Breeding Horses To Be Show Jumpers

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Snowbound. Touch Of Class. Gem Twist. Sloopy. Albany. For The Moment. San Lucas. Untouchable. Bold Minstrel. Democrat. Fleet Apple. Main Spring. Night Owl. Sandsablaze. Sinjon.

These 15 American-bred horses (almost all of them Thoroughbreds) represented the United States in the Olympics between 1948 and 1992, and two of them won individual gold medals (Snowbound in 1968 and Touch Of Class in 1984), while Gem Twist claimed the silver medal in 1988 and Sloopy won the bronze in 1972.

We used to breed and produce international-caliber show jumpers in the United States. And then it stopped, suddenly. Our gold-medal Olympic team from 1984 had two American-bred Thoroughbreds — Touch Of Class and Albany — plus Abdullah, a Canadian-bred Trakehner. But 1992 was the last year in which an American-bred horse (For The Moment) was part of the U.S. Olympic team. (Judgement, a U.S.-bred Dutch Warmblood, was a member of the 2002 World Championship team, the only U.S.-bred horse to be on a U.S. senior championship show jumping team since 1992.)

Plus, another four American-bred Thoroughbreds have won or placed in the top three in an FEI World Cup Final — The Jones Boy (second in 1979), Jet Run (first in 1981), Southside (second in 1981), and For The Moment (third in 1987).

But that was 20 years or more ago.

Why did it stop'

The warmblood explosion produced a flood of European-bred horses who perfectly suited the way show jumping courses have evolved ever since former U.S. coach Bertalan de Nemethy’s course for the 1984 Olympics. That’s when championship courses changed from being mostly tests of scope and endurance into tests of carefulness, cleverness and adjustability. The horses the Europeans were breeding also suited the new generations of American riders, who sought forgiving horses that were easy to ride as jumpers, hunters and dressage horses.

When the courses changed, it took the game out from under most Thoroughbreds, who excelled at galloping over courses that tested heart and raw scope. And it gave the warmbloods the advantage, because the premium was now on power from a shorter stride and a deeper distance.

Plus, in the last 30 years, U.S. Thoroughbred breeders have begun choosing breeding prospects with pretty much only one thing in mind — speed, preferably at less than a mile and as two- or three-year-olds. They’ve largely ignored soundness or temperament, two vital factors for jumpers or any kind of horse for that matter.

Today, U.S. sport-horse breeders are foaling thousands of warmblood or crossbred horses, using stallions with German, Dutch, Belgian, French or Irish pedigrees on Thoroughbred mares, or, sometimes, Thoroughbred stallions on warmblood mares. And they’re producing a consistent type of athletic, willing, generous horse.

But there are two problems: First, and most importantly, it’s chic to go to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or other European countries to buy a horse. It’s easier too, because those countries are geographically smaller and full of agents. A buyer can look at a dozen or more horses in a day.

Second, as Linda Allen, the esteemed international course designer and clinician, points out, ”We don’t have professionals currently, or coming up, who know much about making a young horse — and if we did, where would they take those horses to put 'mileage’ on them' At $1,500 a week or more in base cost to take a horse to a show that has just basic jumping classes over decent courses, the youngster better be a star in the making or have an owner with a bottomless bank account!

”The cost of bringing a horse from three-year-old to a saleable five- or six-year-old is astronomical in this country. Almost anywhere else in the world, opportunities exist to show a horse at a far lower cost.”

The Solution

American breeders, the leaders of the various breed registries, and the leaders of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and its affiliates need to work together to solve the geographical, recording and marketing challenges we’re facing.

We already have a pretty good list of competitions devoted to young horses, things like the American Hunter Futurity, the American Jumper Futurity, and the Young Jumper Series. Eventing has the new Young Event Horse Series, and the dressage has promoted showing young horses and breeding stock on the line for years.

However, we have a critical need for every horse who competes (in any sport or discipline) to have an individual identification number that stays with him or her for life, probably with some kind of registration or passport and a microchip or brand. Then, every time he or she competes, gets sold or produces a foal, it’s recorded.

Go to the U.S. Eventing Association’s website (www.useventing.com), where you’ll see a database that graphically gives you a horse’s competitive details and pedigree, if known. It’s available to anyone, and it’s becoming an increasingly important sales tool.

A permanent ID number is critical because nearly every time a horse gets sold, particularly while they’re young, the new owner changes his name. So we need a number to track performance and to correlate that information to pedigrees. The breeders want and need it most of all — because only rarely do they have any idea of the performance success (or failure) of the horses their stallions or mares have produced. But this information would be a boon to buyers, too.

Another handicap to domestic horse sales is our country’s broad expanse, which mentally and geographically hamstrings buyers. The most logical way to address that is to have more young-horse auctions, like the Thoroughbred world does.

But for that to work, we’ll have to change the attitude most American horse owners have about auctions. Horse people have historically viewed them as a place to find cheap, unwanted horses, horses that are often of questionable physical and mental soundness. We have to make them into the kind of auctions they have in Germany to get breeders to send their horses and buyers to attend.

American breeders are producing horses that are physically and mentally capable of performing well over fences or in dressage. They’re producing an increasing number of horses with solid conformation, good bone, who are neither too heavy nor too light, and have generous, willing temperaments. And from those types of horses you get solid citizens and superstars.

But people have to buy them. So c’mon, American elite riders, while you’re putting together your string of horses, why not look for some U.S.-breds' Your students and fans started buying European warmbloods because they saw you riding them. You can turn that around.