U.S. Breeders Are Optimists

Mar 9, 2015 - 11:59 AM

And they’re making progress on a number of fronts in their battle to promote horses born and bred in the USA.

There is no shortage of opinions about the state of sport horse breeding in the United States. Depending on whom you are speaking to, these range from “it’s a lost cause” to “U.S. breeders just can’t compete” to “things have never been better,” and “the best is yet to come.”

I’m firmly in the latter camp, and not just because the U.S. Sport Horse Breeders Association is now entering its second membership year after its debut in 2014. It’s because among other qualities such as incredible patience, an unyielding work ethic, steadfast commitment and old-fashioned fortitude, I have found American sport horse breeders and their supporters to be among the most optimistic and positive people I’ve ever come across.

That’s not so surprising. One has to be optimistic to maintain a commitment to an enterprise that takes so much thought, organization, time, effort, knowledge, experience—and ultimately luck. While care can be taken in making the wisest possible choices in the selection of mares and stallions, in the end, breeding is all about optimism—that after weeks or even years of planning, one or more breeding cycles during which insemination takes place one way or another, and then another year of gestation, the result will be an uncomplicated delivery and a healthy foal. Every foal embodies the hopes and dreams of a breeder. That optimism makes this long journey a worthwhile one.

And optimism, combined with a “can-do” attitude, has always solved our nation’s problems and is at the heart of our national character. American breeders face many challenges, but with creativity, ingenuity and optimism they have always managed to find solutions, and that trend is continuing.

The USSHBA itself is one of these solutions, offering breeders the opportunity to support each other and express their views about issues that they consider important, to share knowledge gained through years of experience, and to promote a wider appreciation for the success of American-bred horses across national and international equestrian sport disciplines.

Part Of The ID Solution

The importance of developing a universally accepted system of verifiable horse identification has been heavily discussed in recent years and is an issue of particular interest to breeders.

The USSHBA last year took the lead in calling on the U.S. Equestrian Federation to establish a task force charged with examining ID verification issues and the state of the USEF’s horse recording database. The USEF’s Horse Recording and ID Task Force was convened in July of 2014, and as USSHBA president, I was invited to serve on this committee, which is chaired by this year’s USEF Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Judith Werner, from the Saddlebred industry. It also includes two other members of the sport horse breeding community, Judy Hedreen and Summer Day Stoffel, ensuring that the concerns of breeders will be factored into solutions to these problems.

In the meantime, a start has been made, as the USEF board of directors approved updated and clarified text of GR 1101 and 1102 regarding horse identification numbers and horse recordings during the annual meeting in January. The process of obtaining identification numbers from the Federation and using these numbers or breed/discipline numbers for competition purposes is now more clearly defined. This is, of course, only a first step, but it’s an important one in the right direction, and the work of the Horse Recording and ID Task Force in tackling this multi-faceted issue will continue in the upcoming months.

Promoting Young Horse Competitions

Many sport horse breeders and young horse trainers have struggled with finding ways to gain exposure for young horses in age-appropriate competition settings. The Spy Coast Farm Young Horse Show Series, launched in 2010, was one solution developed by organizer Jean-Yves Tola.

The USSHBA has been pleased to promote these events, geared toward providing, as the young horse website says, “sport horse breeders, as well as owners, trainers and riders of all disciplines an affordable show venue to introduce and evaluate their young horses to the show environment and ‘put on necessary mileage’ with appropriate and special classes suitable to the proper development of young horses.”

The popularity of these shows has increased year by year. The first Spy Coast Young Horse Show of 2015, to be presented by Sakura Hill at Cav-i Farm in Ocala, Fla., will be held on March 9-10, expanding to two days after a sell-out last year.

Ensuring an appropriate development track for young horses with access to good training has been a concern of breeders for quite some time. At Maplewood Farm in Reno, Nev., Linda Allen, Julie Winkel and Jose Alejos have held several sessions of their Young Horse Trainer School, an effort brought to the East Coast last June for the first time by DiAnn Langer in Johnson, S.C.

The six-day Young Horse Trainer clinics are designed to educate those who wish to learn more about a range of training techniques used to teach young horses about everything from “early work to competition level.” USSHBA members were offered a discounted clinic fee, and USSHBA was pleased to encourage and support this effort and more like it in the future.

Always Innovating

Wherever there is a perceived need, American breeders and organizers have responded in ways uniquely suited to their circumstances. In hunter breeding, with support from breeders, young horse enthusiasts and the USEF, the Sallie B. Wheeler U.S. National Hunter Breeding Championships have become an annual celebration of predominantly American-bred youngsters.

The International Hunter and International Jumper Futurities and the Young Jumper Championships as well as the U.S. Eventing Association’s Future Event Horse and Young Event Horse series and U.S. Dressage Federation’s Breeder’s Championship Series have all provided American breeders and those who enjoy developing young horses with worthy goals that are developmentally appropriate for a particular segment of young horses.

Opportunity gaps still exist, however, especially for hunters in making the transition from a green prospect to a “made” level of development at which they are marketable and competitive in the big rings. Will the new rules allowing jumper mileage be the right solution? It will take time to determine whether this will have the desired effect, or whether there might be unintended consequences stemming from not simply leveling the playing field, but also raising it in the process.

Our American system of horse showing has created a huge marketplace where experienced horses offering the promise of instant gratification are highly sought after.

It’s been a far less friendly market for developing horses. All healthy foals are born ready to run, but they face several years of growth and thoughtful training before they’re ready to step into a show ring and perform at the upper levels of any given discipline. With the help of the USSHBA, the breeding community is working to shift the culture of the marketplace toward a wider appreciation for young horse development by highlighting the many less-instant but unparalleled rewards along the journey of transforming nice young prospects into made competition horses and in making the success of domestically produced horses more widely known.

I’m optimistic that American breeders and those who support them will continue to respond with creative solutions to these and any other challenges they face. The best of American sport horse breeding is yet to come.


Mary O’Connor has been a trainer and ‘r’ U.S. Equestrian Federation licensed judge for more than 20 years. She is a U.S. Hunter Jumper Association certified trainer, has served on USEF and USHJA committees, and is a founding member and current president of the U.S. Sport Horse Breeders Association.

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