PART 3: The land of gossip & scandal, breeding for profit, Carnegie Hall...it all makes sense...
So I am hoping to wrap up this ‘housecleaning’ project that has gone on in my mind for the past few days. Not that I mind sharing my thoughts but I would rather put more energy into training horses and working on my riding skills (such as they are) than wandering through my work with a lack of focus. Plus this post is an elephant in comparison to the other 2! (enough already...right?)
So here are some basics -
Is there no room in my heart for a rescued OTTB?
Quite the opposite, actually. I would love to rescue many horses and provide them with a better future. However, my current plate of responsibility is full and I can not commit to more than I have. You might ask, does this mean that I think there is no hope for an OTTB in competitive sport? This is not the case and I will fall back on what Mr. Schultheis said - "good breeding means less training." A horse bred to do the job you will ask of it is less likely to need as much training, effort, time and therefore money(!!!) from you. A racehorse has been genetically selected for about 150 years to go fast. No emphasis on temperament, rideability, responsibility towards their rider - merely go fastest and get their nose out in front. So would I pay hard earned money for an OTTB as an upper level dressage prospect? No. Would I adopt one to provide it with a safe future? Yes. See the difference?
Rumors and gossip...the stuff that makes the horse world go 'round, right?
As my riding life has been surrounded by horses that have specifically bred and selected for their particular qualities I find myself thinking 'well, of COURSE that makes sense! “Good breeding means less training!” Why would anyone do it differently than Mr. Schultheis said?' At this moment, I will go ahead and say what many folks have muttered to me (resentfully) over the years - I AM lucky. I have been given very talented horses to ride over the years. My parents did not make me ride horses no one else wanted or that would damage my riding skills or hurt me. They specifically bred, raised and trained horses that we could not afford to buy. I am spoiled. And at 35, I have no regrets and only the deepest thanks that my parents raised me in this manner and made the sacrifices that they did to provide the best horses that they could for me to learn on. Champagne tastes and beer budget definitely played a part in how I was raised - but there is a level of comfort in training third, fourth and fifth generation stock. It is a form of deja vu in many ways - no surprises, very familiar territory and that makes for a level of comfort and security.
So in case anyone is curious why they/we have done things the way that we have - here’s the lowdown -
Way back in the 70’s there was this awesome imported stallion (came over on a ship) who crossed really well with long distance bred TB mares. His offspring were showing exceptional promise in different disciplines, so my parents began the effort of breeding fine horses to raise, train and sell. And so it goes for over 40 years. We breed to stallions who are proven in our chosen area of sport with mares who are similar in type to the most successful crosses and viola - our multi-generational breeding program is unveiled!
Now, if it puzzles you dear reader - why do we get excited over things like fox hunting, eventing, hunters or jumpers and not just strictly dressage offspring - it is because we prefer the youngsters to have sufficient talent to enjoy good success in their new (hopefully) owner’s discipline of choice! If the horse does not have an inclination to be solely a dressage horse (lots of flat work with minimal jumping and cross country galloping), it had best have enough talent and scope to jump around a 3’6” course...otherwise it is an utterly failed breeding endeavor and a very, very tough animal to rehome, let alone make any sort of a profit.
Oh and for the masses that ‘feel sorry for me’ having to ride rambunctious young horses at the odd schooling show - whyever would you say that to me? Pity? Really? Just because I am on a big moving baby that acts up? It’s a schooling show - not the Olympics! The young horse is there to LEARN what showing is about! Of course it will be exciting to them - new place, lots to see, commotion! I lap that stuff up like a kitten with a saucer of milk! The horse and I are there to test the waters, assess where there needs to be some polish and then move along with the training process. Next time keep a good eye on the width of my smile - I enjoy finding the ‘limits’ of where they are and it will be a dead give away to the level of upset that I am experiencing. There is no need for pity to even come into your mind unless I have an arterial bleed and can not catch the bugger. Quiet is wonderful but an expressive, explosive horse that does not try to unload me at every opportunity is just fine, too.
How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice Man. Practice. This is the punch line to an old joke about a first time visitor to NYC who pulls over to ask the Hippie panhandling on a corner - How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
So expand that a step - how do I make progress with my riding? Practice!
Plain and simple! Get the best quality instruction so that you understand the timing of the aids, the correct ‘feel’ and then apply those repeatedly to the horse(s) that you ride until they are second nature. And while it is very much easier said than done - practice is the only way to improve your riding skills. Oh and practice is not easy, painless or without struggle. For anyone. Ever. We all have to work hard to make progress.
And if you are working with an instructor that has not trained a few horses or competed to the level that you would like to ride some day - reevaluate why you are there paying them. Lots of people hang a shingle and get business with absolutely no real life experience or qualifications. Much like I say about breeding - do your homework, go watch them teach or coach. If you would like to learn to canter some day - go work with a trainer that teaches horses regularly to do flying changes (they are really just another canter stride, honest). Do not settle for the Queen of Intro Level C or the rider who is Training Level Champion year after year. There is so much more to correct riding beyond the basic levels - and that includes everything below Prix St. Georges. Do not listen to gossip or ask for how-to advice over the internet. Get the best instruction that you can afford so as to make the most progress in the least amount of time. If you are strapped for cash - ask about working off lessons, barter...make it happen if you want to learn.
Bloodlines and performance vs. fashion
So now that I tackled that sticky mess...on to fashionable breedings and expectations, hopes and dreams! (what can I say - this stuff has been bugging me for ages!) I am a fuddy duddy. There I said it. No, wait. Let me expand on that - I am a fuddy duddy who has lived the life of the privileged rider with good horses that stay sound, are forgiving and have upper level talent. They were not by parents who won the latest stallion licensing, testing or were the hottest new kid on the block in Germany or Holland. Nor were they owned by big name, big budgeted, high cost advertisers in all the glossy magazines. They were from sires that worked hard, stayed sound and produced performers. A PSG horse does not a Grand Prix horse make - remember I said it is only 1/2 way to GP? Really. I’m not making that up. A fancy trotting triangle winner does not an FEI horse make. A low level (less than FEI) horse does not make anything beyond a low level horse with rare exceptions - of course. There are always exceptions and everyone is always hoping to be the rarest of exceptions. It is an exception because it is rare. Do not bank on being an exception. It takes too long and will cost too much money in the end -- just like a rescue horse. A talented horse will present its own set of challenges but far lesser physical difficulties moving up the levels. And if it is bred from ancestors that worked hard for years at a high level - you up the odds of getting there yourself. Stack the deck in your favor and leave experimental crosses to those who have the financial, emotional and mental resources to take such risks.
But with the self-awareness of being a fuddy duddy in regards to bloodlines and ‘old’ names - these are horses that need to work. They need a routine - a dedicated training program with a schedule that is sequential and has definite goals. These bloodlines have been bred for generations to maximize efficient feed consumption, have durable joints, sound bodies and the mindset that repetition is a good thing. They are not dumb bloods or stupid - these are horses that relax into their work and improve dramatically with consistent effort. They learn quite quickly and do not have a level of impatience with repetition. Remember Hanoverians were the horses for the calvary - not the fancy officer’s mounts or the ones to pull the canons or beer wagons. Quadrilles, set patterns, repeated school figures - it makes sense to them. Really.
Breeding for profit
This is something that I thought was a great idea once upon a time! Of course it would be possible to breed good horses, raise them properly and sell them for a vast profit. Is it possible? Yes. Is it something the average breeder with an average mare can count on? No. Is it a bankable scenario for a mare owner with a really good mare? Possibly.
That might sound completely preposterous but here's the honest truth - buyers have many options at the moment due to the economy which has taken a global hit. The market for young, attractive horses for sport is flooded. Buyers can shop by color, markings, gender (much like buying a car) without ever leaving the comfort of their home. There is a a level of expectation that is rampant in the buying public - the full pre-vetting of a sales horse is now the normal with full digital radiographs and a starting price of less than 10K for a green 3 year old. That is a very tough number to swallow for a well bred, high potential, talented youngster that has received regular farrier care, vaccinations and is sound. But there you have it. Less than 3 thousand dollars per year in full costs from the time the mare was bred to the third birthday. Ouch. Undersaddle horses with fancy pedigrees are selling for those sort of prices, too. So if you are considering a breeding venture - do the math. Do the hard math of monthly costs, unexpected stitches, colic, loss of the mare/foal at birth, projected board rates - all of it. Then figure out if you are making money.
Breeders must take the long and pessimistic view and ask themselves the very tough questions that are easy to shrug off as 'not in my case, my mare is special! I'm breeding to a famous stallion!' So ask yourselves - What happens if Baby does not sell? Can I afford the board for mare and foal? Do I have a facility to raise Baby and do the weaning process on site? Do I have the resources (background, experience, finances, professional services) to fall back on to raise Baby to 2-4 years to begin the undersaddle experience? What will encourage a buyer to purchase my Baby over one from a Big Name Stud Farm? Can I get Baby going undersaddle with enough confidence to sell to an amateur rider? Your Baby will eventually be a full grown horse and in need of an education - it is up to you to be fully prepared to provide all the care, training and preventative care for an indefinite amount of time. There are all logical and realistic questions for every potential breeder to take into sober consideration before getting misty eyed at the idea of breeding their precious mare.
And I will share a small story which may partially explain why I am so opinionated about this whole concept of clearing my mind’s accumulation of thoughts. Several years ago, I traveled to Wellington, FL to look at a stallion. I liked him on paper, his performance record was impeccable and was considering a purchase or at least pitching my case for breeding to him. On a hot sultry February afternoon, I met him and rode him with his owner and trainer coaching. About 2 minutes into the ride decided I had to have this horse. Had to. Not wanted. Had to. And breeding just 1 or 2 mares would not be enough. I wanted him to brighten my days and teach me what he knew and to make me miniature versions of himself to bring along for my riding future. Every rider has a horse that fits their style, speaks their language and just 'fits'. Waldaire was that for me. From the first stride in the canter I was sold. Uphill, plenty of power from behind with a super jump and a crystal clear 3 beat rhythm. He has continually produced that same quality for us in his offspring. A few strides into each ride on each and every one of them, I am vividly reminded how much easier it is for some horses to perform at a level that is just harder for other bloodlines. Training them is easier as they are so similar to their sire. Blood will tell. They are smart, talented and sensible. But not fashionable or with big names in the pedigree.
To shift slightly towards the subject of breeding for profit - I have one offspring in the current riding list by a much more well regarded and world famous stallion. I love this horse. I really truly do for all that makes him unique and special. He, too, has talent but we labor together to achieve that level of harmony that is already a given with the Waldaire youngsters. It is the best example of one of my pet peeves of horse breeding - A famous pedigree does not an easy riding horse make. He is extremely talented, beautiful and not 'easy' to ride. Most people would have been intimidated by his antics long ago...I look back at the foolishness he used to act on with fondness at this point. He is unique in our barn and I am grateful to have only 1 like him each day! :) Several people have asked me about breeding to his sire over the years and I repeatedly have offered them a ride on this horse. Very few are willing to accept the offer vs. the multitudes of amateurs and professionals who keep asking when they can take the ride on Wizard from me. (and here is a public statement to that often asked question - some one else can have the ride on Wizard over my dead body) But I will point out - we have had a number of horses in our care and program from other 'famous' stallions and breeding operations and the same general opinion remains - the horses might have fancy pedigrees with lots of well known, big name stallions but they are not necessarily easy to work with. If you are interested in breeding to a famous stallion - seek out his offspring and make arrangements to ride them. If you are not a rider, find a rider who you respect and ask their opinion (candid, unadulterated, honest, no hard feelings for good or bad words) of the stallion and his get. If you get guarded or lukewarm answers - you might want to rethink your breeding choice unless you are currently up to the task at hand as a rider yourself.
A number of young people have approached me with stars in their eyes about the whole breeding experience. For the record, it is like everything else - highs, lows, tragedy and joys with a lot of monotony mixed in each day. Lots of lost sleep and wakeful nights, sore muscles, anxiety and constant stress. But the joy is wonderfully addictive! A part of me feels like a Grinch at this time of the year for being so negative. Then my common sense reasserts itself, and I am forced to tell them that the only reason to breed a horse is that you can't afford to buy what you want and you can not find a breeder who will work with you financially. Breeders are far more flexible than you might think dear reader! The only way to discover such a thing is to ask!
So what is the point of this one sided conversation...
Well, perhaps this blog is my way of warning those who will come after me in the horse business. All the glitz and glamour will not change the fact that horses are an expensive addiction with a high physical toll that goes into their daily care and training. It is a form of factory work to train a horse. Repetition, perseverance and determination with a whole lot of sweat thrown in from both horse and rider pave the way to success. There are no short cuts unless you have unlimited funds and can pay for someone else to have done the grunt work. It is incredibly fun and has moments of joy and feelings of accomplishment like nothing else on earth!
Maybe it is my chance to remind folks that we all have something to say. I recently took one of our horses (As You Wish - my eventing buddy) out fox hunting for the first time. 90% of those who have spoken with me are shocked and amazed that I did not give her any sedatives or chemical calming agents. Really? Why would I give her drugs to dull her reaction time? That is insane! Drugs are not a solution!! Her dam was a super hunt horse - other than being 17.2 and you cleared the uppermost cobwebs as she was the tallest horse in the woods. AYW’s sire Adamant was the best hunt horse in the barn and he threw great hunt horses! His sire Abundance hunted for years...she is an example of a horse that has been bred to do a specific task. Now - both her sire and dam evented and competed at the FEI Levels in dressage...but there are very few surprises in the training of this horse! I am proud that she took to it like a duck to water and hope to go out again for my own mental health.
So to tie this all back to the original quote from Willi Schultheis - “Good breeding means less training.” We need to take a step back as riders and caregivers to reevaluate our level of commitment, goals, current mount(s) and the emotional, personal financial investment that we are willing to make. Each answer is highly personal! And that's the way it should be!
So I think that is everything. Somehow I doubt that I will sleep better tonight - probably will find a way to fret that the burning torches and pitchforks will be rallying at dawn at my front door! ;) Ah well, if you all aren't there...I will read the Dressage Curmudgeon's latest blog and shake my head at how ridiculous people can be.