Horseman’s Forum: American Breeders Face Many Challenges

Dec 21, 2017 - 11:50 AM
Maryanna and Wendell Haymon (left) have been breeding horses in the United States for almost 30 years. Licensed stallion Debonair MF (Doctor Wendell MF—EM Rising Star MF, Rotspon), shown here with Hilltop Farm head trainer Michael Bragdell, is the offspring of two generations of the Haymons’ Grand Prix stallions. Photo courtesty of Maryanna Haymon.

Education for those who create horses and those who want them will benefit everyone.

The breeders in America face many challenges in producing their horses. Marketing, training and raising costs are just the tip of the iceberg.

The highs of the vocation are spectacular—watching the ultrasound to see a fertilized embryo, the birth and the first time that foal stands and nurses, the first time outside when you see the gaits and the wonder of life, the first time under saddle showing the potential for the future, seeing one of your homebreds do well in the show ring.

The lows, well they are devastating. No pregnancy after thousands of dollars trying, a difficult pregnancy, a deformed foal at birth, a stillborn, a pasture accident that results in a career-ending injury or even euthanasia. Worse still, the loss of a beloved mare that most breeders consider one of their family.

Breeders are an emotional group of dedicated and focused people with a love of the horse. To most of us, hobby or business breeders, these animals are our “children” and “grandchildren.” After all, don’t we play at being God when we choose the mare and stallion and create another living being? Those horses did not have any input as to whether they wanted to mate.

I consider myself a fairly successful breeder but not so good at marketing and selling. I recognize that many U.S. breeders are in the same position.

In 2008, the entire economy suffered a deep setback. This affected people worldwide. How it was felt in the breeding community was that people were no longer willing to part with discretionary income, and horse sales, especially those of young horses and foals, plummeted. The recovery in 2011 was slow; the average buyer was no longer willing to take the risk of buying foals, speculating on potential. They now wanted a 3- or 4-year-old going under saddle so they could feel what they were buying. By 2014, a 3-year-old was no longer enough; buyers wanted a show record or even a 5-year-old with a change.

The Missing Link

This added another expense to breeders; they now needed to either start and show the horse themselves or hire someone to do it for them. The one thing that both breeders and buyers do agree on is that there is a missing link in America: the affordable and competent young horse trainer.

Most breeders can find someone to start the youngster, to put a saddle on and ride three gaits well in 60 to 90 days. After that period, a trainer needs to be engaged to continue the education of the 3- or 4-year-old. This is the person who breeders find difficult to locate and to afford.

Many of us would like to support our up-and-coming young
riders. However,
the goal is to market
and sell the horse. If
the rider is young, unknown and just starting out, then
it’s very likely they
don’t have the type of
contacts that would assist in the sale. What starts out as the breeder hoping to sell the horse within three to six months becomes a year or longer. More money is invested in the youngster that is unlikely to be recouped at the time of the sale.

Now I know there will be an outcry from several of these young trainers saying they are available and will work a deal with the breeder. Thinking outside the box may work for some—such as a trainer not getting paid for the training but getting a higher commission, partnerships where the breeder pays for board and the rider trains the horse, or working to earn ownership. These options are fine as long as everyone knows their responsibilities and does their part. A written contract that details who pays for the veterinarian, farrier, shows, insurance, shipping and show expenses needs to be executed at the very beginning.

But I can tell you right now if you are a trainer and want to work with a breeder using some of the ideas above, then you have to know that if you are located in South Florida, Long Island, Chicago or Southern California, the board costs alone will be beyond what is reasonable to a breeder.

Know Your Market

In the United States, there are two distinct markets: the adult amateur and the top professional. Most American breeders are targeting the AA market. For this market, there are several things that can make or break a sale.

If you are thinking of breeding your mare because you were told that breeding her would help make her temperament more tractable: Stop! This never happens. If you can’t handle or ride your mare, that is not going to change, and it is highly likely that you have produced another intractable horse. This is the same for a chronically lame performance mare. Chances are high that you will get a duplicate of what you already have. A stallion can’t work miracles.

Breeders must be realistic about horses they are selling. If a foal, then three correct gaits are imperative. So many hobby breeders can’t tell that a canter or walk is lateral, but your potential buyer can. Horses that have contact problems or bending issues can’t be sold as doing third level work.

A high-quality video with good lighting is important. Bathe and braid your horse, even a foal, if possible. First impressions matter. Slow motion is a turnoff for many buyers, as it makes a very ordinary mover look better than it is. It is helpful to make a current video after speaking to a potential buyer to provide what they are looking for the first time.

A good Facebook page or website is helpful. Good conformation photos are necessary. Know how to stand the horse, even a foal, for the best observation of the legs and overall topline. Work with the foal so that handling the feet, leading and showing the foal can be done safely.

Do the research and have a competitive price for the quality you are selling. Remember you may need to pay a commission to the trainer.

A breeder must develop a thick skin, as many comments will be made that are derogatory to their horse, either in an attempt to lower the price or to simply make the buyer feel like they know more than they do. Then, to add insult to injury, a buyer will take a video of the horse and post it on social media asking for input from the “armchair” experts who may have never bred a quality horse, taken a conformation course, or ridden past training level. Then that poor horse is critiqued to the point where the breeders can’t recognize their own animals.

Can We Do It In America?

Over the course of many conversations with my fellow breeders around the country, we were deeply disheartened this fall hearing about two of our sport’s top athletes acquiring foals from auctions in Europe. The question is why?

American breeders have been producing top quality animals here in the States for years. It is not just hyperbole or barn blindness, as so many riders believe. This is from the same European inspectors who select the foals and riding horses for the elite auctions in Germany and the Netherlands. We, as breeders, are told repeatedly that based on percentage of numbers that are produced in these countries, that America produces more top quality foals than their counterparts in Europe.

But some of the issues I see in the United States and Canada are unique to the breeders here. What we in America face is an obstacle that we cannot surmount by even the best marketing: distance.

Breeders are spread over many states and even great distances within states. Most times when looking for a specific type, age, gender or level of training, a buyer has to travel hours to see a single prospect. In Europe, they can see several options within a short time, and travel is easier. The shopping trip becomes an equestrian adventure and comes with the bragging rights of saying your horse is imported.

But one of the drawbacks to importing is the actual travel costs for the horse can run over $10,000, more if it’s a mare or stallion age 2 or older.

There is also the risk of a turbulent plane ride, which may frighten the horse and create physical and mental issues that did not exist before the trip. On my last trip with one of my mares, the turbulence was extreme, and the wind shear on landing pushed the tail of the plane sideways. All the horses on board were terrified.

I knew this because I was there in the crates with my horse, and I knew when she came to my farm that a bit of patience would be required for trailering. If you do not fly with your horse, how would you know this? So that $10,000 would have bought more horse in the USA without the risk of air travel.

Another issue for breeders is the costs involved with producing a foal, raising it, and then getting that horse started properly and marketed. It is far more expensive here in the United States than in Europe for veterinarians, hay, grain, showing and training.

Most foals cost breeders in the USA around $10,000 to $12,000 to produce at age 6 months. The same foal in Europe probably cost around 4,000 euro or $4,800. But remember the import costs will add about $10,000 to that, and you are at more than the price of a foal with nearly identical bloodlines in the United States without the risks involved.

An American-bred horse at age 4 in my area will have had about $20,000 invested in it: breeding expenses, veterinary care for a healthy animal, farrier, hay and grain—not counting property mainte- nance costs for fencing, barn, shavings and either the breeder or hired labor. Then add the average $1,500 per month of training, as most breeders no longer ride, and you have $38,000 invested.

Here are some of the current ads on the internet: “ISO bomb proof FEI quality horse that can be ridden on trails and jumped a bit. Must have clean X-rays available, be at least 16.2 hands, gelding only, no mares, within 100 miles of my area, no younger than 5 and under age 9, budget is $12,000 and must be black!”

“ISO stallion prospect FEI quality colt, budget $10,000. Budget includes vetting and transportation, so the colt should be priced at $8,000.”

These ads show how unrealistic expectations of buyers can frustrate the breeder.

“I Give Up”

In my conversations with breeders who have bred and produced winning Grand Prix horses, the consensus is “I give up.” These breeders have invested hundreds of thousands into producing an FEI horse and managing it up the levels to Grand Prix. Then, when they try to sell that sound competitive athlete for what they have invested in it, they are told they are unrealistically over- priced and over-represent their horse’s quality.

I was in this situation myself. For two years I tried to market Doctor Wendell MF to the American FEI market with no success. At one point, I was tied up for three months with a particular owner whose veterinarian inspected the horse several times, required we use her farrier, and provide multiple radio- graphs that they took, which I paid for and on which nothing was found.

LMS_5857WEB
Maryanna Haymon bred Doctor Wendell MF and had U.S. professionals like Jim Koford (pictured) bring him up the levels to Grand Prix, but she sold him in Europe because she couldn’t get a fair price in the United States. Photo by Lisa Slade.

I also did my due diligence and had one of the top veterinary clinics in the country X-ray the horse for my own peace of mind. All this added up, so that in the end the price I was asking at the beginning was now $25,000 in the red to me, and that did not include the commission. The story goes on with other trainers and riders here in the USA trying him and a great deal many more twists until it came to a point that we realized that we could not sell our stallion for a fair price in the United States.

So we sent “Doc” to Europe to a very good American rider who lives in Germany. Once they had a couple of weeks together, it was obvious they could make a great team pairing. I tried to find a sponsor or get a syndicate together for this pair—American rider, American-bred horse—to compete in Europe. Still a no go. Once we made our horse available for purchase to the public in Europe, he sold to the first person to come see him. I received what I was asking for him, but with several commissions tacked on, he sold for a significant amount over that.

My horse was not the first, nor will he be the last that is sent to Europe to be sold because American buyers and trainers do not want American-bred horses. As one of my colleagues told me, “It is hard to compete with a free vacation where the trainer earns a commission as well.”

American equestrians—breeders, owners, riders and trainers—need to be educated as to the realistic expectations of each other. Respect the requirements of each, and then perhaps we could connect to each other better. Give each other a fair chance to present the horse and evaluate it without trying to undermine the other party.

For trainers and riders, there are breeders located near show venues. Take a few minutes to visit one of them and see what they have to offer. Ask about siblings that are older and competing. That will give you a more comprehensive idea of what the young horse could be.

Ask some of the breed show and FEI young horse judges, many of whom were breeders at one time in their careers and now are international riders themselves, about what they have seen. This is another good research tool that does not seem to be used by buyers. Breeders need to communicate honestly and fairly. Be prepared to show your horse groomed and well ridden or handled. If under saddle, I recommend having baseline films on your horse so there are no surprises for either party.

I also believe breeders need to know what riders are expecting from the horses they ride. Go to the shows. Watch how a good half-pass is done, what a great walk looks like, and how an environment can affect the mind of your horse. The internet is not accurate for this. Video lies, not deliberately, but by its very nature.

It is past time that our American-bred horses get the credit they deserve. Education of both breeders and riders, respect for each other, and communication are key to our future.

Maryanna Haymon

Maryanna Haymon and her husband Wendell Haymon started breeding warmblood horses in 1990. Starting in Georgia, the couple moved to Columbus, N.C., in 1997 and opened Marydell Farm. A dressage rider herself, Maryanna wanted to breed amateur- friendly but internationally competitive horses. She studied bloodlines and visited Germany to enhance her education. The couple acquired the stallion Don Principe (Donnerhall—Prince Thatch xx, Duerkheim)

in 2003 from Germany. Since then, Marydell Farm has produced numerous Fédération Equestre Internationale dressage horses, as well as regional and national champions. The Haymons have also bred a number of elite and premium mares, as well as three licensed stallions—Doctor Wendell MF, David Bowie MF and now a third generation, Debonair MF. In 2017, homebred Danae MF (Doctor Wendell MF—EM Rising Star MF, Rotspon) won the grand championship at the Dressage At Devon (Pa.) breed show.

IN THE FORUM, horseman are invited to express their views and offer constructive criticism on any topic relevant to working with and enjoying horses. The opinions expressed by the writers are entirely their own and not necessarily those of The Chronicle of the Horse.

This is a Horseman’s Forum by Maryanna Haymon, which originally appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.

For more great content, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked

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