The Blood Mare: America’s Overlooked Advantage

Doug Payne and Quantum Leap. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I will never forget what French 5* rider Maxime Livio said at a Young Event Horse seminar I attended a few years ago, when asked which horse of the group he would choose to take home for himself. He slowly surveyed the group of horses, looked back at the person who had posed the question, and said “Which one has the most Thoroughbred blood? I’ll take that one.”

There’s no doubting the importance of Thoroughbred blood in the modern event horse. Even though the sport has veered away from the original long format and its heavy emphasis on stamina, it’s still a sport deeply rooted in jumping, galloping, lightness, speed, and stamina. While the full Thoroughbred event horse has perhaps fallen by the wayside a bit in favor of the flashier movement and jumping prowess of the European warmblood, for as long as cross country exists, a healthy infusion of Thoroughbred blood will still be vital to our sport.

It isn’t just eventing that has felt the importance of the Thoroughbred. Modern warmbloods as a whole — especially Holsteiners, some of the best show jumpers in the world — would not exist as we know them today without the influence of some key Thoroughbreds along the way.

Lauren Nicholson and Landmark’s Monte Carlo. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Ladykiller (the sire of Landgraf and Lord), Rantzau (the sire of Cor de la Breyere), Furioso (the sire of Furioso II), Laudanum, Cottage Son, Hand in Glove, Mytens…almost every modern jumping horse can trace their lineage back to at least one, if not more, of these influences. The introduction of Thoroughbred blood was absolutely crucial for the development of the warmblood, so why do we sometimes have a negative view of it today?

But it’s not just the full blood stallions that have had an impact, especially when we look at eventing in particular. At the 2021 Olympic Games there were nine horses in the eventing competition that had a full Thoroughbred parent, and five of those were out of a full Thoroughbred dam. At Bicton 5* in 2021, 11 horses had a full Thoroughbred parent, with six of them being the dam.

These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that in Europe it is much more common to use a Thoroughbred stallion rather than a Thoroughbred mare, given that their mare base is mainly warmblood and sporthorses. The numbers prove that there’s no doubting the success and legitimacy of producing a top level event horse from a full Thoroughbred dam.

Joe Meyer and Buccaneer. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

More recently, your 2022 Red Hills 4* winner Landmark’s Monte Carlo is a U.S.-bred out of a full Thoroughbred dam, and the third place horse in that class was Buccaneer, out of a full Thoroughbred dam.

When breeding top class event horses the old European adage of “blood on top” does not seem to apply. Indeed, the results seem to show that it doesn’t particularly matter what side of the pedigree the blood comes from for an event horse, just so long as it’s there. In Europe it’s more practical to add the blood via the stallion, given that they have very few Thoroughbred mares. But here? We have plenty of Thoroughbreds. And if we know one thing by now, it’s that “blood on bottom” is proven to work just as successfully.

As American breeders and horse buyers, this is something we should see as an advantage. We face a lot of issues that Europe does not: geographic size, the higher cost of raising horses, a more limited number of quality stallions, etc. But what we do have, in spades, are good Thoroughbred mares to choose from. In 2015 America produced almost 21,000 registered Thoroughbreds, compared to Britain’s 5,500. If your goal is to find a quality blood mare suitable for producing event horses, we certainly have a much wider selection to choose from than anywhere in Europe — one of our few advantages.

Yet for some reason in America foals out of full Thoroughbred mares have historically been seen as “lesser than”, a mindset that many American buyers still carry. That, in my opinion, is a mistake for anyone to make — especially if you’re shopping for an event horse. Not all Thoroughbred mares are created equal, but a foal out of a high quality Thoroughbred dam should be valued just as highly as any other, if not even more so when your end goal is to run and jump.

Quantum Leap’s dam, the full Thoroughbred Report to Sloopy. Photo courtesy of Bill Alphin.

Someone who understands the value of a good Thoroughbred mare as much as anyone is breeder Elizabeth Callahan of Cool na Grena Sporthorses in Oxford, Md. Her breeding program has produced four Advanced horses out of full Thoroughbred mares, including a 4* horse and 5* horse. Doug Payne’s young up and coming 5* horse Quantum Leap is a product of the Cool na Grena breeding program, out of her Thoroughbred mare Report to Sloopy.

Elizabeth says, “I have been told by multiple German breed inspectors that they wish they had the Thoroughbred mare base that we do in terms of numbers. Personally, I think we have a huge number of quality Thoroughbred mares that we should be using, but unfortunately they are perceived as inferior automatically because they are Thoroughbreds. I think they lend athleticism, heart, and the speed and endurance required for the upper levels. They may produce a horse with a less spectacular trot, but you aren’t going to make time cross country by trotting, so the gallop and endurance is really important. At the end of the day, an athlete is an athlete.”

Two foals in Michelle Beck’s program, both out of the Thoroughbred mare A Firm Question. Photos courtesy of Willow Tree Sporthorses.

Breeder Michelle Beck of Willow Tree Warmbloods in Reddick, Fl. also shares a similar view, saying “To me the strength of America has always been our thoroughbreds, and I think it would be remiss to not utilize them to our full advantage. Part of this is educating buyers; many seem to expect a foal from a Thoroughbred mare to be lower quality, but that simply isn’t the case.”

“Some of my best, most athletic foals are out of my full Thoroughbred mares and should be considered and valued as strongly as any other,” Michelle continued. “I think sometimes we look at Europe and automatically think that what they have is better, or that we should just try to copy their model, but in reality we should play more on our own strengths and utilize our own advantages. When it comes to breeding event horses, our base of Thoroughbreds is probably our biggest asset. My European breeder friends are always most interested in our Thoroughbreds and half-breds –- sometimes I think they see the value more than we do.”.

All of these factors combined together lead me (finally) to my point. By sheer numbers alone, American event horse breeders have a clear advantage with the availability of Thoroughbred mares to be had here. The key is in getting people to value them as clearly as they should, and realize that they are indeed a strength, not something that makes us lesser.

Blessed are the broodmares… especially when they’re a good Thoroughbred.