The Recipe For A Top Event Horse Calls For Brain, Brawn, Beauty And Breeding

Jan 2, 2011 - 5:02 PM
“Everything that Dolly did suggested that the space between her ears contained a brain that was exceptional,” said William Micklem about the dam of Mandiba, shown here with Mandiba’s full sibling Jackaroo. Photo courtesy of William Micklem.

Our columnist shares the tale of breeding Karen O’Connor’s WEG mount Mandiba and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

There were just two of us at the bar. The barman facilitated an introduction after discovering I was at the hotel for a meeting about developing an equestrian facility. Minutes later I was headed down a country road outside Ennis in County Clare, in the west of Ireland. We were off to see a mare “worth seeing, just five minutes down the road.”

Ten minutes later and I was beginning to sweat about being back in time for my meeting not to mention the foolishness of travelling at night with a stranger to some unknown destination.

Love At First Sight

We eventually stopped outside the entrance gate to a modern house with detached garage, and the driver turned the engine off. He stayed in the car and asked me to get out. With only the car headlights to guide me, I went to the garage and lifted up the roll top door. There, blinking in the headlights, was a small bay mare standing on a deep litter bed. Her pricked ears did their very best to say how pleased she was to see me!

The owner had been forbidden to step foot on the property after a marital dispute, but there was no doubting how much he loved his little 8-year-old mare, High Dolly. We trotted her on the road and then jumped her on a rope under the moonlight.

I was smitten, and three days later I drove all the way across Ireland with my wife Sarah to ride her. The fact that the trailer was attached to the car did not improve my negotiating position, but the deal was done, and I was in Seventh Heaven, as I knew she was so very special.

High Dolly had no papers to confirm her breeding, but with her other virtues I always thought of her as an exciting broodmare prospect, especially as she was said to be by Chair Lift, the outstanding Thoroughbred jumping sire, out of a Prefairy mare. Carling King, fourth in the show jumping at the Athens Olympic Games, was out of a Chair Lift mare, and Abbervail Dream, who had a record number of Nations Cup show jumping appearances for Great Britain, was by Chair Lift.

Prefairy was a son of the truly great sire Precipitation, who also produced Furioso, the most successful Thoroughbred sire in warmblood history with 38 approved stallion sons. Almost eight years later I was able to prove that this was indeed her breeding, and as a result I was a very fortunate man.

However from an event horse breeding point of view, it’s probably more interesting to look at why I thought I had struck gold that night in Ennis.

Brain, Brawn And Beauty

I evaluate all my horses on a scale of 10 under the headings: Brain, Brawn and Beauty, and it has stood me in good stead over the years, including with those great Olympic medalists Biko, Custom Made and Giltedge, who I found in Ireland for Karen and David O’Connor.

What is interesting about this is it confirms it’s possible to assess event horses accurately even as young horses. I rated Biko the highest I have done for any horse for his Brawn, as he had the paces, jump and scope that were super special. However his Brain was a different matter as he took a long time to trust humans and move into the area of a true partnership.

Giltedge was the opposite because he had such a great Brain but less Brawn, while Custom Made was supreme overall in terms of being competitive.

However, all three were head and shoulders above any other horses I’ve found for clients apart from High Dolly herself and High Dolly’s offspring, which include both Mandiba and High Kingdom (the horse Zara Phillips rode to seventh place in the Blenheim CIC*** (England) for 8- and 9-year-olds this year).

Brain—The Space Between Her Ears

Everything that Dolly did suggested that the space between her ears contained a brain that was exceptional. She immediately showed herself to be alert, quick thinking and bursting with enthusiasm. This can be mistaken for being “hot,” but this wasn’t the case with Dolly.

She also had that winning mixture of gentleness and courage combined with the willingness and awareness that makes a horse motivated but also careful. She loved being ridden, and Dolly would recognize Sarah at 100 yards, whinny, and canter over.

Mental ability and personality are heritable, and when I talk about a mare or family breeding “true,” I refer to both their physical and mental attributes. Successful performance mares and sires pass on these mental qualities as much as the physical.

In this respect, the influence of the forward thinking Thoroughbred is hugely important in the breeding of sport horses. High Dolly’s family certainly breeds true, and she’s passed on her brain to her offspring and to the next generation.

I have a full sister to Mandiba, Nuff Kisses, who is breeding wonderfully well and a 4-year-old full brother called Jackaroo, who has a damaged foreleg and therefore will never compete, but he is a colt, and I intend to give him his chance at stud.

The other side of this genetic coin that worries me enormously is that I believe far too many of the sport horses being bred today lack this brain, lack this willingness and lack the sense that is the foundation for a good “fifth leg” across country. This sense is particularly abundant in native breeds and is what I call the “X factor.”

Dolly had the X factor of being 1⁄8 Irish Draught, and I have no doubt that the survival instincts, courage and coordination of the Irish Draught is an important factor in the breeding of event horses and the huge success of Irish event horses at all levels.

Brawn And Spinal Flexibility

As Dolly trotted down the road in Clare I was reminded of Biko as her natural spring and athleticism gave her a very short stance time, making her light on her feet.

This same athleticism was displayed when she jumped. In particular she showed the spinal flexibility in the vertical plane that allows a horse to lift the back when bucking or that allows cats to be supreme athletes.

We tend to spend a great deal of time assessing a horse’s paces, which are obviously hugely important, but far less time assessing or even noticing spinal flexibility.

Beauty And Why Small Is Beautiful And Desirable

Dolly was no show horse, being slightly light of bone and short from flank to point of buttock, not unlike her sire Chair Lift. She was also small, barely 16 hands, but with great paces.

When I assess Beauty, I also include the paces, despite having already included the paces in the Brawn section. This seems to give the right value to the paces, and certainly a horse with good paces is immediately more beautiful.

The fact that Dolly was a little small I consider an advantage. Pound for pound smaller horses pack a greater punch and have greater longevity, in the same way that ponies do but to an even greater degree.

In addition, the majority of riders in the equestrian world are female and do not ride at an elite level. These riders do not suit a massive horse. If you add the world’s young riders, then a small horse has many more potential homes.

Breeding desirable horses is only common sense, therefore why do we breed so many one-trick, slow-witted giants that have no homes to go to if they fail to perform in their elite specialist area? It is madness and commercial suicide.

Flexibility is a real key to commercial success. I want to breed brave, sensible and sound horses that are 15.2 to 16.1 hands, with paces that are good enough to win in third level dressage, a jump that is good enough to jump a 1.40-meter track and with sufficient quality and gallop to easily go round a CCI** cross-country course. Any extra talent on top of this is a bonus!

This runs against the modern trend of specialization and big horses.

The horse I describe is a fabulous event horse, and, if not quite making the grade or in retirement, this horse will also be ideal for the amateur or pleasure rider who wishes a safe conveyance to ride in a variety of activities with a fair degree of ease. The same cannot be said for so many modern sport horses.

Genetic Transparency

The reality is it doesn’t suit the breed societies to market a flexible use horse. Instead they concentrate on marketing their brand in relation to elite performance.

This can be very misleading for owners and riders and leads to misunderstandings. The first thing I would require for all warmblood stallions directed towards the eventing and show jumping markets would be to insist that their amount of Thoroughbred blood is stamped on their details. The majority of successful elite event horses are at least 3⁄4 Thoroughbred, and this includes those in the Hanoverian studbook that, for the first time in 2010, was the leading studbook in the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses rankings.

Therefore, as a priority, we need to take steps to convey this message and help breeders produce this type of horse, which for the 15 previous years enabled the Irish studbook to top the ratings.

The Thoroughbred has lost ground as the various commercial breed societies and studbooks promote their “products,” build their brand and create a fashion. In the process they’ve successfully sold the message that Thoroughbreds do not have the jump and paces required for the modern event horse. This is a slight of hand that does not stand up to examination.

A Thoroughbred Husband For Dolly

It was a no-brainer to choose the Irish Thoroughbred Master Imp as a husband for High Dolly. The recent overwhelming success of Thoroughbred sires in elite eventing is no coincidence with full Thoroughbreds taking up four of the top six spots this year on the WBFSH Stallion Event Horse Rankings—Heraldik (1st), Master Imp (2nd), Fines (5th) and Primitive Rising (6th)—as well as Stan The Man, the sire of world champion La Biosthetique-Sam.

In third and fourth place were two Irish stallions, Cruising and Cavalier Royale. Contrary to what one hears, both of these sires have slightly more than 50 percent Thoroughbred and have done extremely well with their 3⁄4 Thoroughbred offspring.

In fact, if the Thoroughbred studbook was represented as a separate studbook in the WBFSH rankings, they would win the eventing section every year.

With regard to safety across country, Thoroughbred blood and gallop is essential because it means they don’t have to go anywhere near their maximum speed. This not only saves energy and avoids tiredness, but it also increases the room for error as a horse works well within their maximum and well within their comfort zone.

Good Genes Will Increase The Chances Of Success

As a result of the union of High Dolly and Master Imp, Mandiba has wonderful genes. Having sires such as Hyperion, Precipitation, Blandford, Fairway and Tourbillon in an event horse pedigree is important.

They are bloodlines that produce good brains, paces and jumping ability. Not all horses with these genes are great horses, but there are very few superstars without these genes in abundance.

Of course, it isn’t vital to have pure Thoroughbred sires or mares. Undoubtedly over time more purpose-bred performance-tested approximately 3⁄4-bred stallions as well as a bigger pool of quality event mares will become available as breeders respond to demand.

A small number of quality sires can make a huge impact, and they will probably also contain some Irish Draught blood.

However in the meantime we still need a small number of Thoroughbred sires with the right temperament, jumping ability and genes.

The best advice is probably still to breed the best to the best and hope for the best!

William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British 

William is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “The Recipe For A Top Event Horse Calls For Brain, Brawn, Beauty And Breeding” ran in the Eventing Breeding Jan. 3, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.


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