Building A Bridge For Breeding And Competition Success

Dec 1, 2014 - 1:15 PM

The talented, U.S.-bred horses are out there, but breeders and riders aren’t always making a connection.

Are we on the cusp of something really big happening within the sport horse industry in this country, or are we all talk and no action?

During the past few years, there’s been keen attention paid to the need for a strengthened connection between breeders and riders, from a variety of sources. I’ve talked with breeders who are anxious to sell their young horses, yet they feel like they don’t have access to a trainer or contacts who can help that process.

I get calls from riders who have been searching for their next partner for months with no success; I see trainers struggling to find and keep a talented horse in their barn, and I have sympathized with the heartbreak when that horse is sold or moved to another trainer.

I’ve heard top coaches promote the goal of not only getting the U.S. teams on the medal podium but also the dream that they do so on U.S.-bred horses. Yet rarely in these moments are any concrete actions offered as to how to build a bridge between breeders and riders. So what steps do breeders and riders need to take to move past the recognition stage and actually form mutually beneficial relationships?

Breeders need to be attending competitions as spectators—both local shows as well as large regional or national shows. Time and money are valuable resources that we’d first think of putting directly into our breeding stock or direct expenses. But staying relevant with the market trends, taking advantage of the opportunity to compare many horses in person, and creating or renewing contact with riders and trainers at shows will help you understand and connect with the market. Don’t waste the opportunity to share sales flyers on your young stock with your target demographic—the riders who are out competing.

The trend that has amazed me in recent years is the effectiveness of sales marketing through social media, primarily Facebook. But it makes sense the more I think about it. Word-of-mouth has always been one of our most effective tools for sales of horses, and today Facebook is often the way people are communicating. It’s far easier to share a link with a friend than it is to pick up the phone and make a call. I’m not saying that’s a positive trend for our development as humans, but it’s not one we can ignore when marketing.

As breeders, we need to make it easy for riders to find our horses. Our best prospect will never sell if no one knows he’s available. While I know a few breeders who do exceptional jobs marketing their sales horses, the vast majority are failing at this. Yes, I said failing. I know that is harsh, but it’s the reality. Good photos and video are essential, not optional.

At Hilltop Farm, it’s not uncommon for people to call us about a horse they feel is a potential stallion prospect. But surprisingly, in a few cases where we were seriously interested in considering the horse, we never received a video. Buyers may have the skill to look through a less-than-polished presentation or the patience to wait weeks for a video, but they shouldn’t have to. They will most often move on to the next horse that is presented well.

One Horse/One Number Is Essential

Dedicated sport horse breeders in the United States are a much smaller group than you may realize. We’re further divided by our discipline and breed affiliations. Breeders and our respective breed organizations must find creative ways to collectively unite and leverage our numbers. With that, we can then make our collective breeders’ voice heard within the national organizations.

I spoke with Ken Ball, director of horse registration and services at the U.S. Equestrian Federation, recently and he said there are currently six registries that include a USEF lifetime number with the registration of a foal—American Holsteiner Horse Association, American Hanoverian Society, Studbook Selle Français North America, Belgian Warmblood-North American District, Continental Studbook and the North American Studbook. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see all registries offer this to continue building our connection between breeding and sport records?

I cannot stress enough how critical the one horse/one number, and a corresponding database, is for breeders and riders. Right now I can look up a horse in Europe and find out not only its sport record, but also that of its parents, siblings and offspring. I can view many breeding-related records, including licensed or approved progeny, indexes for production values for certain key traits, and successful relatives.

Let’s say that horse is now in the United States. I would easily spend hours longer attempting to find the same data that I could access in minutes from Europe. It would require me to visit a minimum of four to six websites instead of one, and the data would often be incomplete or unavailable.

Riders may say this is a breeder problem, and “we don’t ride the papers.” You don’t ride the papers, but you do ride the genetics that come from that pedigree, and you ride the previous training that may be reflected in prior competition results.

Don’t you want to stack the deck in your favor and know the complete picture? Until we can get a one horse/one number and database system in place here in this country, we will always be behind the curve in our breeding and purchasing decisions.

Breeders And Riders: Have A Plan

Partnerships between breeders and trainers offer great promise, and I believe they may be one of the strongest avenues for us to pursue. Yet they’re not without their complications, and each party needs to understand what their goals for the arrangement are before entering into an agreement.

I’ve had four inquiries this year from well-established trainers competing either at a high level nationally, or even internationally. They expressed interest in partnering with a breeder for their next prospect. I loved getting these emails and was excited to share with some of the breeders I know. Yet none of the trainers expressed a clear vision of how they saw a partnership working.

Trainers want top prospects to develop, and they understandably don’t want to see that wonderful horse sold when it’s at the height of its career. Breeders love to see their offspring develop and compete, and some may be able to help support a longer-term development for a special horse, but the goal for a vast majority of breeders is to sell the offspring they breed. If they don’t sell some, they can’t breed more.

When a breeder has mostly young horses that need development, an up-and-coming professional can be an ideal fit. As a fellow breeder recently commented to me: “I follow the trainers I respect and then look to the working students and younger trainers working with them to approach. They are eager for a top prospect and are hungry to learn.”

Discuss the ultimate end goal for each party, and see if those goals match. Since we know there are no guarantees with horses, also talk about the steps if it doesn’t go as planned, and you want to end the partnership. There is no one-answer-fits-all solution here, and it will take creativity, honesty, and a lot of frank discussions up front for partnerships to be successful.

We have the raw talent in horses here within this country, but it will require an active role from both breeders and riders to solve the respective challenges each group faces in selling and finding their next partner. Let’s work together to make riding a well-trained, talented, U.S.-bred horse the first choice, and the easy choice, for any rider.


Natalie DiBerardinis grew up with horses, showing in a number of disciplines, and eventually she focused on dressage—including time as a working student for Lendon Gray. Her association with Hilltop Farm began in 1998, and she worked with Hilltop for two years before becoming the event director for the Green Mountain Horse Association. In 2007, Natalie returned to Hilltop Farm as the breeding manager and was promoted to general manager shortly after. Natalie is an active volunteer, including previously serving on the U.S. Dressage Federation Technical Delegate Committee and being a past board member and officer of multiple USDF GMOs. She is currently a board member for the Mid-Atlantic Hanoverian Breeders Association, is the chair for the AHS Inspection Review Committee, and she is on the steering committee for the newly formed U.S. Sport Horse Breeders Association.

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