Our columnist worries that hot trends in breeding are undermining the proven products.
It’s February, the time of year when people are thinking about breeding their mares. Due to the recession of 2009, breeding numbers are down around the world. So it’s a time to be even more responsible about each breeding decision you make.
Modern breeding, trendy breeding as I call it, is a free-for-all due to worldwide marketing and frozen semen offering global access to genetic pools. There used to be balance in the breeding world where the percentage of mares to stallions was more equivocal across breeds because mares went to breeding stations, similar to how Thoroughbred breeding is still handled today.
With the expansion of breeding through cooled semen, and now more than ever frozen semen, our world has changed dramatically in the past 15 to 20 years. When you combine the fact that the breed societies have lifted their restrictions, the high-speed trends of modern breeding become even more extreme.
Young stallions used to be limited to 50 mares in many cases. But today we see the hype and marketing of young champions, who in turn cover huge numbers of mares at a young age. In the end, the impact is a narrowing of the genetic pool as fewer stallions cover more and more mares.
While there are certainly many benefits to the expansion of breeding through cooled and frozen semen—more choices for the breeder who would have previously been limited to local choices, more social and marketing satisfaction with well-known sires in your program—there are also risks involved.
Going out on a limb, I find it really hard to understand how a 3-year-old stallion who has been ridden in walk, trot, canter and a bit of jumping in a performance test, without a single foal on the ground or proof of fertility, breeds 300 to 400 mares because of his sex appeal and good gaits! This is the direction today’s breeding has turned.
A big risk lies at the heart of modern breeding. Everyone wants to jump on the ship and sail with the new fashion. Over time, three to five years minimum, the verdict is out as to whether it was a good one or not! We might see negative rideability issues, OCD/soundness issues and even poor- quality offspring. To join a hot new trend is to embark on a five-year experiment.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, I see a 9- or 10-year-old stallion, who has been going about his performance career with success, competing in important young horse championships and moving up to the FEI-level. He remains sound throughout the process, handling the show atmosphere as a well-behaved horse should, and he produces good riding horses—even gaining attention from the breed societies and a reputation as a solid producer. Yet, often stallions such as these (I can think of many examples across the country) get few mares because they’re not the new trend, the hot young influence.
So, I ask myself, “Are we heading the right direction in breeding?”
Of course, breeding is gambling. There’s no formula for success or any true guarantees. But certainly you can lessen your risks to a degree. If you’re looking to produce a sport horse, selecting the older, proven stallions whose offspring are out in sport improves your chances.
You can look at the stallion’s influences—longer legs, shorter back and uphill frame—to feel more certain that his influence is what your mare needs. This situation is a more reliable starting point for producing a foal that will be destined to go into the sport, provided all of the other risk factors go your way.
On the other hand, that young trendy stallion brings an excitement to the breeding equation. He has this youthful expression, alertness, sex appeal, and he receives top promotion and attention from around the world. To be one of the first on board, to get into that trend, has great allure for marketing your foal. You’re able to ride the wave of the “hot ticket” on the market, so I understand why breeders choose this path.
But we have to recognize that when we jump on a new trend, we’re choosing marketing over reliability. We have to beware that this decision may be less about true horsemanship and more a quick fix.
It brings these thoughts to the equation: “That trendy new name may bring me big dollars for my foal! Maybe I can even sell the foal in utero!”
Perhaps that’s the game a breeder wishes to play. But where does the horse go from there? Perhaps the horse doesn’t grow up to be sound or have the true athletic ability for collection to advance in the sport, but the breeder was able to sell it young and that fact perpetuates these decisions further.
We’re stuck in a difficult scenario; there’s no question about it. Trendy breeding is the current state of affairs in our world. I’m not trying to say it’s right or wrong; I only wish to bring to the forefront the risks that are involved with our current direction.
In the long range, the ultimate goal for a breeder is that the foal produced grows up to be in the sport, potentially on the covers of magazines as a top success and an example of American breeding. Breeders hope to have many examples of their program successfully representing their in-vestments and efforts. I think this objective is more easily achieved through proven stallions.
There are cases where a new trend actually works. But I have to wonder—and am genuinely concerned—that with the thousands of foals that are born worldwide, why do we have so few at the highest levels of sport? Certainly, I’m not saying that breeding is the sole source of this lack of depth, but I do think we have to look at our sport from every way that we can.
Breeding is the starting point where we have to look at the tangible qualities we need to work with: sound, rideable horses that are easy to balance and collect, not just great gaits and sex appeal. The other factors that contribute to a lack of depth at the highest levels of our sport are luck, quality of nutrition, training and quality of riding, etc.
But I just can’t ignore the observation that in the past 15 to 20 years, breeding has really changed to being a young trend game more than an industry driven by a proven product. The percentage of mares being bred to these younger stallions is very high, and I have to wonder what long-term impact this situation will have on our sport.
Scott Hassler, the National Young Horse Dressage Coach, resides in Chesapeake City, Md., and has trained many horses to Grand Prix. The U.S. Dressage Federation Sport Horse Committee chairman since 2001, he helped establish the sport/breeding record-keeping system now active in the USDF and U.S. Equestrian Federation. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2005.