Responsibility in breeding

     For many years, at least in America, people have tried (and many have succeeded) in making money breeding and selling horses. I’m not talking solely about the Thoroughbred racing industry. That is not so much a business as a culture. The folks who breed for the Triple Crown races usually have a ton of money. It’s almost as if the horses were actually racing yachts…you need a lot of money to pay for the horses, the farms, etc. (as an aside, last year, I toured the Kentucky horse country. Most of the farms have For Sale signs in front of them…oh no.)

     I am referring to the second tier of professional horse breeders, i.e., Quarter Horse, Arabian, etc. The horse business is on its lips these days, but all through the 70s through to, oh the late 90s, some people made a lot of money breeding show horses. Much of it depended on the breed du jour. As I was(and still am, to an extent)an Arabian fan, I followed them. The Arabian industry went kerflooey in the mid 90’s. The QH industry picked up the momentum the Arabian industry had lost.  That, too, has fallen, partially, I am certain, due to the enormous impact one horse, Impressive, had on the breed as a whole. Impressive was your typical ‘sorrel’ QH who had a fabulous marketing team. He wasn’t a using horse, though. He was a show horse, not a cow horse. He was bred for the halter ring and he won it all. Because the QH industry allows for AI, tons of horses were bred to him without him ever so much as meeting the mare. No one really cared that he had a back that couldn’t comfortably carry a saddle. Nor a rider.

     Sad to say, not only did he pass on unrideable backs, Impressive also passed on his sole, specific contribution to the Quarter Horse breed: HYPP. Whether they liked it or not, Quarter Horse breeders who bred to Impressive and had that disease crop up in their horses, lost their business.

     To return to the Thoroughbred industry,  TB’s in America…probably throughout the world…are in trouble. Why? They are all Northern Dancer horses. They are all related to each other. The last few Kentucky Derbys..which are always booked full, always have 22 horses starting…all the horses are Northern Dancers. Meaning, they’re all siblings or cousins. While Northern Dancer brought blazing speed to the Thoroughbred, he also made a lot of money, and that is what TB owners really breed for: horses that win money. Consequently, you cannot find a breeding stallion in this country who isn’t Northern Dancer. Um, okay. Secretariat was NOT Northern Dancer blood. But he was not as good in the breeding shed as he was on the track-superstars seldom are-and his bloodlines went away when he died. (He was Bold Ruler). Now you have this huge genetic bottleneck in the TB industry. There is no new blood out there. Everyone let the various lines die out save for the Dancer’s.

     Being a Northern Dancer horse means you are very, very fast, and very prone to breaking down. We, the public, are tired of seeing lovely horses breaking their hearts and their legs on the track. The TB breeders may have been good business men or women, but they were horrible biologists. You don’t breed sister  or mother or cousin to your son or father. It may serve to consolidate a specific trait, such as speed, but there’s so many other bad traits that you are also concentrating. It’s bad breeding.

    I feel sorry for the TB breeders. They are in a horrible fix: it costs boat loads of money to bring one horse to the track. He may not have the capacity to win the  Derby, or any other of the Big Ticket races. He may break down before he ever makes it to the big races. Tracks are shutting down. You can’t find a buyer for a horse that has proven to be a nonstarter. Yet, you might just win it all. The big dollar sign in the sky blinds you to reality, that you probably won’t.

    The only way to break out of the bottleneck is for the  TB breeders to bring in new, unrelated new blood. But there is none. Not that all the TB horses in the world are Northern Dancers. But the few that are not never made it on the track. They were slow.  Ideally, the TB should fold in NON-Thoroughbred blood, for instance, Standardbred, or Warmblood. I can hear the screaming now. It will never happen.

      In these late, dying days of the TB, I can say that finally (probably with the ‘invasion’ of women into the formerly all male world) that some Thoroughbreds are finally manageable. But not always, and not all. Women handle horses with a different mind set than many men. They are more willing to take time with a horse, teach it manners, more willing to discipline gently, until the horse learns that manners are expected of it.  Melissa Holbrook Pierson said it best, “The reason women are so good with horses is because they know what it’s like to be prey.” But they still don’t breed for manageability.

Many of the trainers and farm managers don’t teach their horses ground manners.  I know from painful experience that the average Thoroughbred racehorse bites, kicks, crowds, nips, and is generally a terrible nuisance, and sometimes, dangerous.

 The Storm Cats are poster children for this. Storm Cat did not race, but his get did tremendously well on the track.  But many of them were monsters, horrid in manners, and in some cases, outright dangerous. One of his sons, Tabasco Cat, tried to kill D.Wayne Lukas’s son. The Cats are great racers, but nothing you’d want to get near without body armor and a hayfork. The trainers don’t care if the horse bites as long as wins races. The trainer isn’t the one being bitten or kicked.  He’s not the one mucking the stall or wrapping a leg. He has people for that, and if they end up with bites taken out of them, well……there’s plenty of people out there looking for a job.

    Purity of blood can, as I’ve already said, translate into genetic bottlenecks, and that is what TBs are now: a breed trapped in a dead-end.

    And so to the point of this post. The Warmblood breeders have it right. They make a horse go through a ton of tests, for a number of traits. Not only must they be able to DO something, be it jump, dressage, cross-country or pull a carriage, but they also must have other non-performance traits. They must be gentle and amenable to handling.  Temperament is tantamount to the Warmblood breeder. As strong and as big as they’re breeding these horses, it makes sense to have a horse you can handle.

   Again, I speak from experience. Just after the new year, I had just gotten out of my truck when  I heard that unmistakable sound of a loose horse. The folks across the street have several horses. Bruce’s gigantic Canadian Warmblood, Bones, was loose. He is ginormous. He is 17.2. He was racing around the property. Any horseman will tell you that a loose horse is going to get hurt. Guaranteed.
I, being the responsible horseman that I am, raced over there, in my street shoes, not my  good strong boots. Bones was racing around the paddocks, the other horses were reacting by squealing and kicking. Bones was steaming like a locomotive. He’d been loose for a while. He had gotten out by LEANING on his gate until the chain broke. (He’s so big that at first I thought he’d hopped out of his paddock. ) He had no halter on (another good thing, I don’t like seeing halters on horses). And he was scared. He had no idea what to do, now that he was free. Thank god, because had he run half a mile down the road, he’d have been in traffic. 

    The neighbor who lives behind Bruce came over when he saw me get out of my truck and said Bones had been loose ‘for a while’.  The neighbor was afraid of Bones, I think. I told him to find a halter! Then I went towards Bones. The horse came trotting around the corner of a paddock.  I started talking to him in THAT voice, the one we use to reassure an animal, “Bones, what ARE you doing out here, you silly boy, now whoa. Right there, whoa.  Look at you, you’re soaking wet, what do you think you are doing, whoa boy.” He stopped.  He let me walk up to him. The neighbor came up with a halter and said, “Wow, I tried to get near him and he bolted.” Bones looked at me with a rolling eye as I approached, but he stood.  I got a hand on his blanket…the only thing I could reach, and I told the neighbor for god’s sakes give me his halter.  He did, and I managed to get it over Bones so very high head. He was hot, wet as if he’d been swimming, and still pretty frisky.  I just barely managed to reach his poll.   He was still so very high, but he  allowed me to halter him. He allowed me to lead him. I felt as if I was leading a giraffe.  He is so big, so tall, and me-I have a bad shoulder. Two of them.  Bones minded his manners. Even at a walk, it was all I could to keep up with him.  I put him up in the first empty stall I could find, and then called his owners. (and left voicemails, as no one answers his phone anymore.) They got there within twenty minutes, and cooled him out. He was none the worse for the experience.

    The point being that, Bones the Canadian Warmblood, allowed me, a person he knows just a little,  to catch him, hold him, halter him and lead him into the barn. He’d been bred for manners, and been taught them at an early age, and it paid off.

    No way could you do this with a crazy, hot, loose Thoroughbred off the track.

      Warmblood breeders breed for docility, a good mind, a gentle nature.

   The Warmblood breeders judiciously bring in new blood. They allow breeding to other warmbloods, approved Thoroughbreds and Arabians. This is all to the good. The mighty Moorlands Totillos is  considered Dutch Warmblood. However, he is half Trakehner on his dam’s side. That’s just fine with the KWPN registry (Dutch Warmblood). It is perfect for the folks who are going to breed to that drop dead gorgeous black stallion. Anyone who breeds a warmblood mare to him has a damned good chance of getting an outstanding, well-mannered dressage horse. NOT a ‘purebred’ this or that, because, in the long run, it doesn’t matter. Does he PERFORM what he was bred to do? Then what does it matter that he isn’t pure this or that?

To a point, mind you. The warmblood breeders don’t allow other breeds, such as Quarter Horses, into the mix. That’s fine with me.  Having seen what ‘cooler’ blood does to warmblood horses, I think it’s better to keep the books closed to all but the three: warmbloods, TB’s, and Arabs.

   Another thing I like is that the warmblood breeders are willing to geld a horse that just doesn’t cut it in the stud-OR the performance of their get. To refer back to Secretariat, his record for the Derby STILL STANDS. 38 years after the fact, no horse has broken that 1:59 and 2/5ths record. Monarchos came close, but in the TB racing world, close doesn’t cut it. Secretariat was a fluke, a mutation. His heart was half again as large as the average horse. He had the heart, the brains, the will, and the temperament to be the greatest racehorse in the second half of the 20th century. But unfortunately, he didn’t pass it on. He did have a few good horses, Lady’s Secret being the most memorable. But he wasn’t the sire Seattle Slew was.

Of course, the breeder who had a Secretariat son on the ground just KNEW he was going to win BIG.

It never happened. Never. Big Red threw some very good race mares, and I believe he had one halfway decent son, General Assembly. But none of his colts came anywhere near their sires’ performance. Better they should have been gelded.

I don’t blame the breeders. You don’t geld a Secretariat, even after ten years of trying and getting only one or two good horses. But the only way to find out what you have is to race him. Even then, performance seldom passes on past the second generation. Meaning, if you have a grandson of Big Winner, your chances of having another Big Winner are no better than someone who has a grandson of  Nobody Ever Heard of Him.

    The breeders of the lesser breeds, i.e. the pleasure breeds (QH, Arab, etc) were not willing to geld, either. They all wanted another super horse like Impressive, in order to make money. The stakes were far lower, and thus, it was easier to keep a colt entire. Consequently, anyone who had a backyard and a couple of bucks could have a “breeding stallion.”  Never mind that the vast majority of horse owners, people willing to buy the horses the breeders were producing, wanted  a gelding to ride.  It’s not that stallions are bad, it’s that it’s hard to find a boarding stable that will take one. 

    The breeders wanted to make money by breeding show horses. The best way to do that was to sell their horses to people who wanted to make money breeding horses.

 The only way to do that (until AI and frozen semen technology improved) was to own and stand a stallion. It got to the point that colt equaled stallion. You saw sale ads for colt foals that said “potential breeding sire’. As a six month old foal? Hell, you don’t know if he’s going to descend yet or not! But that’s what they were selling, breeding horses. A colt was called  a ‘stud’ before he even knew what a mare was other than the producer of his breakfast.

    The term “backyard breeder” came into pejorative play. In many cases, it was well-earned. A man my ex worked with had “a horse breeding farm”. He was breeding the breed du jour, “Paints”.  We went there, once. One look, and afterwards, I called the Humane Society. He had four mares on an acre of sand. They were all wormy, heavily haired, thin to the point of bony. He didn’t feed them, they were “on pasture’. Anything green had been consumed years before.

Those horses were surviving by eating scotch broom. That’s desperate. His stallion got ‘hay’…it wasn’t good hay, it was ‘grass hay’, that he had ‘cut himself.’ The ‘hay’ was thistles and ox-eyed daisies, the only things that could survive on his barren land.  The stallion was allowed to run with the mares. He kept them pregnant, but the mares hadn’t had foals ‘in a couple years’. The mares aborted, or resorbed, or the foals died within hours of birth. 

 All because of the horrid conditions they were kept in. Why did he have horses? To make money “selling the colts’. They were “purebred Paints, they were show horses.”  I should have shot the man. It was neglect, pure and simple.

    He was a ‘backyard breeder.” His stallion was kept solely that  because of his testicles.

    Warmblood breeders, and, I must admit, these days, the lesser breeders, too, are much more willing to geld. If a colt doesn’t cut the mustard, if he doesn’t perform, if his babies don’t make the grade, they are gelding them. This makes life so much easier, for everyone. It makes economic sense to cut one’s losses by gelding a poorly performing stallion. They’re easier to handle, and far easier to sell. Then you could go stallion shopping again, this time, knowing a lot more of what it takes to produce the high quality of horse that DOES compete, and win, and make lots of money, and sell for more.

   The problem is understandable. Horse breeders love their horses, just like you and I do. But one becomes barn blind.  One spends time and money on a stallion, and then when his foals first hit the ground, you think, oh, he looks just like the sire, surely he’ll be just as successful. So you don’t SEE the sickle hocks, or the downhill build, the bad feet, or the parrot mouth (oh my god, parrot mouth. Khemosabi, one of the most famous Arabian stallions, not only was parrot mouthed himself but passed it on to all his babies.).

 No,you blame the mare, you roll the dice, you try again. Rather than get rid of the stallion, you sell the mares. You get one good one, she drops a colt, you manage to sell that colt to someone else, the money gets good to you, you begin to believe that you know just what the heck you are doing. OK, so your stallion’s babies develop navicular at two years old. It’s  it was the mare’s fault. Or the footing. Or the owner or the farrier, but certainly not the sire’s. And you very carefully avoid putting the horse or the foals you are trying to sell into a situation where they will get beat. You don’t do a ninety day perfomance trial where he has to achieve a standard, of any sort. You don’t make him jump so high, or win a score of so many points from a jury, not a judge. You put him in a halter class, judged by a person whom you know likes your style of horse.   That, I believe, is the sole purpose of halter classes.

(I remember reading of an Arabian horse breeder who gave up on shows.  She couldn’t win. Her stallion was mannerly, calm, quiet, and wouldn’t dream of acting up. That’s not what the Arabian judges wanted to see. They wanted to see some shrieking, wild eyed Black Stallion, entering the ring on hind legs, uncontrollable, but who looked drop dead gorgeous racing around ‘at liberty’.  She said she wouldn’t even be allowed to bring her gentleman into the ring.)

There are horses out there, stallions, who have never broken a sweat in a horse show. They never do anything more than stand and look pretty, and perhaps, trot away from a judge. That may also be why Western Pleasure classes have turned into slow torture. The horses are trained to do nothing faster than a ”’lope’, which, if my leased horse, Hank is any indication, is about as fast as a walk. But that is considered “performance’, and thus, you don’t have just a halter horse. You have a PERFORMANCE horse. Never mind that sometimes, he’s so fat, he can barely move anyway

     While more breeders ARE becoming aware that a horse must do more than just look pretty, it still has a long way to go. Very few colts are good enough to be stallions. The breeders have taken over the selection of who breeds and who doesn’t. Just as in nature, the breeders should emulate the the winnowing process, known as Natural Selection, that only allows the best to breed.    

The warmblood breeders have it right.

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About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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