It’s Not The Hunter Breeding Division That’s Broken

Jan 30, 2011 - 12:37 PM
Many hunter breeding winners disappear from the national spotlight after they turn 4. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

These young horses can and do go on to the performance divisions, but the pathway is challenging.

Each year, hundreds of young horses show in the hunter breeding division, earning blue ribbons and national honors. But where do they go when they turn 4 and have finished showing on the line?

The U.S. Equestrian Federation rules state that “Breeding classes are judged on conformation, way of moving, quality, substance, soundness and suitability to become hunters.” But the horses winning the top accolades of the hunter breeding division aren’t the ones winning the top ribbons in the upper echelons of the performance divisions. What’s gone wrong?

Experts in the hunter breeding divisions acknowledge that there is a disconnect between the hunter breeding division and the performance divisions. “It’s a big subject of conversation with the breeding people,” said Ray Francis, the chair of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Hunter Breeding Task Force. “They’re always looking for better ways to sell horses. A lot of people talk, but no one has come up with anything concrete.”

Francis and others also insist that it’s absolutely not a problem with the quality of horse that the breeders are producing and the handlers showing. It’s a breakdown in the system that keeps them from moving from high-profile hunter breeding winners to high-profile performance winners.

There are many facets to the gap between hunter breeding and performance. One is that the prominent hunter trainers don’t look to the American-bred hunter breeding divisions for prospects before heading to Europe to shop. Another is that the majority of owners in the hunter breeding division are amateurs and develop their horses for themselves rather than for the high-profile professional divisions.

Perhaps the most significant is that lots of hunter breeding horses get lost in the system if new owners change their name, so it’s impossible to match their results on the line with their résumé over fences.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I just know what the problem is, and it’s not the quality of the horses,” said Laurie Pitts, who partners with handler Junior Johnson in Junior Johnson Training and Sales, specializing in young horses in Chesterfield, Va. “I don’t think there’s any basis for a definitive statement of, ‘Yes, they do go on and do great,’ or ‘No, they don’t go on and do well.’ I don’t think anyone really knows.”

It’s Hard To Find Buyers

If each year dozens of 4-year-olds graduate from the hunter breeding division, why are they not prime candidates for sales to hunter trainers?

Breeders do aim to produce athletes who will show over fences, not just stand and look pretty. “I don’t think winning in the hunter breeding is an end to itself. I see people talking all the time about how breeders breed just for the hunter breeding, but I don’t know anyone who does that,” said Jill Burnell of Petaluma, Calif. Her Gray Fox Farm was second in the 2010 U.S. Equestrian Federation leading hunter breeding breeder standings. “I know for me, I think about performance first, but I do want a beautiful horse.”

The problem isn’t in the horses being bred, it’s with the dynamics of the horse show system.

“The number of people who are going to buy young horses from the breeding division is limited, because everyone wants instant success,” said Francis, of Bedminster, Pa. “They want to buy something and be winning at the horse show the next week. Some trainers will buy young horses for their clients, but not too many, because they make their money going horse showing. If it’s not going horse showing, it’s not bringing in money, and it’s not worth their bother.”

Pitts agreed. “The professionals in this country won’t buy yearlings and 2-year-olds,” she said. “They want a horse that can go in the ring with very little modification and jump around immediately. And there aren’t enough people who know how to start young horses and get them shown. We don’t have the assistant trainers who stay at home with students and go to smaller shows anymore. We don’t have the professionals who specialize in young horses anymore.”

If a trainer goes to Europe to shop for prospects, he can see dozens of 3- and 4-year-olds in a small area, presented by dealers and agents who make it their business to sell effectively. To find a young horse in the United States, a trainer has to contact and visit individual breeders or owners.

“The trainers buy from Europe because it’s been easier for them. But I think that as we breed better and better hunters, and get those hunters into the right hands, they’ll start looking at more American-bred horses,” said Burnell.

Francis mentioned the concept of a centralized database or pool of American-bred young horses to enable trainers to locate prospects.

But Burnell pointed out that American breeders also need to be smart about marketing their young horses. “A lot of breeders don’t do anything with their babies, they just have them hanging around. How are you going to attract a top show buyer with a fuzzy, unmannered baby?” Burnell said. “Even the babies I have at home, they’re trimmed and blanketed, and they look perfect; they look the part. It’s hard for show people to come into a breeder situation and see past the fuzzy coats, because it’s not something they normally do.”

They Fall Off The Radar

Many times, amateurs own youngsters showing in the hunter breeding. Either the amateur has bred a favorite mare of her own, or she buys a young prospect as a future horse for herself. In a lot of those cases, the horse is destined not for the professional divisions and biggest shows but for the adult amateur divisions and a life of making his owner happy.

“The owner’s goal might be to do the 3′ division. It doesn’t mean that the horse couldn’t go on, it’s just that that’s who ended up buying him,” said Burnell.

“I do think they make it to the ring in a lot of cases, but I don’t necessarily think it’s in a division that’s particularly noticeable,” said Pitts. “Some do fall by the wayside, probably for financial reasons more than anything. Lots of these people buy a young horse because they can’t afford a made horse, and they have to bring it along as best they can. At whatever age it’s ready to get to the 3’6″ classes, it’s long off the hunter breeding radar. And a lot of times, it has a different name.”

Burnell said that she makes an effort to track her babies, but when they’re sold, people sometimes change their names. “It’s so much easier to get them a new USEF number than switching the name [with USEF],” she said. “I don’t know that they’re not getting into the performance; I just think it’s really hard to track.”

The International Hunter Futurity has proven to be an excellent tool for breeders to showcase their young horses, and many horses who won on the line go on to win in the IHF. Leslie Nelson’s Wow was the USEF national horse of the year as a 2-year-old showing on the line in 2008 and then won the 4-year-old grand championship in the IHF West Coast Regional in 2010.

Pitts thinks that the ideal way to prepare a young hunter is in the hunter breeding division, then in the IHF. “Every horse that comes in the barn we try to get to the IHF and through the 3- and 4-year-old divisions. The way we do it, with very little training and jumping, they’re fine. But we can’t force the owners to do these things. If they want to take them home and do other things with them, then that’s their prerogative.”

It’s Good For The Résumé

Showing in the hunter breeding division isn’t all about winning. For many breeders and owners, the maturity and experience a young horse gains showing on the line is invaluable.

Going to shows teaches babies how to trailer well, how to adjust to the hectic competition environment and how to have good ground manners. It gives them an excellent base of experience that makes transitioning to a performance career easy.

“I have two or three young horses bred by Spy Coast Farm every year. They’re nice horses, and they win their share,” said Francis. “But [Spy Coast owner] Lisa Lourie says she really doesn’t care what they win, because they learn so much as babies going to the breeding shows that it stands them in good stead later in life. The difference between a young horse who’s been showing on the line as a yearling and a 2-year-old versus one that hasn’t been off the farm is huge. They don’t get scared of a tractor, and they know what they’re doing.”

Showing in the breeding divisions is also good public relations for a breeder. “Most of the breeders just want to breed something that’s going to go on and be saleable. If it wins at Devon, it’s more saleable. It means it’s proven that it’s a nice horse with a good attitude and a good mover,” said Francis.

Burnell purposely kept a few foals from each of her first foal crops five and six years ago so that they could show on the line and promote her stallions. “I needed them to get out and be seen,” she said. “The hunter breeding division is a great way to showcase my beautiful babies with great temperaments that move really well, and I don’t want to wait three or four years to show them off.”

But having offspring represent a breeding program well is important over fences, too. If a stallion consistently produces great horses, trainers are going to start looking for his offspring.

“I was looking through a bunch of shows for names, and there were a lot of Rio Grande babies at all different shows,” said Burnell. “People look for Rio Grande offspring because he’s been so successful. Those people could have gone to Europe and bought something, but they bought Rio Grandes. I think you need to look to sell your babies to somebody who will get them into a good program and into the ring. The more you get your offspring into those kinds of hands, the more they’ll be looking.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “It’s Not The Hunter Breeding Division That’s Broken” ran in the Jan. 31, 2011, Hunter Breeding issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Breeding

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