by Morgan Moore
Gary Kehl is a man who revels in challenge and never accepts the status quo. He’s constantly testing boundaries both in and out of the equine arena and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. His family has adopted his same competitive spirit. His daughter, Nicole, found her way to international acclaim when she became a backup singer for Rihanna, she presently sings with Iggy Azalea. Two of his sons played in the NFL — Ed played for Jacksonville Jaguars and Greenbay Packers and Bryan was drafted by the N.Y. Giants in the fourth round and then played for the St. Louis Rams and the Washington Redskins. Perhaps they acquired their competitive drives from their father.
When Gary found his way to Arabian horses the progression to the world of competition and breeding was natural for him.
This month’s small breeder feature focuses on a breeding program in transition to a larger operation. Having enjoyed national success producing only a handful of foals for years, GRK Arabians, Salt Lake City, Utah, is now expanding exponentially. This program began with a sole focus on producing great western and English horses (who have earned their fair share of roses in the most competitive arenas), but the program has shifted in the past five years to produce halter horses that can compete at a national level.
What makes your program unique?
We focus on producing halter horses by up-and-coming stallions, but always try to breed to the best horses. What makes us a unique program is that 60 to 70 percent of our non-halter horses make great performance horses due to the fact that we breed for quiet horses that can concentrate. Even our horses that don’t make top of the line performance horses find great homes with 4-H’ers or families.
How did you begin breeding horses?
We began breeding 12 years ago when we campaigned a beautiful Half-Arabian bay Paint mare GK A-Lexus (Chief Dakota Bar x Abas Ramar) that won a Scottsdale Top Ten and National Reserve Champion Western Pleasure. Now 17 years old, she’s still showing and winning — at the 2016 Youth Nationals she won with our trainer Priscilla Cluff’s daughter, Bianca. That mare inspired us to buy a Paint stallion who sired a number of high-end western horses. We still use his daughters in our program today.
What inspired you to make the switch to a focus on purebred halter horses?
I have a competitive spirit and a strong work ethic. I aim to have fun and work hard, and when I do something, I do it right. I was enticed by the beauty and the high stakes as well as the potential high payoff with the right foals.
How would you characterize your breeding strategy?
I sit down each spring with my mentor Doug Leadley (who has been with Orrion Farms for many years), and my trainer, to make decisions on which stallions we will use with which mares. We breed each mare for two foals and each stallion breeds at least two mares. This way we give every chosen cross the opportunity to succeed, and also get a feel for what each stallion brings to the table. We are expecting 16 foals in 2017 with this strategy in mind. We try to avoid inbreeding and choose lines that aren’t from the most-used lines in the industry.
Tell me about one of your foundation mares, OFW Rihanna, and how she came into your life.
When I made my first trip to Michael Byatt’s farm, in New Ulm, Texas, he brought out a filly that was absolutely beautiful and slated to show at U.S. Nationals that year. I was shocked when he said her name was OFW Rihanna. At the time, my daughter was a backup singer for Rihanna so I said, “Let’s get Rihanna to buy her,” and proceeded to reach out to Jay Brown, Rihanna’s manager. Rihanna’s team was interested, but they had a lot of other focuses at the time and just couldn’t do it at that moment.
I had asked about the filly’s price as well, but at the time it was way more than I had ever paid for a horse. After some negotiation, I decided to purchase the filly for myself on October 2, just a few weeks before nationals. Michael Byatt was already committed to another filly, but had gotten Andy Sellman to handle her for me.
I really wanted to do some promotion for her before nationals but it was just too close to the show. But then I saw this picture of Rihanna holding a bouquet of roses and an idea struck me. I reached out to Jay Brown (President of Roc Nation, Rihanna’s label) and asked if I could use the photo to promote the filly. They said I could. So, I had an 8 x 10 flyer created with Rihanna’s photo to promote OFW Rihanna, and I put it under every door at the two major horse show hotels in Tulsa. Also, I had 100 promotional DVDs made with the picture on it to give out. To this day, people still tell me that they remember that flyer with Rihanna on it.
OFW Rihanna ended up third overall and it was just her second time out. She went on to be National Reserve Champion at both U.S. and Canadian Nationals the following year. She became one of my foundation mares and we have added a few mares since that time.
How do you choose mares for your program?
The mares are the most important part. Beautiful mares produce beautiful foals. I look for beautiful mares. Two of our other core mares are out of the Russian-bred mare Crown Kapricka, one of our foundation mares who is now retired. Her daughters by Stival and Eden C have become important next steps in our breeding program.
How do you select stallions for use with your mares?
When I find a stallion I am interested in I follow that stallion’s progress and always try to go look at that stallion in person. A face is an important attribute, but we evaluate the whole horse and, as a result, many of our foals go on to brilliant main ring performance careers. Our horses are trainable and athletic, not just beautiful.
Who are your up-and-coming stars this year?
I have two yearlings showing at Scottsdale with Michael Byatt; a colt and a filly. I also have a beautiful Ever After NA colt with Sandro Pinha that is going to show at the World Cup in April.
How are your family members involved with your program today?
GRK Arabians is a family affair. My granddaughters are both 11 years old and have been showing since they were eight.
What advice do you have for someone just getting their start in the Arabian breed?
Use the most exceptional mare possible. It all depends on the mare. Save up your money and buy one exceptional mare then find someone who knows the breed and the business to advise you. For me, that person was Doug Leadley and I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to have met him. Learn your mare’s deficiencies and breed around them. Find the stallion that consistently passes the qualities that complement your mare’s deficiencies. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Do your research and your due diligence.