Committees dealing with various phases of the equine industry are an integral part of the structure of USA Equestrian, our national equestrian federation. One of these is the Breeders Committee. I stand five stallions, and I’m currently chairman of that committee.
These are the goals we’ve developed:
• To promote the statistical data necessary for the industry to make informed breeding decisions.
• To aid breeders in the promotion and marketing of American-bred horses.
• To continue to improve our ability to identify the correlation between performance and pedigree.
• To enhance pedigree awareness throughout the entire industry.
Several other countries’most notably Germany, Holland, France, England and Ireland’have breeding programs that greatly surpass ours. Before we can redress that imbalance, it’s a useful exercise to examine the historical roots of how they got so strong while we remained so weak.
After World War II, as the European horse-breeding industries struggled to recover from the ravages of nearly a decade of destruction, the seeds of the warmblood revolution were being sown. Continental European riders had a strong existing heritage of dressage riding, which Americans clearly did not. Dressage requires “compression,” the ability of the horse to lighten its forehand by carrying itself on its hocks and hindquarters, and to be able to shorten and to lengthen its frame in an elastic rhythm. The Europeans had powerful light draft and heavy harness breeds, horses that could move with knee and hock action, whose heads and necks were set high out of their shoulders, and whose temperaments were less “hot” than Thoroughbreds.
The Europeans recognized early on the desirability of crossing good racing Thoroughbred stallions with their heavier mares, to create horses with more style, elevation, animation, and trainability than either the straight Thoroughbred or the straight draft or harness types.
Some of the refinement sires incorporated into the Holsteiner breed were Marlon and Ladykiller (full Thoroughbreds) and Cor De La Bryere, who had more than half Thoroughbred blood.
Another Thoroughbred stallion, Furioso, had a tremendous impact on show jumping, as the sire of Furioso II and his full brother, Mexico. Lucky Boy, a Thoroughbred imported by Dutch breeders, sired some of the world’s best jumpers, including Melanie Smith’s Los Angeles Olympic team gold medalist, Calypso.
The Thoroughbred Orange Peel was a pre-war improvement sire in France, and the grandsire of Ibrahim. Ibrahim sired Alme, who sired Galoubet A, I Love You, Jalisco B, and a host of other international jumpers.
Americans weren’t breeding these kinds of horses for two main reasons: Our equestrian heritage wasn’t dressage-based, and we had an almost endless supply of inexpensive Thoroughbreds off the racetrack.
If we read about the great U.S. Equestrian Team horses in the post-war period, several facts become abundantly clear. There was almost no dressage riding in America in the ’50s and ’60s, and not much eventing. Hunters and jumpers were all the rage, and they were almost exclusively Thoroughbreds. In those days, if a horse didn’t make enough money on the track, he probably got sold before he got too injured, and for only a few hundred dollars. It was an endless supply of almost-free horses!
I bought a dozen of those horses 40 years ago for $200 to $800. Look at the USET jumpers from those days. Snowbound, Untouchable, Fleet Apple, Night Owl, Sinjon, Tomboy and Sloopy, were all American Thoroughbreds. We didn’t need European horses because we were beating the Europeans on our own Thoroughbreds.
What changed? For one thing, our racetrack sources began to dwindle. Pari-mutuel betting makes money for the states. Big fields of horses induce more betting, so horses were now being kept on the track for lower and lower claiming prices. By the time they could no longer run at any claiming level, they were usually too damaged to begin a second career.
At the same time, the type of Thoroughbreds being bred in America began to shift toward quick, little, early maturing “bullets” that could sprint 5 and 6 furlongs at 2 and 3 years of age, allowing the owners to cash out on their purchases more quickly. Bigger, rangier, sounder, slower maturers were being phased out as the quest for sheer raw speed by younger horses increasingly propelled the breeding industry.
Another historical factor was America’s growing love affair with dressage and show jumping. When I started eventing in 1962, dressage was almost a dirty word. Grand Prix dressage was limited to a tiny handful of aficionados. The U.S. Dressage Federation hadn’t been founded, horse magazines didn’t cover the sport, and the term “warmblood,” so omni-present today, barely existed in the American equestrian lexicon.
It’s hard for people who weren’t around in the ’50s and ’60s to realize just how much the U.S. sport horse scene has been transformed by the explosion of dressage and show jumping.
I would almost say that the term “American dressage” would have been an oxymoron in 1955 because there was so little interest. I don’t think that dressage really reached a mass audience in this country much before our bronze-medal performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, led, ironically, by Hilda Gurney’s magnificent Keen, an American Thoroughbred.
Explosion is the right word, too. American women, especially, embraced dressage in almost tidal-wave proportions, and almost every horse on our subsequent teams has been directly imported from Europe.
Show jumping’s growth is less dramatic only because we were already a significant international force in the ’60s. We may have been significant in quality, thanks to the brilliance of Bertalan de Nemethy, William Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, George Morris, Kathy Kusner, and others, but our base was small. The proliferation of grand prix jumping classes and entire grand prix circuits was two decades in the future when those riders were first invading the European circuits.
Commensurate with the American surge of interest in dressage and show jumping was the American lust for horses that could excel in these disciplines. We didn’t want to go through the ponderous process of creating a breeding industry from scratch when it was so easy to jump on a plane in New York or Los Angeles, land a few hours later in Amsterdam or Frankfurt, and have an equine smorgasbord laid out for our purchasing pleasure.
At the same time that European breeders were receiving enormous financial support from their national federations, American breeders got absolutely none. There was no American sport horse studbook, nor any recognition given to the correlation between performance and pedigree. American breeders got no recognition as being an integral part of the process. Stallion owners had little means of tracking the competitive success of their stallions’ progeny.
There was no “arm” of any of our national associations that had much to do with the production of American horses. American breeders were on their own, and in large measure they still are today.
The current fragmentation and disorganization of the American sport horse breeding industry didn’t just happen. As the European breeders forged ahead over the nearly 60 years since the end of World War II, American breeders have mainly floundered, with little clear direction. My hope is that USA Equestrian will eventually create an entire department devoted exclusively to horse breeding, production, promotion and development.
There are already departments devoted to things like drugs and medications and education of officials. Yet the name of the entire organization is wrapped around the key word “equestrian.” It’s time for Americans to get very serious about sport horse breeding, with all its implications, right here in America.