I’ve mentioned how important I believe breeding is to the future success of the U.S. international high performance programs several times in articles since the Olympic Games. It doesn’t take much looking around at the rest of the world to notice how woefully behind we are in this aspect of our sport. I believe this is the single largest gap we face as a nation in becoming a sustainable power in equestrian sport. The problem has evolved, and it will take time to fix, but without some immediate action we’re only going to fall further and further behind.
This wasn’t always a problem for us. In the past, our American Thoroughbreds were both strong and plentiful enough that we could draw from a large pool of ex-race horses and transform them into superstars. This is still possible in some cases in eventing, but it’s certainly harder. In jumping and dressage, it’s simply unrealistic at the top level.
While this is due, in part, to the changes in the sports, with more emphasis on dressage and the power jumpers, it’s also a reflection on the modern sport of racing. With shorter distances and earlier racing making it advantageous to breed sprinters, the distance powerhouses of the past that could cross over and stay sound as sport horses are being bred in fewer numbers.
Because this happened over time, we supplemented our horses for many years with horses born and bred in Europe. For a long while, we were able to pay slightly (or substantially) more for horses than people in the country of origin, and we seemed to get the pick of the litter. But, like the frog in the boiling pot, we haven’t realized that we are slowly killing our sport.
Though perhaps overdramatic, I use this analogy anyway because a good, coordinated breeding program pays so many dividends, and the lack of one leaves us constantly at the mercy of others. The financial burdens of buying expensive horses in Olympic years, and the lack of opportunity for a more sound investment, take owners out of the game. Not having access to the right type of horse leaves the talented but not financially capable rider with little opportunity to ride the right type of horse consistently. When these riders don’t come through the ranks, our quality as a nation declines.
We’re in a cycle, and I don’t like many of the conclusions that may play out if it’s not corrected.
A Proactive Plan
However, I am an optimist (to a fault). I see a few simple and efficient ways to get the ball rolling in a better direction. Additionally, we already have many committed and knowledgeable breeders tackling the problem. What we lack is an overall plan and a coordinated effort to see it through.
A few key elements need to be addressed in order not to be writing this same article in 10 to 20 years:
1) We must continue to expand upon and create a clear and exciting equine pipeline. In so doing, we must pay attention to create opportunities for young horses to shine each year along their development path and for breeders to showcase what they are producing. There must not be gaps along the way, and this is easily reproduced and tweaked from what other countries are doing.
2) We must decide what we need to breed and, ideally, we should develop a national studbook that would have the necessary pieces in place to be internationally recognized as our own breed. I have some opinions on this, but there are many capable breeders and competitors who can also lend a hand in this discussion.
3) Our U.S. Equestrian Federation Breeding Committee (of which I am a new member) needs to be attended and eventually populated with the heads of high performance in each discipline. I think the current committee is very good, but the line of communication between it and high performance should be direct and the relationship symbiotic.
4) We need staff level positions at the USEF (one to start) to coordinate breeders and take stock of what is being bred. That person could also manage the USEF Young Horse Championships (set for 2014) and help to facilitate the connection between high performance plans and breeders.
A National Sport Horse
The idea I want to discuss in particular is the need for our own breed and studbook. This has already been started to an extent through the North American Studbook, and it may well just need more emphasis behind it, but either way we need to see it through.
It has always been a bit baffling to me that we have North American versions of many of the European studbooks, but we have none of our own. Due to the fact that we have many proprietary horse breeds in this country (Quarter Horses, Morgans, Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers, etc.) I know we are capable, but why don’t we do the same for sport horses? My guess is that we haven’t had to.
It might be just the right time to do this. With each sport migrating to the middle of hot-blooded (Thoroughbred, Anglo, etc.) and warm-blooded horses, it seems like a good opportunity to use the assets we have. Despite the decreasing numbers of suitable sport crossover Thoroughbreds, there are still many mares (roughly 1 million Thoroughbreds in America from the latest estimate I’ve seen) that could be suitable crosses for warmblood stallions.
With all that is happening in the Thoroughbred placement programs, there may even be an opportunity to work together to fund such a search. My ideal horse has between half and three-quarters Thoroughbred blood, and the balance could be any number of great warmblood stallions. For other sports it might be a slightly different mix, but the point is: We can do this.
Though our Thoroughbreds are one piece of the puzzle, we also need to push our riders to embryo transfer their top mares and put them in breeding programs when their careers are done. I see great mares that are not being bred until so late in their careers that they often don’t take or, worse, aren’t bred at all. This is a shame and a wasted asset. Certain mares should even qualify for grant programs to make sure they reproduce.
All of this is possible and can be done with our current infrastructure save one key role: the person to coordinate. Certainly, with the gap so evident and with budget surpluses at the USEF we can invest in the future by making our breeding program a priority.
Michael Pollard and his wife, Nathalie, run Chatsworth Stud, a breeding and training facility in Chatsworth, Ga. Michael, 32, is also the CEO of several carpet and equine-related businesses and a father of four. At 18, he jumped around the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and won the Markham trophy as the highest-placed young rider. He was the US. Eventing Association’s Young Rider of the Year in 2001. In 2009, he won the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.), and in 2011, he was a member of the gold-medal U.S. team at the Pan American Games.