Here is an article I wrote several years ago for magazine. I would be curious if you, as breeders and owners, think this information is still accurate or not. If not, what do you think has changed?
Culling and the Long View
A recent poll asked US sport horse breeders to rank, in order of importance, those factors they use in choosing a stallion to breed to their mare. Interestingly, pedigree was chosen as the most important factor by a majority of breeders responding. Pedigree was followed by conformation as the second most important factor. Only about 1/3 of the respondents listed performance of the stallion as the most important factor for selection, and fewer than 15% mentioned successful performance of offspring in sport as being important. But to paraphrase a respondent’s comment: ‘What use is a supposedly great stallion if he has never performed, and if he is incapable of passing on his heritage? No use at all.’
It is surprising to see that successful performance of the stallion and/or his offspring was far down in the rankings. Yet, breeding a horse that will be successful in sport should be the goal of every breeder. Many years ago, I was touring with the late Dr. Walter Hartwig. Dr. Hartwig was recognized internationally as an expert, and was then President of the German Hanoverian Society. At one location an exceptionally beautiful mare with an impeccable dressage pedigree was presented for inspection. Her conformation, general impression and type were scored 8’s and 9’s. She was then asked to move on the triangle. We stood there with our mouths clamped shut. The mare moved like a sewing machine with her legs pumping up and down – no elasticity, no freedom of movement, covering very little ground. Later Dr. Hartwig exclaimed, “That mare ought to be shot, stuffed and hung on the wall. She is like a statue, of no use”. Harsh? Yes, but it points out one of the major differences between the US and European approaches to breeding – selecting and culling.
The majority of US based sport horse registries have some type of inspection process. This has been a positive development that has helped improve the quality of sport horses over the last 25 years. Having observed over a 100 inspections, one problem I see keeping the breeding industry from progressing even faster, is apparent: most American breeders are not very good at hearing and accepting criticism of their horses. Thus they are reluctant, or refuse, to accept the fact that some mares and stallions are not good enough for use in breeding. Dr. Mary Giddens, DVM, breeder, former Executive Director of the NA/WPN and representative to the WBFSH, has observed sport horse breeding in the US and Europe for many years. Dr. Giddens’ observes, “that good … breeders in Europe have taken a far less sentimental approach than American breeders. Horses are another agricultural commodity. As such, the breeding program becomes less emotional. This has enabled them to accept a system that requires inspection and culling in order to be successful.”
Patricia Donohue has also observed the sport horse breeding industry in the US for many years. Ms. Donohue is the former Executive Director of the American Holsteiner Horse Association, past President of the North American Federation of Sport Horses, and is the Registrar of the American Hanoverian Society. While Ms. Donohue agrees with Dr. Giddens, she has another interesting take on the industry. “Horse breeding in Germany is in the context of agricultural farming…horses are a ‘crop’ along with cattle and pigs… In this country, my sense is that we are more oriented towards ‘riding’ than breeding. Most horse owners in the U.S. are not farmers or breeders…they own a few horses on a few acres, breed to what-ever stallion is the favorite flavor of the month, without much regard to their mare’s pedigree, conformation or breed suitability.” She continues, “My experience as registrar for two different warm blood registries has been that there are many one-time breeders, breeding for their one riding horse.”
Ms. Donohue’s comment that many breeders are looking to breed their one riding horse, highlights another major impediment to the US breeding industry – most breeders do not take a ‘long view’. She notes, “There are very few breeders who have been in the business for more than 40 years. And, aside from those breeders, there is still a real lack of understanding of what the warm blood breeding model seeks to do. Bottom-line, it is going to take years to progress from a relatively uneducated back-yard mentality to that of an educated breeder objectively tracking the bloodlines and performance of their mares… Breeding the best to the best, with the hope of producing a superior performance horse should be our goal…even for the owner of one mare.”
Taking a long view means breeders must look at their current breeding stock in terms of future generations. Dr. Giddens comments on this idea, “Europeans seems to have more willingness and ability to think several generations ahead. Instead of thinking about simply the next foal or the next generation, I see German and Dutch breeders being able to grasp the idea that you have to do ‘this’ before you can get ‘that’. They seem to be able to better understand the concept that progress needs to be made in steps and that the immediate product of a breeding choice is not necessarily the end result. They understand that success is always a ‘moving target’ and that you must continue to make adjustments in order to improve your product.”
These ideas of culling mediocre breeding stock and taking a long view toward breeding top performance horses should be seriously considered by every breeder. These ideas are not easy to implement, especially if you love your horses as much as most breeders do. However, if US breeders hope to produce and sell outstanding horses to top riders here and abroad, culling and taking the long view are necessary for the industry.