Some of my most vivid school-days memories were my attempts to become invisible during math and Latin classes. The teacher would ask a question, then gaze across the room full of pupils, seeking a likely victim. I would sit cowering at my desk, praying fervently it wouldn`t be me.
So, American horsemen and horsewomen, let me cause you to cower by asking you this: Let`s say you`re in the audience at a sport horse breeding and conformation seminar. Lined up before you are five horses. One is a Thoroughbred-Irish draught competing at preliminary level in eventing. One is a Dutch Warmblood competing as a show hunter in A-rated shows. One is a Holsteiner grand prix jumper. One is a full Thoroughbred eventing at advanced level. The fifth is a Hanoverian dressage horse competing at Intermediaire I.
Full pedigrees are provided for each, and you`ve watched them walk and trot from the side and directly toward and away from you. You`ve even been able to watch them canter on the longe line or in a round pen.
But you haven`t been told which horse belongs to which pedigree or which discipline.
“Before I begin,” intones the lecturer, “why don`t we let someone in the audience come up to the microphone and take a shot at this?”
His eyes rove across the ringside viewers. Would you want his eyes to rest on you?
I wouldn`t be as terrified as I was in math or Latin class, but I`d be hard-pressed to look at five sets of hocks, or shoulder angles, and have to rank them 1 to 5 for correct conformation and mechanical efficiency.
What about if you were given the names of eight stallions prominent in modern race horse and sport horse breeding: Danzig, Galoubet, Mr. Prospector, King Of Diamonds, Ben Faerie, Alme, Caro, and Gotthard? Could you discuss in detail what each of these
stallions is noted for, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and some of their more successful progeny? I could only do it for some of them, and that imperfectly.
Not many American riders, drivers, breeders and even judges are broad-based experts on movement, pedigree, and the nuances of conformation. Some people are quite expert, but only in a limited context.
This isn`t surprising. It`s a big, incredibly diverse horse world out there, and very few of us know much more than some particular little slice of it. Compared to people in other prominent horse-breeding countries, Americans tend to be exceptionally ignorant.
At least five “culprits” can be blamed for Americans` ignorance about sport horse breeding, and two of them are historical.
All during the `50s, `60s, and well into the `70s, there was an almost inexhaustible supply of nearly “free” Thoroughbreds coming reasonably un-scathed off the racetracks. Coupled with this was America`s profound disinterest in anything remotely connected to dressage.
But as state legislators began to recognize that parimutuel betting was a potentially strong source of revenue, pressure was put on the tracks to produce full fields of races. Those slower or slightly injured horses who once would have come off the tracks early now had cheaper claiming levels to test their waning powers.
Simultaneously, America`s now seemingly limitless hunger for dressage was just being whetted by the bronze medal our team won at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and by the founding of the U.S. Dressage Federation three years earlier.
The term “warmblood” is so ubiquitous today that it`s almost unthinkable that Hanoverians, Trakehners, Holsteiners, Oldenburgs, Dutch, Swedish and Danish warmbloods weren`t always popular here.
I think there are three main reasons why a comprehensive warmblood and sport horse breeding structure has never taken hold here in America. First is our vast size, which causes a lack of any concentration or focus. Germany and Holland are relatively small. Consequently, their warmbloods confront one another regularly in the dressage and jumping arenas.
The second reason is very American: Why breed when you can go to Europe and buy?
Establishing a breeding industry takes decades. We`re in far too great a hurry to subject ourselves to that. We want it now!
The third reason is that until just last year, when USA Equestrian`s leaders finally decided that all competing horses must be recorded, with any known pedigree information provided, there was no statistically available way to correlate pedigree and performance.
So, we`re ignorant. What can we do about it?
Educational clinics are one way to enlighten us, if we`ll attend them. That`s why Robby Johnson (an adult amateur event rider, breeder of a yearling, and occasional Chronicle correspondent) and I began to talk at the U.S. Eventing Association meeting in Cleveland last December. We pondered how to promote greater education about breeding pedigree, conformation and performance potential. Robby suggested that if we could hold a sport horse-breeding seminar during the Rolex Kentucky CCI in April (where he`s a volunteer), we`d have a built-in audience and a built-in source of horses.
I called Cheryll Frank, the USAEq liaison to the USAEq Breeders` Committee, of which I`m the chairman. Cheryll put it on the agenda for the Breeders` Committee meeting at the USAEq convention last month, and the response was encouraging.
Ned Bonnie (the savior of the Performance Horse Registry and recipient of the USAEq Lifetime Achievement Award at the convention) and John Strassburger (editor of the Chronicle), and others, got involved in our discussions. Ideas flew thick and fast.
Nothing is set in stone, but here are some thoughts that came out of that meeting.
We decided to let this Rolex Kentucky seminar focus primarily on event-type horses and Thoroughbreds, since that will be the primary audience and horse source. We`ll see how it goes, how well it`s received, and see what the high points and low points turn out to be. We`ll let it be a test run.
Then, if it works, we`ll take the show on the road. Maybe we could do hunters at Warrenton or Upperville (Va.), jumpers in Wellington (Fla.) or at The Oaks (Calif.), dressage horses at Dressage at Devon (Pa.).
The idea is to help all of us develop more educated eyes about type, conformation and movement, and to acquire a deeper understanding about how pedigree fits into the equation. This is very much a work in progress, and it`s subject to creative tinkering.
So, tell us what you want to see, either by writing a Letter to the Editor or by posting your thoughts on the Sport Horse Breeding Forum of the Chronicle`s online discussion forums (www.chronofhorse.com ).