Thursday, Apr. 18, 2024

USEA Launches Sport Horse Breeding Program

As the sport of eventing evolves internationally, sport horse breeding in the United States evolves as well, and there is a particular emphasis on producing horses that meet the demands of eventing’s changing dynamic.

On April 9-10, the U.S. Eventing Association hosted a Future Event Horse Symposium at Jim Cogdell’s The Fork Stables in Norwood, N.C. Panel members included eventer/breeding advocate Denny Emerson, licensed sport horse judge Kristi Wysocki, and professional horse handlers Bruce and Stacey Griffin.


As the sport of eventing evolves internationally, sport horse breeding in the United States evolves as well, and there is a particular emphasis on producing horses that meet the demands of eventing’s changing dynamic.

On April 9-10, the U.S. Eventing Association hosted a Future Event Horse Symposium at Jim Cogdell’s The Fork Stables in Norwood, N.C. Panel members included eventer/breeding advocate Denny Emerson, licensed sport horse judge Kristi Wysocki, and professional horse handlers Bruce and Stacey Griffin.

Following a lecture session with the panelists, participants headed to the arena for a demonstration of how to handle young horses on the in-hand triangle, as well as tips on conformation and what the judge is looking for. On the second day owners/handlers parti-cipated in a mock horse show to practice newly acquired horse-handling skills.

For this year, the USEA is planning demonstrations and symposiums, but they hope to have a pilot series of perhaps three competitions and a final in 2008, in much the same way that the Young Event Horse series began.

Creating A System

USEA CEO Jo Whitehouse introduced the morning lecture by discussing the programs the USEA is developing to give breeders of event horses something to work toward. The Young Event Horse series has already been established for 4- and 5-year-old horses, and new in-hand classes will be a way for breeders to get their foals and young stock out and showcased to the world.

“We hope to improve breeding and to create a sport horse database with bloodlines and competition records,” explained Whitehouse. “We want to know who the breeders are. If you asked the owners of the 96 intermediate horses that competed [at The Fork] over the weekend, most of them would not know their horses’ breeding, and we have no way to know. There were some horses out there that I’d die to know their breeding!”

Denny Emerson, two-time president of the USEA and a diehard advocate of educating sport horse breeders, pointed out that the lack of a database hurts everyone. “There are a huge number of disciplines, breeds, sub-breeds and registries,” he said. “All of them have pieces of the database, and we need to put it all together.

“If you’re a stallion owner, you usually only ever know if a foal was produced if the mare owner doesn’t call for the money back,” he added.

Developing in-hand classes will also give breeders something to do with young stock before they are ready to begin competing. “I breed a mare and get a foal, but then what do I do with it?” Emerson asked. “The U.S. Equestrian Federation has a department for everything, from rules to drugs, but not for horse breeding. How can our national federation let down its breeders so profoundly?”

He pointed out that awareness is key: “If you go to Ireland or Germany or Holland and talk to a 10-year-old kid he can probably tell you a horse’s pedigree three generations back. Our absence of knowledge prevents us from going forward in the sport.”


Emerson pointed out that the constantly changing sport of eventing also makes it difficult for breeders to know what type of horse to breed for. “Ten years ago Out And About and Molokai were the examples of the perfect event horse, but today they might not make it to the top 10,” he pointed out. “Back then you went out for an hour and a half over 18 miles; today it’s about 12 minutes on cross-country. If you bred for a horse like Out And About back then, you would have a 10-year-old now that is not right for today’s events.”

A big missing link, said Emerson, is the correlation of pedigree and performance. “Without a pedigree, what value does the horse have?” he asked. “If you know the pedigree and the horse is well-bred, its value increases.”

He encouraged eventing enthusiasts to learn about bloodlines and learn the finer points of conformation, then to maintain an objective viewpoint when producing young horses.

Sport Horse Judging

U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge Kristi Wysocki, who judges U.S. Dressage Federation shows, explained the process of showing a horse in hand. Wysocki encourages eventers to attend dressage sport horse shows as well as the new eventing in-hand shows, pointing out that eventers and dressage horses are biomechanically similar.

A professional handler might be necessary, said Wysocki, to show horses to their highest potential. The cost for a handler runs from around $40 to $75, and especially if an owner is short, has a hard time running, or difficulty handling an excited young horse, an athletic and experienced handler will improve the horse’s performance greatly. Interestingly, however, there were a couple of horses in the demonstration that were simply more comfortable being handled by their owners, so the decision to hire a handler should be made on an individual basis.

“A good handler can make it or break it,” said Wysocki. “If you don’t have long legs or are not a good runner, hire someone to show your horse on the triangle. If you are 5’5″ and have a 16-hand baby, you won’t be able to keep up with him. It is worth every dime.”

In dressage there are three divisions for young sport horses: prospects, which are divided into colts and fillies, breeding stock over the age of 4, and the Materiale classes, in which horses are shown under saddle at walk, trot and canter. Prospects are judged 30 percent on conformation as well as on walk and trot and a general impression; 40 percent of conformation accounts for the score in breeding stock. The canter is not assessed until the Materiale class.

Wysocki stressed that the walk is the most important gait and also the gait most often ruined by poor handling (and riding).

As a judge, Wysocki said that she considers the horse’s movement when she assesses its conformation, because the two are related. She judges the overall picture, taking in the horse’s balance longitudinally and laterally and front to back. She looks at carriage, development of musculature, and straightness as the horse moves and considers the horse’s potential trainability. In the gaits she looks for purity (a correct rhythm), movement and correctness (straightness).

“The trot should be correct first, then brilliant,” she said. “The horse can’t just be wild and out of control with a couple steps of brilliance. The gait should be pure, and the horse should travel straight.”

Showing On the Triangle

Professional handler Bruce Griffin and his wife Stacey, who acts as his whip handler (she follows the horse and encourages it forward as necessary) discussed and then demonstrated correct handling of young sport horses. Bruce shows many young horses in-hand, including more than 30 horses last year at the prestigious Dressage at Devon (Pa.) show.


On the triangle the horse first stands at a halt so the judge can assess its conformation. Bruce explained that the handler should move out of the judge’s way so that the judge can see the entire horse. He stands the horse so that it is “open” to the judge’s view, for instance if the judge stands on the horse’s left, the horse’s left fore is a little forward and left hind a little back, so the judge can see all four legs and the horse is balanced. Bruce adjusts the horse’s stance when the judge changes sides.

“We try to stand the horse up, but sometimes if the horse will just stand still, we leave it alone!” he said.
Next the handler walks the horse on a small, 15-meter triangle. The handler always turns the horse away from him. Even in training, Bruce said he never lets a horse turn toward him because then the horse is in Bruce’s personal space, which could become dangerous when the horse is excited.

“Babies get scared and if they don’t know better, they’ll kick your head off,” he said. “We want to teach them.”

Finally, the handler trots the horse around the triangle, again always turning the horse away from the handler. Griffin said that he takes the corners of the triangle wide enough to give the horse room to stay in balance and to give him room to work with the horse. He tries to keep the horse straight, since if its head is turned its whole body will be crooked.

Griffin holds the reins or lead rope in his right hand, a short crop in his left hand.

Since any extra movement from him can affect the horse’s movement, he practiced running with his left arm tied to his body so that he can run fast and straight without pumping his arm. While he keeps the reins or lead rope short, he does not pull on the horse’s mouth, which could also affect the horse’s movement.
Stacey carries a longe whip and stays well back from the horse. She runs behind the horse to encourage it forward but does not wave or crack the whip excessively. When the horse is standing at a halt she stands
in front of him to keep his attention focused forward.

For anyone interested in showing a young event horse in hand, it is worth noting that the judge will direct the handler. Wysocki said she will explain when to halt, walk and trot, and if she wants the handler to move the horse around. She is there to help the handler show the horse to its best potential, not just to be critical.

Dr. Laureen Bartsfield, Raleigh, N.C., brought her Cleveland Bay yearling Idlehour Chilworth to the symposium. She hopes that showing him in-hand will give him enough exposure that by the time she shows him under saddle he will already have some mileage.

“I’ll never be a Bruce Griffin, but it interests me,” she said. “I’ve never shown a horse in-hand before, but this is an incredible help. I’ll be heading to the store for some running shoes before the mock show tomorrow! It’s an eye-opener.”

Tips For Showing In-Hand

•    Keep the horse comfortable. Give the horse time to relax and warm up his muscles by walking him around before the class.
•    Hire a handler if necessary to show the horse to its best ability.
•    The horse can show in a halter or bridle, and bits must be double-jointed.
•    The handler should wear white or light-colored clothing so as not to distract from the horse. Black pants make it harder to see the horse’s legs during movement. Tanks tops and shorts are unacceptable; a jacket is fine if the weather is cold. Running shoes are the preferred footwear.
•    Practice handling the horse in advance, but do not practice too often on the triangle. You want the horse to be manageable but still fresh. The main thing is to teach the horse to turn away from the handler.
•    Most people over groom their horses. Remember: function over fashion. If  you pull a yearling out of the field  and plan to throw him back out after the show, don’t body clip him.
•    Braiding is optional. Good braiding can enhance the horse’s conformation, while sloppy braids can detract from the picture.
•    Relax and have fun.

Amber Heintzberger




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