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March 5, 2013

We Need To Prioritize A Coordinated U.S. Breeding Program

Michael Pollard believes it’s important to encourage riders to do embryo transfer with their top mares, such as his Schoensgreen Hanni, and put them in breeding programs when their sporting careers are finished. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

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.

3 years 46 weeks ago
American Bred Sporthorses
I have a couple of comments about this article. First of all, I have imported many warmbloods over the years. I have brought 2 to FEI and one is currently schooling GP dressage. I also have 3... Read More
ise@ssl (not verified)
3 years 46 weeks ago
A Response from a Breeders's standpoint.
In response to Michael Pollard’s thesis that “We Need to Prioritize a Coordinated U.S. Breeding Program, I would offer the following response. I’ve been breeding horses (and now sportponies) for... Read More


3 years 46 weeks ago

A Response from a Breeders's standpoint.

In response to Michael Pollard’s thesis that “We Need to Prioritize a Coordinated U.S. Breeding Program, I would offer the following response. I’ve been breeding horses (and now sportponies) for sport for 26 years, which would mean that I’ve been at this since Mr. Pollard was 6 years old so my perspective on it will be somewhat different. I started out breeding Thoroughbreds for a few years and then used 3 superior TB mares to cross with Warmblood stallions. These foundation mares were from top distance running bloodlines and my results were and have been with their daughters and grand-daughters, quality sporthorses and also sportponies. In my experience, the loss of the distance running TB’s has been a travesty for our breeding in the U.S. The sprinting TB has a straighter shoulder (which is tough to breed out) and a lack of endurance that I feel is a necessary factor in breeding. These "old line TB's" gave breeders the ability to “lighten” the heavier Warmbloods to produce what is now referred to as the Modern Sporthorse. Trust me on this; we don’t need a Coordinated Breeding Program. What we lack is the system in Europe where a horse is tracked with ONE NUMBER FOR LIFE. The U.S. burdens breeders (and owners) with a costly and hideously complicated system for sporthorses that results in multiple numbers depending on discipline, an unreliable tracking system for competition results and a lack of interest by many riders and trainers in bloodlines and pedigree. This multiple Fiefdom approach also facilitates fraud as horses through name changes or ownership changes can be re-invented with respect to their pedigree or performance history. I can research a horse’s history in Germany with reliable information but CANNOT do the same here in the U.S. While the initial years of breeding sporthorses in the U.S. were not always successful with respect to quality, it is not the current state of affairs. US Breeders have successfully built a sporthorse mare base in this country that is on par with Europe. We are also producing offspring that are of the same quality as Europe. This is not solely a U.S. observation; this is from knowledgeable owners, breeders, judges across the pond. What we severely lack in this country are trainers who can start young horses using the Pyramid method and can cross-train these youngsters so they are not only more versatile but also have a solid foundation to build on to become “high performance competitors”. This deficiency is affecting every discipline. We have an abundance of upper level riders, who unlike their counterparts over the pond, feel it is beneath them to start young horses or even train them. The mantra in Dressage is that they want horses at PSG with changes. Training a horse to PSG with changes is seemingly not an option for them. And sadly many that do train younger horses rely on draw reins or other gadgets to ride the horses front to back instead of back to front. In my opinion we burn through a very high number of horses because of this. Instead of the old mantra of “flat work, flat work, flat work”, too many riders of all ages are looking for short cuts. As you have stated, our top Jumpers in the past often came from the track. Those distance running TB’s that were successful Jumpers are impossible to find. Our Jumper riders often moved up from the Hunters. I feel the Hunters have morphed into something that’s almost a joke. Riders from youngsters on up never seem to sit on the saddle; the number of strides seems to overtake the concept that these horses and ponies are “theoretically” to be suitable for “hunting”. Watching the classes almost puts one to sleep as these equines go around in slow motion with riders either six inches above the saddle or lying on the horse’s neck over the fence and everyone is mentally or vocally counting strides! I’ve never seen anyone count strides in the Hunt Field! I would support a return to the old format for Eventing as I believe the emphasis on Dressage and elimination of Roads & Tracks has created more problems than benefits. This provided the check on the condition of the horses prior to heading out Cross Country. I’ve watched as horses at the Horse Trials do very well in the Dressage phase and then have a very rough go at Stadium and Cross Country specifically because the Rider is hesitant to the fences and/or obstacles. We can’t always blame the horses. And finally Mr. Pollard – the Sporthorses Breeders in this country have young horses available for purchase and it is not hard to find us. But understand that most of Breeders who have been at this for decades are pretty darn selective about who we sell to because we want good horses to go to good situations with suitable riders. Breed shows in Europe have an abundance of spectators and buyers (many Americans among them), while our Breed shows in the U.S. have empty seats. Why can't U.S buyers accept that we have the same quality here?
3 years 46 weeks ago

American Bred Sporthorses

I have a couple of comments about this article. First of all, I have imported many warmbloods over the years. I have brought 2 to FEI and one is currently schooling GP dressage. I also have 3 American bred sport ponies and 3 American bred warmbloods. You couldn't walk through my barn and tell me which ones came from this country or Europe. Secondly, don't pin this seeming lack of quality horse flesh on the US breeder. As a person who starts horses, and fixes the ones who are started wrong, that's where you should center your program ideas. We a national effort to see that the quality horses that are being bred in the US get the same quality start the European horses get.
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