What Makes A Horse Special?

Feb 4, 2013 - 1:23 PM

It’s easy to get dazzled by an Olympic medalist or a World Champion young horse, but figuring out the traits that produced such a spectacular animal is the real challenge.

Whether it’s the Olympic Games or stallion testings and auctions in Europe, we have more opportunities than ever to view the crème de la crème of the dressage world thanks to the Internet.

And while I’d argue that more exposure is never a bad thing, we have to be careful in what lessons we take away from easy access to the top horses in the world.

Let’s start with the top two Grand Prix horses from the past few years: Totilas and Valegro.

You certainly can’t look at body type and say, “That’s the new top dressage horse.” The body type of Valegro, our new champion, versus Totilas is very different. One’s a little bit more square and a bit more stout, while the other is very, very leggy and light.

It’s the energy combined with the athleticism and rideability in those horses that make them special. At that level, it’s difficult to say, “I want to breed for that,” because there’s a unique ingredient in those individuals. Rare individuals, no matter how you try to breed, are going to show up, but I think trying to breed for that is the wrong way of approaching breeding.

You have to look at the whole picture. If you just focus on the athleticism, you could end up getting a mixture of things that are unpredictable, a horse with crazy nerves. Something that’s absolutely unique to me about Totilas is that the horse consistently went from top, top performance, just brilliant, to completely relaxed and standing on the buckle.

Our sport has improved. It requires this athleticism, this energy. This way of moving has changed over the last decade, and that’s something we want to try to breed for. You want a horse with a bit of activity, what I call a good hock and knee diagonal rhythm. It’s not snappy like a Thoroughbred or a quick breakover. You need fluidity and suppleness in that kind of movement.

That’s something that many of these horses are not born with, and it comes with age and education. We don’t want these big, slow moving, heavy horses on which you cannot control the tempo. Some of these big movers sell as foals and yearlings and 2-year-olds, and people say, “Oh my gosh, did you see the trot on that horse? Wow, he’s such a big mover and floating across the ground.” But half the time they don’t make a half-halt. So they’re big and impressive, but you can’t ride them easily.

You can educate yourself to get an idea for this. How does that horse naturally move, without influence from the rider? Look at simple transitions. If the tail is straight in the air, and it’s flying around the ring, that gives you a small piece of information. That’s tension flying around. And some people “ooh” and “ahh” over that, but that’s something you can’t ride.

The athleticism we need in these horses must be rideable, so we have to educate our eyes to understand how those mechanics work together. That’s where you have to keep the overall goal in mind. If you pick a horse with super energy but you can’t work with the energy because he’s always trying to flee and get out of things, chances are he’s not going to become a Totilas.

What About The Amateurs?

I hear all the time that breeders have to choose between breeding for the ultimate athlete or breeding for amateur clientele. It’s true that most of the top horses at the Olympic level with that much athleticism weren’t amateur horses when they were younger.

No matter our breeding choices, we’re not going to get a magic formula that will consistently produce one of these superstars. You might get lucky, but you’re probably going to get a spectrum of horses, many of which will be good for amateurs.

If you breed for athleticism, energy and brain, you’re going to get some that are too spirited and too spunky. Hopefully they turn out for the professional down the road.

But there’s really nothing more important than character and work ethic. I don’t think we’re putting enough emphasis on that across the board. Without character and work ethic, it’s a pretty difficult task.

Ask yourself: What is that horse’s natural tendency—his balance, self-carriage and suppleness in nature? How is the transition from the trot to the walk? Does the hind leg want to be under? When the horse takes off from a standstill up into the trot, is it an uphill transition? The movement often develops with training, but you can still see early on a degree of the nature of how the horse moves.

It’s going to be the rare horse that stands out at the international level because the requirements have gotten so extreme. But to do that job well you need intelligence in the horse, energy in the horse by nature and a certain way of moving with a natural inclination for balance and elasticity. Then the rest of the things fall into place.

As a breeder, I need to educate my eyes so I can determine the movement, intelligence and athleticism that works for me. That should lead me in my breeding choices to try to breed the ultimate athlete.

Find The Trend That Fits You

The breeders take the biggest brunt for the economics of the sport, and I feel for them because they carry the risks. If you breed 10 mares, you hope the odds work out, and you get a large group of offspring that are quite good. But you know you’ll get a few that aren’t. That’s just the way the odds work. You might even lose one along the way, and that’s a huge investment financially and emotionally.

So you have to make economic choices at some point, and here’s where the ability to see the top young stallions around the world from the comfort of your living room can cause trouble. If a breeder puts a foal on the ground by the hottest trend on the planet, then that foal will likely attract a few phone calls. Everybody’s talking about that stallion because you can see him live on the Internet and go to online forums and discuss him.

But sometimes those stallions don’t have any offspring under saddle yet. So the breeder is caught between trend and horsemanship. I may have a stallion’s name in mind that is very proven but not in fashion anymore. No one is going to pick up the phone and call me because nobody’s talking about this stallion anymore. Yet in my heart, I know he would really work for my mare. Unfortunately, that’s modern times. It’s a fashion game with a heck of a lot of risk.

How can we think we know something about a stallion before we see offspring? Yet these young superstars breed 500 mares because that’s what everybody wants. I want to have the first son of this new line because that’s what’s going to sell.

The gene pool is becoming smaller and smaller. Where does this all end up? I’m not quite sure. Do I like it? No. Is it financially successful? Absolutely. What’s the downfall? I think we’re going to be finding out over the next 10 years.

There’s no stopping it. The Internet’s not going to stop. The availability of information to watch these superstars from Europe makes you buy the frozen semen, so that’s not going to stop. The breed associations aren’t going to limit breedings to 20 mares to these superstars so they don’t break down and turn into sex machines and put out some bad traits that we won’t know about until we put a lot of foals on the ground. They want the superstar. They need it to be competitive with the other breed associations. Nobody is going to regulate it.

We’re going to allow these young superstars to get all the mares in the world and hope they’re good producers. One former superstar produced an incredible number of cribbers. I’m not going to mention names, but it was too late when they found out. You’re talking about a couple of thousand offspring on the ground, and a large percentage were cribbers.

Then we have the older stallion that was once trendy and bred a couple thousand mares when he was super hot. Now those horses are being ridden, and they’re really quite nice. But maybe no one is talking about him anymore because his foals weren’t that great. But when they start riding these horses they’re amazing. We start seeing them in the sport, doing the young horse classes and Prix St. Georges. We go, “Oh my gosh. That horse was a trend for two or three years but then he fell off.” Now the offspring are good, but nobody is talking about him because he’s not trendy anymore.

Now The Research Begins

It’s a hard thing for the breeders because there’s not enough information, and they’re really teased by marketing, trend and conversation.

So what can you learn from these hot, trendy stallions?

We have to examine why they are successful, just like the top dressage horses. The “why” questions will make me understand my horse better, which in turn will help me make a better stallion choice.

Why did that stallion become so successful? Look at the ingredients, the pedigree of that horse. You start to realize you understand that ingredient a little bit more. Where did the movement come from? The balance? The rideability? The energy?

Then you have to say, “So my mare is really good at X. The energy part is good, but the rideability part not so much.” Then you have to pick a stallion with good rideability.

In the end it comes back to trying to keep things as simple as possible and realizing there is no magic formula to make something work. The best thing is good education and horsemanship, and you need more than just sitting on the Internet and watching superstars. That only tells you the eye appeal of what is trendy.

You have to take the next step and ask, “OK, what made that possible?” It’s not, “I want to breed to that fantastic mover because I’m going to get that.” That’s not the formula. You have to examine what made that happen in that horse.

Look at the pedigree. Understand it. Look at the information available. That’s when you go on the Internet and start doing research. What did that stallion give to this? What did that motherline provide?

You’ve got to look at the simple factors of a dressage horse. They must have a certain degree of character, work ethic, energy and then athleticism that includes balance, suppleness and natural self-carriage. You start taking that apart, and then you figure out in your horsemanship how that fits into your program.

Not every trend fits your program, but there are enough trends out there that you can pick from among them. You can take the superstar Dutch horse or the superstar Oldenburg or the superstar Hanoverian. In the end, they’re each coming up with their own star. That’s marketing.

Examine those superstars and break down what made them. Do those characteristics fit into my program? Does that mix or combine with what I’ve got?

And then it’s called the lottery. Try to make your lottery game as good as possible, because, as we know, if it was that easy, we would all be breeding superstars. We’re dealing with nature here, but I think that’s an educated way of looking at things.


Scott Hassler, the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Young Horse Dressage Coach, resides in Chesapeake City, Md., and has trained many horses to Grand Prix. A member of the USEF Dressage Committee, Breeders Committee and Young Horse Steering Committee as well as the U.S. Dressage Federation Sport Horse Committee, he helped establish the sport/breeding record-keeping system now active in the USDF and USEF. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2005.

If you’re a Chronicle subscriber, you can log into www.coth.com and read all of the Between Rounds columns that were printed from 2010 to present.

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