The months of March, April, May and June are a busy and frenetic time for sports horse breeders, with mares foaling and being put back in foal — the ambition of growing sound, capable and correct horses for the market is unrelenting. With the constantly evolving nature of modern day eventing, it is not easy ensuring that supply meets demand. Breeders must remain observant of stallion trends and the progression of disciplines, whilst listening carefully to rider requirements.
I spoke to four international event riders to find out what it is that they look for when selecting horses for the future.
For such a small nation, the Irish punch way above their weight on the world stage. This is never more evident than when it comes to breeding event horses. Year on year, the Irish Sport Horse is at the top of the pile when it comes to international performance and results, with many riders sourcing the raw product direct from the Emerald Isle.
Padraig McCarthy represented Ireland in eventing at the Rio Olympics, and although he is a relatively new recruit to the sport of eventing, he has a lifetime of experience as a producer and as an upper level show jumper. I asked Padraig what he most likes to see when he goes to look at a potential prospect:
“I like to see a horse that is strong in its body, a blood type that moves with purpose and has a bright face and a good eye. The horse must have a willingness about it, the appearance of being intelligent and an ability to figure things out. When loose jumping, I like to see a horse that has the instinct to jump from the right spot, and who is willing to try again. Finally, I like a horse with a sharp mind — I don’t want to have to push him forwards all the time.”
Padraig is quick to highlight that some horses will look like stars, but may not fulfill that potential. Other horses are less inspiring to look at, but will progress and develop far beyond anything you might have initially expected.
One example given by Padraig is MGH Grafton Street, a horse who looked like a nice prospect but who was on the small side and a little late in his physical development. Expected to make a nice junior prospect, the horse grew on and showed exceptional range within his paces. MGH Grafton Street is currently competing successfully at top level with British Olympic rider Pippa Funnell. Another such example is MGH Bingo Boy, an €800 purchase at the Goresbridge Horse Sales. This horse is now eventing at now four-star level with British rider Nicky Hill.
New Zealand Olympic event rider Jock Paget has produced many different types of horse for the upper levels of the sport, with great success. He has specific requirements when sourcing new horses, yet remains open minded and with an eye on the future:
“My theory on selecting horses is constantly evolving, but some of my basic rules are as follows. They must have a good brain and be trainable, with a desire to work. I love a cheeky horse! Nothing is perfect so I would be happy to give a little on the trot, but its important to have a great walk and canter. It’s much easier to produce a horse with a great canter. You should have an easy feeling in gallop with good natural footwork and lightness across the ground. Obviously soundness is nonnegotiable. Good conformation is also helpful but not a guarantee. They should be naturally brave to a fence, but have a good eye for its profile and real desire to jump around it. They need to be tough, and being naturally straight is a real bonus.”
British international event rider Alice Dunsdon is a both a breeder and a producer. Most well known for being the only rider to have contested all six of the world’s five-star events with her wonderful horse Fernhill Present, Alice has bred several successful upper level event horses. These include Cool Dude, Sambo, Jollybo and Dunbeau. She has a unique insight into what the breeder strives to achieve, and what the rider needs:
“When I am looking at potential young event horses I want to see three main things: temperament, bravery and technique over the top of a fence. To be a top event horse they must have a good brain. The horse has to be willing to learn and must be forward thinking. Some horses out hacking will take the lead, walk past that spooky plastic bag, lead the others with their ears pricked. These are qualities I like to see. Their attitude when jumping has to be ‘I must get to the other side’, even if you are jumping a fence they have never seen before. The young horse has to be naturally careful when jumping, and I always watch them loose to assess them. If they have an instinctive understanding of what to do, plus the ability to shorten and lengthen their stride, that will give them the best chance of jumping the fences cleanly when you come to ride them. “
Top Canadian Olympic rider and trainer Kyle Carter has a unique grading system he employs when he looks at potential event prospects. Most famed for his illustrious partnership with the thoroughbred Madison Park, (which included Pan American Games and World Championship successes, many five-star starts and a team place at the Beijing Olympics), Kyle has successfully produced countless numbers of horses for competition and sales. Whilst Kyle has specific requirements, like Jock Paget he is open minded and prepared to overlook some weaker points, in exchange for other strengths:
“I like to grade the horse’s qualities out of 10 — the walk, the trot, the canter, the jump, the ride, the conformation and anything else of significance. I need a high enough score with enough positives for me to feel that a horse is worth investing in. The deficits must not be so many that I have to help the horse with all of his paces AND with his jump as well. I like to see a horse with a high wither, as neck length is important to me. I like the hocks to be low to the ground, and for the horse to have good length and suspension of stride. I want a horse that almost has too much stride, so that he always has the range to cope with anything when jumping. The horse must be compliant and submissive, as temperament can overcome breeding and other weaknesses. If you walk through my barn, you won’t see one ‘typical’ type — the perfect event horse is an amalgamation of many things. It is an agreement of accomplishment.”
I asked Kyle if he had ever produced a horse that he hadn’t initially thought very much of. His answer was fascinating:
“Yes! Madison Park! I hated him when I tried him. He jumped hollow, drifted in the air and had a bad attitude on the flat. My wife loved him though, and as time went by, I started seeing qualities in him that I had missed at the start.”
I went on to ask Kyle if he had ever had a horse that he knew was top class from day one, and had the been proven right.
“FR’s Trust Fund. We bred him here. His mother went to Rolex, she was a winner through and through but she wasn’t the most brave horse. Trust Fund was an obnoxious foal, but he was a lovely loose mover. He had the looks and the step, although he is similar to his mother — not bursting with courage, quite spooky and with a busy brain. To overcome this, I made cross country into a bit of a game with him and now he takes it on. He always felt like the right horse, even though some of the early days were horrible …!” (Trust Fund is currently competing at now four-star level)
It truly does take all sorts!
With sincere thanks to the contributors for this article.