Why We Need To Breed Event Horses

Feb 6, 2012 - 2:10 PM

Today’s breeding trends toward ever more specialized animals, but columnist William Micklem believes the best horses can excel in any discipline.

The event horse is the ultimate sport horse: the paces and temperament to do a dressage test at advanced level; the gallop, jump and courage to go across country; and the scope, carefulness and soundness to come out again and jump clear in the show jumping.

Human triathletes, tetrathletes, pentathletes and decathletes receive recognition, and these equine athletes

are at least the equal of the dressage and jumping specialists and in many ways better. More importantly, these all-round qualities make event horses the ideal sport and pleasure horse for all the activities and levels that the majority of riders require, a majority of riders who are increasingly mounted on less than ideal horses. This is why we should be breeding event-type horses.

However, the different commercial values of horses in the three Olympic disciplines—dressage, show jumping

and eventing—has driven modern sport horse breeding in a different direction. In general, elite dressage and jumping horses are worth double and triple the value of elite event horses. The fee for an elite dressage or jumping sire is five to 15 times the fee of an event-type stallion.

This is the root problem facing event riders and breeders today. The financial incentive and marketing momentum behind specialist dressage and jumping horses is such that in my estimation it has become the driving force for probably 80 percent of the sport horse breeding world.

Eighty percent are breeding horses ideal for, say, a maximum 10 percent of riders!

There are very few people breeding specialist event horses, and yet breeding more event-type horses would undoubtedly benefit the sport horse world in general. This benefit includes temperament and willingness, soundness and longevity, flexibility and adaptability, size and type, and rider education. Many specialist dressage and jumping horses find it difficult to play another role in life, whereas an event horse will usually have another job to do, often at a high level.

Bred To Excel Across The Board

After watching the dressage at the 2010 Badminton CCI**** (England), Carl Hester, the current European team dressage gold medalist, said, “The best of these tests would win any pure dressage competition at medium and advanced medium level.”

Last November, Hester made a visit to leading British event rider and breeder Oliver Townend’s farm. “It was for a Horse & Hound photo shoot,” said Townend. “Now I put him on my best horse, but it still surprised me when Carl said that he could be a dressage horse. ‘OK, dressage at our level,’ I said, but Carl said, ‘No, at the highest level!’ ”

Then Townend recounted a similar situation when Michael Whitaker, the hugely successful British show jumper, rode one of his event horses in a demonstration.

Whitaker finished his ride by saying that, if produced for the job specifically, the horse could be a real jumper.

We should not forget that Mark Todd’s double individual Olympic gold medalist Charisma was doing dressage at the Prix St. Georges level before eventing. Hand In Glove, the influential French Thoroughbred sire and sire of the much in demand event sire Jaguar Mail, was both an international dressage and jumping horse.

The multi-discipline possibilities of one horse, or one rider, at the elite level excite me, and this idea has always been a major focus of my training and breeding. In the case of High Kingdom (who is 93.75 percent Thoroughbred), ridden by Zara Phillips, I have come close to breeding a horse that has the potential to be successful at an elite level in all three major disciplines.

Of course, there is a great deal of luck in my breeding achievements, but there is also an immense amount of planning, intent and ambitious dreams for some youngsters I now have, especially a colt by the Thoroughbred

Power Blade and two fillies by Puissance, who all have this same huge all-around ability. Puissance, like the Thoroughbred Master Imp, is by the great Thoroughbred Imperious.

“Jack of all trades and master of none” is a common putdown about event horses, but what a glorious triumph it must be to win at two different disciplines at the highest level on the same horse. The outstanding example of this was Anneli Drummond-Hay with the peerless Merely–A–Monarch, who won both Badminton and Burghley (England) in 1962 before turning to show jumping, winning many grand prix classes and jumping on

British Nations Cup teams. Drummond-Hay was also once offered an open check for him as a dressage horse, and he remains the finest multi-purpose horse I have ever seen in the flesh. He was by the wonderful Thoroughbred Happy Monarch.

The Irish horse Durlas Eile, by the Thoroughbred Artists Son, came close to this achievement by first winning international show jumping classes with the Army Equitation School before triumphing both at Badminton and at Prix St. Georges dressage in 1965 with Capt. Eddie Boylan.

Another Irish horse in this class was Kilkenny, who was by the legendary Thoroughbred sire Water Serpent. Kilkenny show jumped internationally with Ireland’s Tommy Brennan before they changed to eventing and took fourth place in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. It would have been a medal if Tommy had not been under team orders to go steadily on the cross-country. Jimmy Wofford then took him to the two subsequent Olympics in Mexico and Munich, one of only three horses to compete in three Olympic Games.

I would place three other horses in the same superman class with huge ability in all phases: Biko, Might Tango and Cambridge Blue. Biko, Karen O’Connor’s great Olympic partner and voted U.S. Eventing Association Horse of the Century in 2000, was the most talented horse I have ever personally trained. He had the scope and technique to be a real jumper as well as the paces and gallop to be a top eventer. Might Tango was Bruce

Davidson’s 1978 world champion in Lexington, Ky., and runner-up to him was Ireland’s Cambridge Blue with John Watson. I saw Might Tango skip over a 5-foot fence at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in a Jack Le Goff demonstration when barely a 5-year-old, and Cambridge Blue could have been a steeplechaser or a dressage horse with his gallop, athleticism and paces. All three were full Thoroughbreds, and they would have been just as competitive in modern eventing.

Riders Should Be Well-Rounded, Too

Eventing is also at the heart of rider education. A multidiscipline, all-around approach to rider education is enshrined in rider and coach education structures around the world and considered essential before specialization by such luminaries as Reiner Klimke, Ferdi Eilberg, Bert de Némethy, George Morris and Capt. John Ledingham.

Riding in more than one activity is undoubtedly good for all levels of riders.

This makes eventing and the production of event horses even more important and makes it beneficial to study top riders who have shone in more than one equestrian discipline.

Bill Roycroft, Australian five-time Olympic event rider between the ages of 45 and 61, holds a special place in world equestrianism. He established a training dynasty with his three sons Barry, Wayne and Clarke, who all went on to compete in Olympic eventing. As head coach, Wayne also led the Australian team to three consecutive Olympic eventing gold medals from 1992-2000.

Bill belongs to the elite band of event riders who also raced, but what’s even more amazing is that he evented, show jumped and raced at the highest level on the same horses! In 1965, at the age of 50, he brought three Thoroughbred horses to Badminton, finishing second on El Dorado to the great Durlas Eile, sixth on Stoney Crossing, and second on Avatar in Little Badminton. He then spent the summer after Badminton competing El Dorado in grand prix show jumping, and they were on several Nations Cup teams at the highest level.

More remarkably, the month before Badminton, Stoney Crossing, who was just a 7-year-old, gave Bill his greatest experience of race riding by finishing third to Arkle and Mill House in Britain’s premier steeplechase, the 31∕4-mile Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The prestigious Maryland Hunt Cup, over the infamous post and rails, has seen several riders from other disciplines.

Most notable were Kathy Kusner, the international show jumping legend with the Thoroughbred Untouchable and the first lady to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup; fellow jumper Frank Chapot; and the eventing ironman Bruce Davidson, who had two rides in the race.

The role call of successful two-discipline riders at elite level is headed by Germany’s Reiner Klimke (dressage, eventing and show jumping), his daughter Ingrid (eventing and dressage), New Zealand’s Mark Todd (eventing and show jumping), Spain’s Luis Alvarez-Cervera (show jumping and eventing), Britain’s Chris Bartle (dressage and eventing) and Germany’s Michael Jung (eventing and show jumping). The extraordinary caliber of these riders suggests that emulating them may be one of the most worthwhile challenges for any high-level rider.

There are those who say that standards have risen and today this is not possible, but that in itself is an incentive for the great riders to come. If there was an enterprising sponsor to take out an insurance policy and put up $500,000 for the challenge, I have no doubt that there would be both challengers and world interest.

Out there are the heirs to Bill Roycroft who might well start looking at the glorious goal of not only being successful at the highest level in more than one discipline, but doing it on the same horse. Then perhaps the prize could be $1 million! This rider would become a media darling, and his or her horse would be cherished worldwide.

The Right Type

If one looks at the breeding of the great multi-talented horses mentioned above and also the super elite of modern event horses, it’s easy to see the type of quality horse we should be breeding. I’ve highlighted eight modern horses, seven of them champions at the highest level, as they are the only ones I know that, on the same day, have scored 80 percent or better in the dressage at four-star level, made a four-star cross-country look like a Pony Club course, and jumped so easily that a 1.60-meter fence would be no difficulty.

  • Galan de Sauvagere—ridden by Nicolas Touzaint, 72.87 percent Thoroughbred, registered as a Selle Français (Joly Jumper—Douce Julia, Julius Caesar)
  • Toytown—ridden by Zara Phillips, believed to be Irish, breeding unknown
  • Supreme Rock—ridden by Pippa Funnell, 87.5 percent Thoroughbred, registered as an Irish Sport Horse (Edmund Burke—Rineen Classic, Bassompierre)
  • Ringwood Cockatoo—ridden by Bettina Hoy, at least 75 percent Thoroughbred, registered as an Irish Sport Horse (Peacock xx—Bailey’s Folley)
  • FRH Butts Abraxxas—ridden by Ingrid Klimke, 96.87 percent Thoroughbred, registered as Hanoverian (Heraldik xx—Kira-Annabell, Kronenkranich xx)
  • La Biosthetique Sam FBW—ridden by Michael Jung, 75 percent Thoroughbred, registered as Baden Württemberg (Stan The Man xx—Halla, Heraldik xx)
  • Parklane Hawk—ridden by William Fox-Pitt, 100 percent Thoroughbred, bred in New Zealand (Grosvenor—DeeBee Lady, Brilliant Invader)
  • FRH Butts Avedon—ridden by Andreas Dibowski, 97 percent Thoroughbred, registered as Hanoverian (Heraldik xx—Karina-Andora, Kronenkranich xx)

(Parklane Hawk, winner at Burghley this year, has yet to achieve 80 percent in the dressage. FRH Butts Avedon, winner at the Boekelo CCI*** (the Netherlands) this year, has yet to do a four-star cross-country, but I have included them as two of the most outstanding young horses with the same exceptional ability in all phases.)

The obvious top sire here is Heraldik, but even he doesn’t receive a top or good rating in the German stallion rating system, which shows how event stallions are neglected on the continent.

If there is any logical sense in these thoughts, it raises a final question. Is the specialization in horse breeding, with the intense focus on producing elite dressage and show jumpers, taking sport horse breeding down a road that is not beneficial to either eventing or horse sports and riding as a whole? If the answer is yes, then there is every justification for a strategy in all national breeding programs that redresses the balance to the benefit of us all.

William Micklem 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. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com.

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