For years the situation here in the United States has been that–compared to countries like Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France–sport horse breeding has not been well supported by our federation and various associations. At least the U.S. Eventing Association’s leaders are trying to change that reality with the creation of the Young Event Horse Series a few years ago.
The program’s purpose is primarily to identify 4- and 5-year-olds with potential for the sport’s upper levels. And in 2006, U.S. organizers offered 18 Young Event Horse competitions, capped off by a championship in October at Morven Park, in Leesburg, Va. There, 189 horses contested these events, of which 87 were4-year-olds, and 102 were 5-year-olds.
That’s a great start, and I wonder if we might not be able to expand the Young Event Horse Series with the addition of in-hand classes. I realize that there may not be a direct correlation between what a horse looks like–even factoring in important variables of conformation–and how a horse ultimately performs. There are handsome and superbly correct horses that can’t jump a stick and ewe-necked, crooked-legged superb athletes who win gold medals.
Still, I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a breeding program without being certain that my foundation stock was free of all major conformational defects, other than those caused by accidents or non-structurally related injuries.
Some people insist, “Handsome is as handsome does,” and in many ways I agree with that. My World Championship gold-medal horse, Victor Dakin, had small hooves and short, upright pasterns, but he stayed sound for 20 seasons. That’s fine for a gelding, and it’s fine if performance alone is your goal, but it’s not so fine to breed on the potential liabilities of incorrect structure or movement.
Line classes are fraught with peril for the young horse owner, in that some old, blue, mean-headed judge might find faults in our precious babies that we can’t or won’t see. The term “kennel blind,” applied to dog breeders, recognizes how hard it is for most of us to really look objectively at the young animals our breeding programs have produced. Sometimes it takes an outsider to make us honestly look at what’s really there, instead of allowing us to keep seeing what we want to see.
I’m not so sure that one bad placing is cause for despair, but if several judges have the same reservations, perhaps it’s the kind of wake-up call we need to heed. Accepting the negative opinion of someone placed in judgment above us is probably the bitterest pill there is for a breeder to swallow, but it’s one of the only ways to counteract the wholly natural tendency to love our own “offspring,” be they feline, canine, bovine or equine. (Or human, for that matter!)
Apart from being a reality check, in-hand classes have lots of other positive benefits. It’s an endless wait for a breeder to go through almost a full year of gestation and four more years of growing up until that foal is ready to actually do something in a 4-year-old Young Event Horse class. Meanwhile that foal is consuming money, time and energy, with no end in sight.
For those who are competitive and goal-oriented by nature, in-hand classes could be an outlet, something we can do with weanlings, yearlings, 2- and 3-year-olds, other than to just keep feeding them and mucking out their paddocks.
Many breeders aren’t event riders, and in our sometimes rough-and-tumble sport these people have no direct, hands-on involvement. In-hand classes would let them be participants, not merely spectators and money providers. True, they’d have to be able to safely lead sometimes-obstreperous babies into the show ring, but that’s usually less dangerous than pelting out of the start box down toward fence No. 1 on cross-country.
There could be classes for stallions and get, mares and produce (usually three foals), mares with foals at their side–the kinds of classes that can really showcase the nucleus of someone’s breeding program.
What an educational opportunity, too, for those of us who can’t look at a 16-horse class of 2-year-old fillies, for example, and rank 16 sets of hocks (and other structural components) from 1 to 16 and explain precisely how and why we reached those conclusions.
Part of the USEA’s mission is education, and I can visualize conformation clinics in conjunction with these in-hand classes. And, speaking of education, what a great way to get young horses used to going in a trailer and being around the noise and excitement of a horse show environment without the additional pressure of competition under saddle.
Yes, I can visualize many positives and few negatives if we choose to ex-pand the existing USEA program. Whether breeders and the owners of young horses would support such an effort, I have no way of knowing.
Would these be held as a sort of piggyback on the existing Young Event Horse competitions, judged by the same judges, or would they be separate entities? Should they be held at existing events, or is that too much confusion and organizer overload?
Sure, there are lots of questions to be answered, but I think these are all questions worth asking and discussing. Most breeds and several disciplines support in-hand classes, and I think that we in the sport of eventing ought to give it a try.