It’s been my experience that the average American rider is neither particularly interested in, nor knowledgeable about, horse breeding. I can think of hundreds of times over the years that I’ve admired a horse and have asked the rider how the horse is bred. More often than not, the rider either replies that she doesn’t know or says, “I’ve got his papers at home, but I can’t remember what they say.”
Many of the Americans who do breed horses seem to do so almost on a whim, rather than out of a clear sense of what kind of foal they wish to produce. They may be infatuated with a certain breed, a certain sire line, or a certain color. But they’ll fail to evaluate the stallion’s and the mare’s actual soundness, conformation and movement, or to clearly understand what either of them did, or more often failed to do, in some competitive endeavor.
As a result, throughout the country, we seem to be producing an awful lot of babies that are very hard to sell and, very often, aren’t that nice to ride.
Ironically, although the hundreds of stallion advertisements in the various publications’ breeding issues indicate that there is an active breeding industry here at home, our top international riders rarely go into a competition arena on an American-bred horse. The U.S. Equestrian Team’s dressage riders virtually never do, the jumper riders seldom do, and perhaps a third to a half of our event teams’ horses might be domestically produced.
The culprit is ignorance—mine, yours, USA Equestrian’s, USET’s, all of ours. Few of us can actually evaluate a horse, understand what a pedigree really means, or decipher how a pedigree interacts with the horse that possesses it.
USAEq has more than 80,000 members, but I doubt that one of us in several thousand can both expertly judge a living, breathing horse and also analyze every aspect of that horse’s pedigree. There are pedigree experts, performance experts and conformation experts, but only the tiniest minority of horsemen are experts in all three categories.
The antidote to ignorance, obviously, is education. The Event Horse Breeding Seminar, which the USA Equestrian Breeder’s Committee hosted in April at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, may seem like one very little thumb in a very large dike, but it’s a start. Maybe if the hunter, jumper and dressage communities also instituted such clinics, we could begin to dispel some of the ignorance.
Our idea was to gather in one place top conformation experts, internationally re-nowned breeders, leading pedigree analysts, and elite four-star riders, and let them evaluate a few famous international three-day event horses while the rest of us watched and listened.
Our speakers constituted a gold-medal panel. Our riders were Pippa Funnell, David O’Connor, Torrance Watkins and John Williams. Dr. Peter Birdsall is the leading sport horse pedigree analyst in North America; Dr. Kent Allen is the USET three-day team veterinarian; Dr. Gary Lavin chooses Thoroughbred yearlings for the major sales; and Sam and Linda Barr breed the famous Welton event horses. For horses, we had Giltedge, Prince Panache and Carrick, all CCI winners or gold medalists.
We met in the huge indoor arena on Thursday evening and in the Big Barn on Friday evening, where we could see the three horses.
What did we learn?
There was something for everyone. There were detailed statistical analyses of pedigrees for the pedigree “geeks” in the crowd. There were wise, practical and probably hard-earned lessons from the Barrs on stallion and mare selection. And there were detailed conformation evaluations, plus discussions by the riders on what they liked and didn’t like in horses in general, often using their own horses to make a certain point. There were discussions about nature versus nurture, what and how much is genetic, and what and how much is shaped by varying methods of raising and training young horses.
The current evolution of eventing as it applies to horse breeding didn’t escape scrutiny either. One speaker described the breeder’s dilemma as breeding a foal today for a sport that may be very different 10 years down the road, when the horse is entering its competitive prime, and having to try to outguess the future.
Thoroughbreds, versus warmbloods, versus Irish Draught-crosses, versus other crosses; big horses versus small horses; “pro” horses versus adult amateur horses—all theses issues were dissected.
It’s far too complex and vast a topic to be summed up in one seminar, or even a series of seminars, but it would be a really disinterested student who went away from the Ro-lex Kentucky seminar with nothing new to consider.
Among the problems I see, from my vantage point as chairman of the USAEq Breeders’ Committee, is that we have a huge country, we are geographically spread out, and our interests are extremely diverse. Hunter, Morgan or dressage breeders might have found this particular seminar of mild interest, but not especially relevant to their own needs.
Ideally, what we should have are dozens of such seminars all across America, put on by advocates of various disciplines and breeds, so that as a country we can start chipping away at the prevailing ignorance. A number of other countries are light years ahead of us in their sport horse breeding programs. It doesn’t mean we can’t catch up, but we surely won’t if we don’t make it happen.
I would hope that this first USAEq breeders seminar might serve as a prototype for the kind of programs that could be adapted to other places and other interested groups of breeders and riders. For those interested in event horse breeding, it’s our intention to turn this seminar into an annual occurrence at Rolex Kentucky.