The ever innovative Nina Barbour of Bolesworth and Harthill Stud fame, recently introduced a new event into the equestrian calendar with a 2 day Breeders Seminar targeted at Elite Sporthorse breeders.
The first day consisted of a wonderful dinner held at the Carden Park Hotel. Around 300 guests were well fed and watered and most importantly of all, educated and entertained. The speakers on a wide range of topics were Paul Hendrix (show jumping breeder and dealer), Arie Hamoen (ex-KWPN stallion selection committee), Edna Carroll (manager Ashford Farm Stables), Sarah Stoneham (stud vet), and two of Britain’s leading riders – Oli Townend and William Funnell.
A lot of the topics covered by the panel were concepts any serious breeder should be familiar with. But none the less they are worth re-emphasising. Firstly you need to define your breeding goal. Whether you are aiming to breed world class eventers, or good all rounders, the principles are the same. You must assess your breeding stock, with your end goal in mind, and note their strong points and weaknesses. But what perhaps many sporthorses breeders do not emphasise enough is the importance of consolidating your mare’s strong points. As an example, if you mare has a super tight front leg technique over a fence, pick a stallion who has the same, in order to try and consolidate that attribute further.
The Importance of Motherlines
There was also the usual emphasis on strong motherlines, one area that I feel a lot of breeders pay lip service to, but do not always truly understand. As this seminar was aimed at breeding elite sporthorses, the concept of breeding from mares that have either produced top class offspring, or whose dams or granddams have, was greatly emphasised. The interesting point that was really made, was that if you are trying to breed commercially, it is the mare line that is going to make the difference when you come to sell your foal. With so many stallions available through chilled and frozen semen, the very best stallions will have a lot of stock on the ground. This means that in order to make your foal that is sired by a popular stallion stand out, you need to be using the best motherliness you can get access to. Anyone can buy semen, the mare makes the difference!
A lot of the panel advocated getting mares graded or assessed at 3. If first impressions of the mare loose and under saddle are good, and the mare has the pedigree to back up those impressions , then cover them in their third year, so that they foal down at 4. They could then be prepared for their career in sport, and whether they were then sold on, or would later return to the breeding barn, the breeder would already have 1 foal from a top mare family. What was a little more controversial was Paul Hendrix’s method of assessing his yearlings by loose jumping them. I expected this to cause a lot of discussion among the guests, but they way Paul explained it, it did sound a very credible way of assessing young show jumpers.
Paul breeds and buys in around 100 foals a year. Of those about 40 would be fillies. The yearlings are loose jumped for three days in a row in the April or May. The canter is assessed as they run loose, looking for balance, and rhythm. The young horses first reactions when they see a pole are the most important. How are their reflexes, do they back up or are they brave, how do they use their stifles and hocks. After 6 months in the summer pastures, the yearlings come in again for 3 days loose jumping, only over small fences, but the same assessment is run again. Then in the Spring of their three year old year the best 10 fillies are covered.
Oli Townend was asked if similar principles can be applied to the assessment of eventing stock. He certainly felt that the key points for him were looking for a trainable athlete, with huge reserves of stamina. This means a high percentage of Thoroughbred blood in the pedigree. As I observed last year in my article reflecting on WEG, Oli likes to see a jumping sire over a blood mare. Because he is interested in the bloodlines of good horses, and because he felt that many of the traditional places to buy eventing stock where losing their way, Harthill Stud was born, based on foundation pedigrees that Oli had first hand experience of. By utilising those bloodlines, the element of chance was reduced. One thing which I really agreed with him on, was how frustrating it is to not be able to find out the pedigrees of horses you observe at an event. If you have the pedigree information, you can start to build a picture of what seems to be working.
What was also interesting over the course of the two days, was how Oli was very careful not to write off eventing stock at a young age if they are not flashy and well developed. With his knowledge of bloodlines, he appreciates that the stock with a high percentage of Thoroughbred blood, take longer to mature. He also pointed out that the KWPN studbook has a great understanding of what attributes to look for in assessing dressage and show jumping stock, but with eventers needing less extravagance and more stamina and bravery, it can be harder to assess them as youngsters. But if you know how to assess the way of going, the brain, the reflexes and the pedigree, you can breed 3 and 4 star horses ( if you can get them into the right hands!)
The final key point to mention from the evening session was the announcement of a new Elite youngstock auction in 2015, to be held in June at the Bolesworth CSI****. 12 yearlings will be hand picked from top UK and European studs. The sale will have to change the perception that buying at auction means buying a bargain with issues. By creating an atmosphere of trust, and only selecting those yearlings that show the early potential to be future stars, Nina Barbour’s team hope to set a new benchmark in the the sport horse auction world. I know I will be there to see if they can pull it off!