The latest news regarding COVID-19 and the 2021 Mountain WorkshopsShow me more

Breeding success

Lena Hedberg starts her morning at 6:30 a.m. with a cup of joe before making her way to the barn where a pasture full of hungry horses await their morning grain. Hedberg Hall becomes an around-the-clock operation during the spring when the mares are due to foal. Lena recounts the birth of her first foal in 1985. She was wearing a white shirt, a skirt and high heels when she discovered her mare was giving birth. "I can't tell her, Hold on! Can you wait a minute so I can go change?" Lena says. "The mare won't wait for you."

Eight foals whinny as they wait for Lena Hedberg to deliver their morning grain. Lena is living every horse enthusiast’s dream as the owner of Hedberg Hall, a 221-acre thoroughbred breeding farm that has produced national and international racing champions.

Her love for horses started when she was a child in Sweden.

“The farm hands thought it would be cute if I would ride one of the work horses,” recounts Lena, 65, who was introduced to horses on her great aunt’s farm. “My little legs would stick straight out, and I would hold on for dear life.”

Lena moved to the United States in 1973 when she was 20 and studied equine science at Virginia Intermont College. She worked at the Thoroughbred Record (before it was a magazine) and exercised thoroughbreds for three years in Lexington. She purchased the farm, originally a cattle farm, in 1985 while still married.

The first foal was born at Hedberg Hall in 1985, and Lena has since witnessed dozens of foals make their entry into the world.

“I have a 100-percent rate of getting the mares back in foal, which is really rare,” Lena says. “I brag on my averages, but I’m here all the time.”

To Lena, every foal is “the one.” However, it was one lucky foal named Kantharos that put Hedberg Hall on the map in 2005. Kantharos was born from a mare given to Lena, who took the risk in breeding it. The result is the dream of every breeder: Kantharos won the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill Downs and has since sired a strong line of racehorses.

“He’s special,” she says, beaming like a proud parent.

She sells her thoroughbreds to clients in Europe, Central America and South America.

A horse-breeding farm is not a nine-to-five operation, especially during the spring when mares are expected to foal. It then becomes a round-the-clock production. Ranch hand Sam Johnson is an invaluable part of the process. His agriculture background compliments Lena’s equine knowledge, but Sam didn’t think he would last very long when he first started.

“I had never heard of someone going for an interview to work on a farm,” says Sam, recalling how he met Lena 15 years ago. His experience raising cattle and maintaining a farm has been an asset to Lena who reciprocated the favor by educating Sam in the thoroughbred industry.

“I’ve learned a lot from her,” Sam says. “She’s treated me better than anyone I’ve ever worked for.”

Lena admits that maintaining the farm isn’t as easy as it once was, but she doesn’t plan on calling it quits anytime soon.

“The question isn’t how long do I want to keep doing it. The question is how long can I do it.”

No day is the same for Lena. Whether she is mucking out stalls or repairing fence, there is always work to be done at Hedberg Hall.
Lena's love for horses evolved during her childhood in Sweden. She first came to the U.S. at the age of 20 and has lived here ever since; however, she tries to go back to Sweden to visit her family at least once a year. Her mother couldn't understand why she would want to live in Kentucky when she could live in Sweden. At one point, Lena's mother asked her, "How do you live so far away from everything?" Hedberg responded, "'Mom, you're in Rome, that's the center of archeology. I'm in Lexington – that's the center of the horse world.' She accepted that."
Lena hides a bag of treats behind her back for her colt that was for sale at Fasig-Tipton's four-day thoroughbred sale. The annual sale sells more than 1,000 thoroughbred yearlings. It is not uncommon for Lena to sell horses to clients in Central America and Europe. The morning prior to the sale, Lena shipped a horse to Sweden.
Raising thoroughbreds comes with its fair share of wins and losses. Lena frowns as a filly she bred comes in last in a race at Keeneland.
It takes a team to operate Hedberg Hall. Sam Johnson (left) and Lena can be found sitting in the doorway of the barn enjoying an Ale 8 and a nutty bar in between tasks. "Sam is a valuable part of the equation," Lena says. Sam's responsibility at the farm involves overseeing the cattle and farm maintenance, while Lena focuses her attention on the thoroughbreds, but it the two often work alongside each other to complete tasks.
Lena sticks a few marigolds in the pocket of her coveralls as she completes her morning chores.
Lena shuts the stall door after feeding one of her foals. To Lena, she believes every foal will be successful. "They are all 'the one,'" she says with a smile.
After a full day on the farm, Lena kicks back with a Bud Light Lime as she looks out on her property.