So you’ve decided that you want to breed a foal…? The thoughts of a gorgeous, cute baby bouncing round your field, and all the potential that the youngster might have is a truly compelling dream. But where do you start? Breeding horses is not for the faint hearted. It takes huge amounts of commitment, effort…. and money.
Quite honestly there’s two articles that can be written here – one for the one time breeder who just wants to have a foal from their precious mare for themselves to ride, and one for the breeder who is wishing to breed a potential world beater… and the difference between the 2 articles starts right at the beginning, with the mare.
The one-time breeder –
If you’re just breeding for yourself from your one special mare, then the die is already cast on your selection of mare… you
already have her. However you’re looking to breed a world beater, you need to spend time and effort finding the right mare to start with. Attempting to ‘breed up’ from an average mare is proven to be generally ineffective – all the best breeding programmes in the world focus on the mare line.
So if you already have your mare and you’re wishing to produce something for yourself or one of your family members to ride there’s really only 2 characteristics you absolutely need to have in your chosen stallion –
- A good temperament
If you are not looking to contest Badminton then you do not need the most athletic horse in the world, in fact, you may have trouble staying on a big moving and big jumping horse. For most domestic competitions at Riding Club and the lower levels of our affiliated disciplines, most horses are perfectly athletic enough.
The key to enjoying your foal is that they are a nice person to have around, are trainable and in the main compliant. You want to have fun with your horse, not be managing some highly strung diva who you end up having to run your life around its every wish, or who lets you down with a meltdown at a competition. Breed-in versatility as well… pick a stallion that has been proven to produce for lots of different fields… then if you find it doesn’t love one type of work, it can turn its hoof to another, or you can easily sell it to someone to do another job if you needed to.
The second most important is soundness – and it’s second to temperament only because our goals for our foal are not physically over taxing. Again if you were looking to gallop round Badminton then soundness is critical as it takes many miles of training and competing to get to Badminton.
A separate but very real consideration is facilities – do you have the right facilities and knowledge to foal down your mare and keep them both safe? Is your fencing foal safe? Can they have separate turn out? Do you have a stable large enough? If you don’t have these things are you prepared to pay to board her at a facility that can provide these things?
For the breeder hoping to produce a potential world-beater –
For those looking to breed a superior horse specifically for the sport of eventing, how the heck do we even start?? Unlike dressage and show jumping where dominant family lines are widely recognised as providing a high proportion of the best horses, there appears to be no such clear dominance in Eventing. In fact a glance at the FEI statistics shows that most stallions only have 1 progeny competing at the very top level. Why is this? Is it a function of the random way horses have found their way into Eventing, or that all sorts of bloodlines can produce top class Eventers, or just that no-one has really focussed on breeding event horses using specific bloodlines for long enough, in large enough numbers, to create statistically meaningful trends?
The truth is that it is probably all of these reasons. Most certainly horses find their way into Eventing after failing on the track, but increasingly they are originating from established breeding programmes. In the UK there have been a number of specialist breeders, with the Welton Stud leading the way several decades ago, and now the Continent has also realised that event horses can be bred specifically in the same way they have bred dressage and showjumpers and are gearing up their event horse breeding efforts. The USA and Australia also have some Event Horse studs but in the main they are not as large in number or size.
Specialist event horse breeders have woken up to a fact that’s been known in racing and warmblood breeding for decades if not centuries – motherlines. We are often excited that a horse is by a certain stallion without taking much account of the dam. When you view a thoroughbred bloodstock sales catalogue it’s not the performance of the sire line that’s printed in full, it’s the dam line. If you review the sales results, you will also notice that stock by particular stallions sell for hugely varying prices. Why is this? Obviously the individuals themselves may vary in quality, but on further inspection you will see that the high priced animals most often descend from motherlines who contained winners.
This is mirrored in warmblood breeding where the naming conventions of many breeds are based on the motherline, underscoring the recognised value – Trakehners for example name the offspring from the first letter of the dam’s name. Holsteiner lines or “stamms” again originate and track motherlines, with certain lines being held in particularly great esteem.
Putting a logical hat on for a moment… if some of the longest established breeding programmes in the world – thoroughbred racehorses, and warmblood jumping and dressage horses – have focussed on motherlines, and as a result dominated their particular fields, would applying the same logic to event horse breeding not potentially yield the same results..?
So how can we apply these principles to developing our own breeding programme for Eventers? When we’re looking for our foundation broodmares, how can we identify these potentially potent motherlines? The answer is research. I ask myself constantly how I can increase the chances of producing a superior athlete, and how I can reduce the chances of getting a sub-standard one. I therefore need to answer a number of fundamental questions as a starting point, and from this evaluate the answers obtained. To analyse the answers, I developed a simple weighted scoring system which was based around the aspects of a mare that I felt were most material.
The scoring system took into account characteristics of the mare such as –
- What offspring has she produced to date
- What siblings does she have
- What performance did she herself demonstrate
- What performance does her sire and dam have
- What is the mare’s temperament, conformation, jump and movement like
- How sound was the mare
Just to underline the point regarding selecting potent motherlines… when I selected a mare called Cornish Faer to join my
breeding programme she scored very highly as she came from a family of 4* horses and was 4* herself. When the BEF Futurity Series completed its 2009 evaluations, over 100 Event Foals had been evaluated for their potential to be Elite Eventing prospects. Cornish Faer and 2 of her daughters, Cornish Queen and Cornish Gem (who are full sisters) had foals evaluated. From those 100 foals, Cornish Gem had the Highest Graded Foal (Future Coeur de Reine), Cornish Faer’s foal was the 3rd Highest Graded (Future Cornish Illusion) and Cornish Queen’s foal was the Joint 5th Highest Graded. All three foals graded with Elite status but the foals were all sired by different stallions. Here is the tangible evidence of the effectiveness of using potent motherlines – QED as they say.
Mother Nature has a degree of unpredictability to it. To consistently breed high class horses we need to have as high a degree of predictability in our programme as possible. To do this we need to remove unknown variables as these introduce the potential for unplanned, potentially detrimental characteristics to emerge in our youngstock or characteristics that exist in the mare which have little chance of being replicated in future generations. If you use the analogy of racing – you have a racehorse that prefers right hand tracks, on soft ground over a minimum trip of 2m6f, and has a handicap of 74. You would select your races based on tracks that run right handed, that have races for handicaps of 75 and under, and you’d be watching the weather forecasts to look for tracks that were likely to have the soft going your horse likes. This process requires you to quantify the key factors that influence your horse’s performance, then undertake the required research. That information then needs analysing to look for the characteristics you want – right handed, low rated etc. By going through this process you drive out risk and maximise the chances of winning. You have removed as many unknowns as possible and replaced them with quantified factors that you can then use to base intelligent decisions on. Applying a selection process to choosing your foundation broodmares uses exactly the same process to help ensure the best possible result.
As with any facet of life, if you want to succeed you need to approach any challenge with strong preparation, planning and focus. If you cannot write down the goal of your breeding programme, with the key performance indicators you’re going to use to check your progress, and the key activities you need to undertake to achieve your goal, it is unlikely that you will ever achieve it. It would be a bit like jumping in your car and setting off to a location you’ve not decided on, without a map, or any fuel in your tank. Your chances of arriving at the place you’d hoped for are very limited!
Above all, breeding is a long game. Don’t be swayed by fashions or fads. By the time your foal is old enough to compete the fashion will have changed. Breed for soundness, athleticism and trainability – they never go out of fashion and stand the horse in very good stead for whatever career may lie ahead for it. If you’ve thought carefully before deciding to breed, step 1 is to put in place the firm foundations you need to build your program on by using well credentialed mares. A good mare and a bad one cost the same to keep, but a bad one will cost you a lot more in the long run. If you’ve decided breeding is for you… welcome aboard the roller coaster – enjoy the ride!