William Micklem: Breadth As Well as Depth, Part 5 – More Breeding Lunacy

EN is excited to bring you a new series from William Micklem: Breadth As Well As Depth. The series addresses the need for breadth in eventing education and also includes his thoughts on event horse breeding, plus gives added value from the inimitable Harry Potter. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

CRUISING – Traditional Irish (TIH) Stallion winner of the Aachen Grand Prix — rated 5* as a sire for both show jumping and eventing.

Dumbledore said in The Chamber of Secrets: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.” Understandably it is the choice of the majority of breeders to follow the money and seek commercial success.

As a result the majority of sport horse breeders in Ireland aim to breed show jumpers, and in Europe generally they aim to breed specialist show jumpers or dressage horses. The consequence of this is that increasingly event horses are coming from the warmblood world, from a group of horses primarily bred for a different task.

Bred to excel across the board

The warmblood stallion that has risen to the top of the ranking lists of event horse sires in the UK and Ireland is Ramiro B, the sire of Buck Davidson’s mount Ballynoe Castle RM, who is the biggest points winner of all time in the USA. But Ramiro B is just 36% Thoroughbred and needs quality mares.

Ballynoe Castle RM is 69% Thoroughbred, being out of a 93.75% Irish Thoroughbred mare, so not far from that magic 75% Thoroughbred that most are looking for, as all the statistics would suggest that for event horse breeding the 75% Thoroughbred is king.

So the challenge is still to find the right Thoroughbred mares and sires for the next generation of event horses. However because so few Thoroughbred sires are now being used to produce sport horses, as everyone wants to breed a jumper or dressage horse, it is difficult for Thoroughbred sires to make their name. So it is a vicious circle with fewer horses of this type of breeding competing, fewer horses advertising the merits of this type of breeding, and as a result fewer breeders producing quality event horses.

In modern event horse breeding there are three Thoroughbreds that stand out, Stan The Man, Master Imp and Heraldik. Stan The Man is not only the sire of Leslie Law’s Olympic Gold medalist Shear L’Eau, and his full brother Shear H2O, but also of the legendary winning machine La Biosthetique Sam FBW.

Master Imp and Heraldik have been the most successful event sires over the last ten years as a whole. Master Imp is the sire of Zara Tindall’s High Kingdom and his brother, my stallion Jackaroo, and also of the up and coming Irish stallion Golden Master. Heraldik failed to get a top rating in the German stallion rating system, showing how event stallions are usually neglected on the continent, but one man saw the value in Heraldik and as a result has made a major contribution to German international eventing success.

The Friedrich Butt legacy

Much has been written about the influence of Chris Bartle on the success of the German team, and I have no doubt this is true, but arguably there is another man who has been almost as influential. That man is the late Friedrich (Fritz) Butt. He made the choice not only to breed event horses but to largely use Thoroughbred blood, and as a result he is largely responsible for making Heraldik famous. Over a lifetime he kept using Thoroughbred sires on his mares and their offspring but he only used Thoroughbreds that could jump and mares that had good temperaments.

He was initially ridiculed for this breeding strategy but produced a succession of CCI4* horses including Ingrid Klimke’s Butts Abraxxas, Andreas Dibowski’s Butts Leon and Butts Avedon. Although branded Hanoverian, all these horses are 98.5% Thoroughbred!

Friedrich Butt’s work has been continued by Dr Volker Steinkraus, and among other current good young horses he has bred is Michael Jung’s Lennox, who was Michael’s intended ride at the European Championships at the start of this year. Lennox is once again 98.5% Thoroughbred but also branded Hanoverian. Their work has proved that you can successfully breed eventers.

When these horses are put alongside Dirk Schrade’s 81.25% Thoroughbred King Artus, Ingrid Klimke’s 72% Thoroughbred Horseware Hale Bob, Sandra Auffarth’s 80% Thoroughbred Opgun Louvo, and Michael Jung’s 76% Thoroughbred La Biosthetique Sam FBW, a picture emerges about Germany’s gold medal winning teams that is not well known, because it does not fit in with the sport horse breeding and marketing strategy of the major continental breed societies.

However it is a fact that their elite event riders are using really quality horses while the majority of lower level event horses have much less quality and gallop. The difficulty for the buyer is that both types of horses are branded the same.

Failing to breed for the industry as a whole

Professor Steinkraus says that that breeding eventers may bring fame, but it is unlikely to make you rich: “I don’t know anyone else who breeds just for eventing because there is not enough money in eventing horses. They breed dressage or jumping horses, and every now and then an eventer is just their by-product.” 

The root problem facing event breeders today is that elite dressage and jumping horses are worth five, ten and twenty times the value of elite event horses. However this financial model for jumpers and dressage horses is flawed because it is almost totally based on both elite horses and elite riders. What breeders often forget is that the elite proportion of this equine population is only probably 5-10%, in which case a majority of dressage horses and jumpers bred are worth much less.

However the financial advantage and marketing momentum behind specialist elite dressage and jumping horses is such that in my estimation it has become the driving force for approximately 90% of the sport horse breeding world. The lunacy this creates is that 90% of breeders are trying to breed horses ideal for say a maximum 5-10% of riders who could be described as elite!

But let’s be generous and say it’s 25% to 30% of riders who are aiming for higher-level work. This still shortchanges the other 70% to 75% of riders and equestrian sport as a whole, because at the end of the day the financial viability and growth of the sport depends not on elite riders but on an increasing number of pleasure riders and novice competition riders … and they need suitable horses.

So is the specialization in horse breeding, with the intense focus on producing elite dressage and show jumpers, taking sport horse breeding down a road that is not beneficial to either eventing or horse sports and riding as a whole?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then there is every justification for a strategy in all national breeding programs that redresses the balance, to the benefit of us all, and specifically aims to breed both an event horse type and more multi-purpose horses. There have been various studies to suggest this is not necessary, but they are largely reports from vested interests.

How to make it work financially

An increasing number of event horse breeders and producers do make it work financially and are showing how to successfully follow a different route. Mary McCann, from Co. Kildare in Ireland, has used her deep knowledge and passion for the traditional Irish horse to stand and breed stallions that have not only been outstanding performers but have left a legacy of young horses that have made a major contribution to the finances of many equestrian businesses.

Mary’s commitment extends from Connemaras and Irish Draughts through to quality performance horses. She produced and stood the top performance Connemara sire, Ashfield Bobby Sparrow, the first ever Connemara stallion to win an individual gold medal at the European Pony Show Jumping Championships.

In addition she produced and stood the top Irish Draught jumper and sire Sea Crest. Sea Crest sired one of the most successful dual purpose stallions in the whole of Europe in the last fifty years, Cruising, who was himself a top jumper, winning the Aachen Grand Prix among numerous victories with Trevor Coyle.

Cruising is just over 53%, but it needs to be remembered that his sire Sea Crest was a great galloper, as were many of his offspring including my favourite 4* champion Lenamore. Cruising was out of a 75% TB international show jumping mare with wonderful jumping breeding called Mullacrew. She was by Nordlys, who was also sire of Olympic show jumping gold medalist Ambassador.

Cruising is the only stallion in Ireland to have a 5* rating for his performance of his offspring in both eventing and show jumping and is also a successful sire of dressage horses. His many event horses include Karen O’Connor’s Olympic ride Mr Medicott, Hannah Sue Burnett’s mount Harbour Pilot, and Andrew Nicholson’s CCI4* winner Mr Cruise Control.

In addition Cruising has sired a host of exceptional breeding stock and jumpers, including Rich Feller’s Flexible, World Cup winner and USEF International Horse of the Year in 2012, and a very successful sire himself.

Mary McCann now has two 4-year-old stallion clones of Cruising just beginning their competition and breeding careers, Cruising Encore and Cruising Arish. They are both exceptional jumpers and it is wonderful that these genes are available to breeders again. Here is the first competition round of the 4-year-old Cruising Encore, filmed this spring.

Today my stallion Jackaroo stands alongside them, so Mary’s belief in the top class dual purpose traditional stallion continues unabated.

Also in Ireland, both Richard Sheane with his Cooley horses and Carol Gee with her Fernhill horses have made a significant contribution to event horse breeding by showing that producing event horses can be a successful commercial enterprise.

Richard and Carol obviously have a great eye for a horse but in particular they have invested heavily in training by employing excellent riders. They have shown that this is key to attracting customers who are happy to pay a commercial price for a horse that has a high chance of success in the future.

For example in recent years Phillip Dutton’s career has been rejuvenated with his Fernhill horses: Fernhill Cubalawn, Fernhill Fugitive, and of course Mighty Nice, his bronze medal ride in Rio and USEF International Horse of Year in 2016. Phillip and his owners undoubtedly feel that they have had a wonderful return on their investment.

In addition Hannah Sue Burnett’s mount Cooley Dream, Kim Severson’s mount Cooley Cross Border, and Jonty Evan’s mount Cooley Rorkes Drift must currently be three of the most desirable and valuable horses in world eventing.

The best hotels

As Richard Sheane and Carol Gee have shown the training and riding aspect is a key component of commercial success. As I said in my last article young event horses need to go to the best hotels. This was something that Friedrich Butt also realized. To make it possible for more of his horses to be well produced good he came up with an innovative idea. He would give a horse to a good rider then say, ‘I’m going to give you 10% of the horse, and with each month you work the horse, you get 1%.’

Professor Steinkraus says, It’s a great idea, I do the same thing. I give a young rider 10% of the horse, and he takes the horse and from day one, this is your horse, and 10% of the horse is yours as a present. With each month you work the horse, you own one percent more. After three years, you own 36% in addition to the 10% I gave you at the start, so we are approximately even after three years. Then we can decide what we are going to do with the horse. Are we going to sell the horse? Or are you going to buy the horse — you can get it for little money, the price we agreed at the start.” 

This model can also work with those who can spot potential in off the track racehorses, but because of the number of young racehorses that become mentally unsettled by their racing careers it may take longer to have them performing well in competition … and time is money. However there are some truly wonderful Thoroughbred horses coming out of training and this will remain a primary source of event horses, especially for those young professionals starting in the industry who can only buy cheaper horses.

Growth, expansion, more worth

But with regard to specific breeding of event type horses it is going to need a greater number of people to take a leap of faith, for the benefit of the whole sport horse industry, and make the choice to breed this type of horse.

It needs all eventing national governing bodies, the Thoroughbred breeders associations, and all organizations like the Traditional Irish Horse Association and Pony and Cob breed societies, to be even more proactive about promoting the advantages of their horses and making the choice to invest in appropriate horse breeding for all riders at all levels.

The good news is that eventing is a growing sport expanding at about 11% each year at international level and almost double this at national level. As the sport expands and the net worth of the sport increases there will be more and more reason to be imaginative and courageous like Friedrich Butt and choose to breed for the specific needs of event riders.

There is another key related area that needs addressing because it has a negative effect on the growth of the industry as a whole. It concerns the size of horses being bred. Both breeders and the market place are fixated of the need for 16.2 or 16.3 elite performers, but these horses are often not suitable for the majority of riders, measured in the millions, who are female and generally smaller, or children coming off ponies.

More lunacy! Why are we not valuing the smaller horse more, many of which have even became Olympic medalists? 

©William Micklem


Part 6 – Does Size Matter? … In Praise of Smaller Horses