The Sterling Breeder
The Sterling Breeder
Article and photos by Abigail Boatwright for The American Quarter Horse Journal
You can’t miss Sterling Ranch from the road. From the signature Circle S brand atop the gate, on down the drive, visitors are treated to the sight of owner Rosanne Sternberg’s “Million-Dollar Paddock” full of mares that have produced top-notch competitors. Or, you might get to see the legendary $5 million sire Smart Spook hamming it up and blasting around the pasture. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch Rosanne at home. Though she spends more than half the year in Europe, where she’s originally from, she’s meticulously designed and managed the operation in Pilot Point, Texas – both the facility and the horses that it’s home to – so you’ll want to meet the National Reining Horse Association Hall of Famer in her element.
Always on the Farm
Rosanne is from East Sussex, England. From an agricultural background, her mom bred donkeys, and her family raised pedigree Angus, Hereford and Simmental cattle – as well as a closed-herd group of Friesian Holsteins. Her family’s neighbor, Bill Frith, had Quarter Horses. He was one of the first to import the breed into the UK.
During the 1980s, Rosanne wanted a horse of her own to ride around the family farm and Bill’s unflappable cutting horses made quite the impression on her.
“I’d watch him ride those Quarter Horses through our main yard where we run a lot of our big equipment, and they weren't as goofy and spooky as English horses,” Rosanne says. “I'd always kind of liked the look of them.”
Rosanne and then-husband Robert honeymooned in America, where she purchased and brought back her first western saddle. She approached Bill to buy a horse from him – ultimately selecting a foundation-bred mare. Sensing her keen interest, Bill encouraged Rosanne to see how Quarter Horses looked in competition.
At the time, Americana was the largest western horse show in Europe. The 1986 event held biannually in Germany showcased reining, cutting, working cow horse, pleasure and more.
“I went to Americana and that's when I saw cutting, cow horse and other Quarter Horse classes, and being from an agricultural background, working with cattle appealed to me,” Rosanne says. “Seeing reining performed on the right surface was incredible. I thought all of that was fantastic and I thought, ‘Hmm, I really like this Quarter Horse thing. I’d like to show in some of this.’ I told myself I’d be back in two years’ time showing at this event. ”
Rosanne furthered her education in the western disciplines with the help of clinicians Bob Loomis, Dick Pieper and several Canadian trainers who were making the rounds in Europe at that time. She started to make trips to Texas, where she learned about the Quarter Horse business from Carol Rose and other breeders. Rosanne was really interested in performance horses, and began purchasing them, successfully showing in western events around Europe. By the time Americana came back around in 1988, Rosanne was ready.
“I started being pretty successful,” Rosanne says a bit gleefully. “I had the horse Ill Be Great by that time. Cal Cooper came and showed him at Americana and won the big reining. We also won the western pleasure on another horse. I won the western riding, and we just cleaned them up.”
In subsequent years, Rosanne went on to win multiple amateur championships in reining, pleasure, horsemanship, hunter under saddle, showmanship, western riding, pleasure driving and trail. To those, she added all-around titles from the European Championship of the American Quarter Horse, and she competed on Britain’s team at several World Equestrian Games.
Once Rosanne decided to breed Quarter Horses, she knew she wanted a base in the United States. So she began keeping mares at Billy Allen’s facility in Kansas, since her sister Francesca married Billy’s son Doug Allen. Then, as her breeding program increased, Rosanne purchased a ranch in Oakdale, California, named it Horseshoe Ranch, and kept it for about seven years. However, she kept finding herself in North Texas – for major events and to sell horses at sales. Realizing a ranch in Texas really made more sense, she purchased a ranch in Pilot Point in 1999. She called the place Sterling Ranch, using the circle “S” brand her family used for their cattle back in England. In 2007, Rosanne designed her dream ranch on land adjacent to the existing ranch and moved in the following year.
When building Sterling Ranch’s current location, Rosanne studied successful operations run by horsemen she respected. She then implemented designs and equipment that make life comfortable for the horses and convenient to manage. These include slip-proof rubber flooring throughout the breeding space, to bright, airy stalls, and thoughtfully laid-out arenas and pastures. The tack room is built steps from easy-to-navigate cross-ties, for example, which are only a quick walk from the covered arena, complete with a two-story viewing area.
Developing a Sterling Program
Ebony Shines is NRHA's first $1 million mare, and Rosanne is proud to have the palomino
in her broodmare band.
Along the way, Rosanne has developed a successful breeding program, aiming to produce the best horses possible.
“My goal was to breed really good horses, so I did not have to pay lots of money to buy them from someone else,” Rosanne says, smiling. “I looked very carefully at what legendary breeders Carol Rose and Bob Loomis were doing. I listened to the theories on how to breed the right way, and combined them with my ideas from breeding cattle, which we'd done in England for years.”
Initially, Rosanne bred broodmares to outside stallions, but in 1994, a friend in Modesto, California, spotted a Grays Starlight daughter out of Gringa Sugs by Doc’s Sugs that, due to injury, wasn’t able to make it to the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity. The mare was in foal to Lenas Telesis – and she was for sale.
“I told her, though, I had not seen the mare to, ‘Get her bought,’ ” Rosanne says. “That was Sugarplum Spook.”
Sugarplum Spook’s full sister A Little Starlight became the highest-earning Grays Starlight daughter, which jumped up Rosanne’s mare’s value significantly. After breeding Sugarplum Spook a couple of times, with fairly good results, Rosanne eventually decided to breed her to some bigger-named stallions, one of which was $12 million sire Smart Chic Olena. That crossing resulted in 2001 stallion Smart Spook.
The stallion was an exceptional competitor, first winning the 2004 NRHA Futurity open championship.
“Well, that just tied it all together,” Rosanne says. “I mean, it's fantastic to own a horse that wins the Futurity, but if you've raised that horse, too, that was even better.”
Smart Spook went on to win the NRHA Derby, an AQHA world championship in junior reining, AQHA Superior in reining and three FEI Masters Championships – totaling $405,000 in earnings. He also turned out to be great as a sire. Thanks to offspring like 2014 NRHA Futurity co-champion Shine N Spook, an open reserve Futurity champion, two NRHA Non-Pro Futurity champions, an NRHA open and reserve open world champion, Smart Spook is a $5 million sire and a member of the NRHA Hall of Fame.
“We’ve built our program around Smart Spook,” Rosanne says. “He plays a very important role here.”
In 2008, Rosanne acquired Ebony Shines. She was a fan of the mare’s bloodlines, and already owned one of her colts, Shiners Chic. He is the second-highest earning son of Smart Chic Olena, bested only by another son: Smart Spook. So when the mare’s owner, Howard Mann, was dispersing his breeding business, Rosanne jumped at the chance to buy her.
Ebony Shines’ progeny include reining stars Shiners Whizard, Shine Chic Shine, Shine N Spook, Hang Ten And Shine, Smart Shiners Spook and many others. She has gone on to become NRHA’s first $1 million mare and was inducted into the NRHA Hall of Fame in 2016.
“I think Ebony Shines’ achievements kind of proved we can make it in the breeding and performance world,” Rosanne says. “I get a lot of pride out of seeing horses carry my brand – whether I own them or not – winning out there. Every horse with a Circle S brand, I actually bred myself.”
Today, Sterling Ranch stands not only Smart Spook, but also Rufanicki (Lil Ruf Peppy-Chexanicki by Bueno Chexinic), ARC Gunnabeabigstar (Gunnatrashya-Wimpys Little Chic by Wimpys Little Step) and Stepping On Sparks (Jacs Electric Spark-Mahoganys First Step by Wimpys Little Step). Rosanne aims to produce horses with clean legs, good conformation, free from genetic issues and, most of all, sound.
Rosanne firmly believes in the importance of good broodmares. She preferred to breed mares with an AQHA Superior or that had produced offspring that earned over $20,000. She’s now stepped that number up a bit, and that’s why she’s so proud of her “Million-Dollar Paddock.”
“I think if you're a breeder, you know, you've got to have some high-powered mares,” Rosanne says. “Ebony Shines is out there, Setting Off Sparks is out there; her get have earned over $600,000. She herself won nearly $100,000. Then there's her daughter Whizin Off Sparks. She's won over $100,000 herself and she’s actually the highest-earning daughter of Topsail Whiz, and her produce now I think is topping $200,000.”
Smart Spook is a testament to Rosanne's breeding and business sense.
Rosanne is not resting on her laurels. She’s constantly reviewing statistics, pedigrees and results. She’s always trying to learn and improve her own herd.
“I'm always looking at what other people are doing,” Rosanne says. “If I see that somebody does something that I think is really interesting or different or I can learn about, I am interested. You shouldn't ever have tunnel vision or be closed-minded.”
Rosanne is also giving back to the reining community. She’s a member of the NRHA executive committee and on the European Affiliates Council. NRHA Commissioner and CEO Gary Carpenter says her experience and advice has been beneficial for the association’s leadership.
“She’s provided a lot of leadership for us, both broadly with NRHA and in Europe, and she’s a very astute business person and breeder,” Gary says. “Rosanne owning million-dollar mare Ebony Shines, I put none of that down to luck. She’s fortunate to own the mare and she knows it, but she’s managed her horses and her business extremely well.”
Gary says Rosanne is helpful both as a leader and behind the scenes.
“She's the kind of person who keeps things moving forward, keeps the skids greased without making a lot of fuss or drawing attention to herself,” Gary says.
In 2018, Sterling Ranch raised 40 foals, and two years ago, added in-house trainer Shauna Larcombe. Previously, Rosanne had mainly sent horses out for training. Today, there are about two dozen horses in training at Sterling ranch under Shauna’s supervision.
“We try not to be too big and too overtly commercial,” Rosanne says. “We kind of call ourselves a boutique ranch, and we like to offer very good service to people. I’m lucky I have a really good crew working for me. We want to make this as nice a place to visit as anything you'll find around here, and run it the right way and be ethical about what we do.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of the Journal. Abigail Boatwright is a special contributor to the Journal. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas. To comment, write to email@example.com.