being used for ranch work. “Our futurity horses are taken out to do day-to-day ranch work,” Norberto says. “We want them to maintain their cow drive and de-stress from training. We do this every year, especially before the futurities and after, anytime we can.”
In addition to the full-time jobs of the beverage distribution business, ranch work and the horse business, the family members are active on boards for the Brazilian cutting horse and Quarter Horse associations and Senepol breed association. Most of the family rides, and Norberto and Patrícia both show in cutting. For the better part of a decade, their cutting facility has hosted the annual Gruta Azual Derby and Derby Classic, which is one of the most important cutting shows in Brazil. In 2022, the show broke almost all entry records for a Brazilian cutting show.
“Our ranch is known in our area as cattle breeders, and we also draw attention as horse breeders with horses that have the ability to work on the ranch,” Patrícia says. “We are seeking excellence in both. Our horse program is beyond business and ranch work – it involves our family and friends around a shared passion. Our goal is to always improve horse breeding in Brazil, providing great animals for shows and ranch work. And as livestock farmers, we are committed to our mission to produce quality food with respect for animals, our community and the environment.” Their commitment shines everywhere. The vast ranch was developed for excellence, including its people, its top-class cattle and its award-winning horses that have grown a tremendous following.
“The rural lifestyle is present everywhere (in this state),” Patrícia says. “We are passionate about the horse and everything it brings us.”
That work is now honored with the AQHA International Best Remuda award. But the work must still go on. It is midday at the ranch, and the air has grown sticky. Norberto and his team have just finished checking the herds and doctoring one heifer with a cut hip. His gelding, an honest sorrel, perks his ears and then flicks them back to check on his rider, ready in case there is another job to be done. But the morning’s efforts are over. Norberto gives him a pat on the neck and turns toward home, riding through the tall, verdant grass that sets the red horse off like a jewel – one of a cache of equine gems cultivated at Gruta Azul. It is time for a short rest before the work begins again.
“It is a great honor to receive this award and to be recognized with all the other important ranches that were nominated,” Norberto says. “Everything began with a little boy’s dream, and today, with this award, it feels like my dream came true. It’s a huge motivation for us as we continue to work to be better and better. I dedicate this important award to all Brazilian Quarter Horse breeders.”