Barbara Funk Is A Breeder With A Plan

Mar 11, 2010 - 10:00 PM
Barbara Funk's promising weanling Eden (UB40-Angelica, Rousseau), a granddaughter of Funk's foundation mare, Ixia, is already taking top honors in dressage sport horse breeding classes. Photo by Carolynn Bunch.

She has made a study of dressage sport horse breeding, but her involvement in the equestrian community reaches far beyond reproduction.

Barbara Funk falls into an enviable group of individuals lucky enough to do what they love for a living. Her résumé reads more like a book, with job titles ranging from dressage sport horse breeding judge to tax practitioner, but somehow the Battle Ground, Wash., resident has managed to tie everything she does back to horses.

Born into a horse-loving family, Funk grew up immersed in everything equine. She dabbled in gymkhana, competitive trail riding, reining, cutting and eventing, but when she left home to study equine science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo she discovered her calling in dressage. At the time, she wasn’t reaching the level of success she desired in eventing due to mediocre dressage scores. Once she shifted her focus toward strengthening her dressage, however, Barbara never looked back.

“What drew me to dressage is the fact that it was a humane training method and a basis for almost all other disciplines,” said Funk, now 57. “It’s a methodological system of training that makes sense. You end up with a very nice riding horse in the end.”

Since Funk first transformed her opinionated Appaloosa event horse into a lovely dressage mount, she’s made a study of producing quality dressage horses. While she no longer rides, her extensive experience in the Netherlands and guidance from such individuals as Gerard Vervoorn and the late Gert van der Veen and Rob van Overbeek have made her a go-to resource on Dutch pedigree and conformation.

“Barb is quite generous with her knowledge, encouragement and support in a tough industry,” said Jessica Wisdom, who has helped train Funk’s young horses for eight years. “She has the amazing ability to look at a horse’s conformation for breeding and know exactly what works and does not work.”

In partnership with her husband, Russell, Funk manages her Dutch Warmblood breeding program from their modest Dove Creek Farm. The couple met hanging off the side of a cliff while volunteering in the San Luis Obispo Search and Rescue unit. Russell was so smitten with Barbara, he bought a horse just so he could ride with her, and in return she gave him two goats she wanted to be rid of. Funk ended up with the goats anyway after she and Russell married but knows it was worth the trouble.

“Russ supports me 100 percent in what I do,” she said. “I couldn’t do it all if it weren’t for him. He takes care of the horses when I’m away from home and does it without a grumble.”

Russell and Barbara care for six horses and their only child, an 8-year-old Fox terrier who, like most of Funk’s animals, came from the Netherlands. Also on the farm are the offices for Funk’s Battle Ground Tax Service. To fund her expensive equine pastime, Barbara works a day job as a federally authorized tax practitioner catering to clients with ties to the horse industry such as farriers, veterinarians, feed store and tack shop owners—even the occasional horse logger.

Running her business from home helps her balance everything she does. After all, she’s also a licensed technical delegate, breeding judge, Washington State University Extension small farm advisor, U.S. Equestrian Federation fed rep, and is on the Members Committee of the KWPN North America. Furthermore, she is heavily involved in equine welfare issues regionally and nationally.

Her biggest commitment, however, is to her breeding program. “Breeding is my passion, and every year each foal’s birth is better than Christmas,” she said.

Barbara may not run a large-scale operation, but she has some big opinions about sport horse breeding. Over the past 29 years she’s been breeding Dutch Warmbloods as a business, Barbara has learned from her own mistakes and other’s what it takes to produce a good-minded dressage horse. She’s not hesitant to share her secrets, not to mention speak her mind, when it comes to passing along that valuable information to others.

“I look for good conformation, a pretty face (it sounds trite, but they’re easier to sell), and I look for movement,” said Barbara. “I don’t need extravagant movement, but what I do need is a powerful hind leg.”

One of the common mistakes Barbara has seen breeders and buyers make when importing horses is choosing ones with sickle hocked or weak hind legs. Those horses often have incredible trots but turn out to be difficult to collect and train at higher levels. Most important to Barbara, however, is a horse’s temperament.

“What I’m looking for are the individuals that want to interact with people and are happy working. I think a horse that is a ‘happy horse’ is one that goes forward, takes the training, does his job, and is eager and willing to do it. The basic Dutch horse has a wonderful character, and that’s what I try to keep in my breeding program,” she said.

Breeding all these traits into a horse is easier said than done. Barbara endured years of frustration before finding the keystone to her program: her foundation mare, Ixia.

“The biggest problem I had in my breeding program is that for a while I couldn’t get ahead,” said Barbara. “The increments in the generations were so small that I was just getting frustrated as a breeder.”

By a twist of fate, Barbara had the good fortune to purchase Ixia (Belisar—Charites, Roemer) in 1999. She had originally planned to buy and import two of Ixia’s offspring that year, but, at the last minute, the mare become available for sale. Barbara couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Ixia’s dam line is one of the top indexed lines in the Netherlands. Her dam, Charites, once led the KWPN index of the top 250 dressage mares, with Ixia not far behind. Although she passed away two years ago at the age of 18, Ixia’s daughters now carry on the bloodlines Barbara so admires.

With her breeding program rolling, Barbara’s Dutch Warmbloods have received a bevy of accolades in the show ring. She has produced regional champions, USDF Horse of the Year award winners, U.S. Hunter Jumper Association zone hunter champions, USDF Breeders’ championship series qualifiers, and NA/WPN top 10.

Crossing The Pond

The breadth of Barbara’s knowledge about Dutch sport horses results from time spent in the Netherlands and the valuable relationships she formed with some of the most respected Dutch breeders, judges and riders. Since 1993 she has tried to travel to Europe each year to attend first-string stallion selections in December, the Bundes championate in September, and the mare show in August. If given the choice to vacation in Florida or view horses in the Netherlands, Barbara’s reply is a resounding, “Holland.” But the breeding shows are no walk in the park.

“In the Netherlands, for the first-string stallion selections, you’re looking at 700 2-year-old colts, from 8 a.m. to midnight each day for three or four days,” explained Barbara. “You’ve got to be seriously committed.”

“Frankly, it’s exhausting,” said Wisdom, who has joined Barbara on several of her European expeditions. “I really like that she puts a lot of time and money and dedication into educating herself about the horses. She can look at 100 horses, see one walk by and say, ‘This one’s not going to canter.’”

At these types of selections unique to Europe, buyers and breeders can view an entire family group from a particular stallion and determine the type of offspring they throw. Because Barbara has seen the top dressage sport horse stallions in the flesh along with hundreds of their progeny, she knows a good breeding decision from a bad one.

“Breeders in America need to be aware of what’s going on in Europe,” she said. “Breeding has fads, and it’s up to you to choose whether you are going to go with that fad or not, and know its positives and negatives. We think too much about the business part of it and not the progeny for the next generations.”

Barbara makes all her bloodline decisions with the future generation of dressage horses in mind. From the stallion selections she chooses sires that can strengthen or improve upon a particular dam line.

“Barb has gotten so systematic about knowing the bloodlines and how form follows function,” said Wisdom. “It’s remarkable how much she educates herself and puts that forward in not only her breeding program but also in her judging and TD-ing.”

She Can’t Say No

Barbara’s pride and joy may be the foals she spends hours observing, handling and training. But she is equally proud of her decade of work as U.S. Dressage Federation treasurer.

Altruistic to a fault, as evidenced by the mountainous list of positions she has held, organizations she has aided, and individuals she has touched, Barbara has a hard time saying “No.” So when a friend suggested she run for USDF treasurer in 1999, a position she would hold for 10 years, Barbara was easily persuaded. When she first started as treasurer, however, the federation was in a period of difficult transition to become a larger organization and the face of dressage in the United States.

“At that point the organization had outgrown itself and needed a new way to do the financials,” said Barbara. “With my professional training and my desire to serve I started to slowly change the USDF in their manner of doing business. It needed to be run as a business, not a hobby. I believe it’s a much better organization when I left [in 2009] than what I walked into.”

Although Barbara has retired as treasurer, she has no problem filling that gap in her life. She continues to judge dressage sport horse breeding classes and to TD several times a year and is active with the KWPN, which has done so much to elevate her knowledge. She is a valuable resource to various dressage and welfare organizations and thrives off sharing what she knows with others. In fact, she is slated to be a guest speaker at the University of Washington Extension on how to organize an agricultural business.

Said Barbara, “I just want to be of help to somebody, to make something better, and to leave the world—which in my case is the horses—a better place when I’m gone.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Barbara Funk Is A Breeder With A Plan” ran in the March 12, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Breeding
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