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A Reader’s Questions About Breeding Dressage Horses

Jul 23, 2020 | 0 comments

I spend a lot of time each week answering people’s questions about breeding. It seems as if I always have multiple text, email, or Messenger threads going at the same time. I always enjoy these conversations, and I’m always happy to share what I can from our experiences breeding and raising dressage horses these last 30+ years, but it does take some time and thought. The series of questions below came in a couple months ago. I intended to have a telephone conversation with this person because the questions require more complete answers than I felt like typing with my thumbs on my phone. As I was mulling over responses while doing chores the morning I planned to respond, it hit me that my response would probably make a good journal entry. So, I emailed her and asked if she would be OK with my posting her questions and publicly responding. 

 

You write you are breeding for supple yet strong backs with the hind leg that steps under. 

You wrote that “certain stallions or stallion lines bring to breeding (traits) that I try to avoid, such as loose stifles, difficult characters, weak pasterns, etc.,”

How does someone like me not make the mistake to breed to these stallions? Where is the information? 

Breeding for movement. You want scope, swing, and great movement. How do you really choose a stallion for that? A friend of mine evaluated my mare and suggested Gribaldi x Donnerhall crosses because he was able to look at genetics and then suggest something that would give a more supple back. How else does someone like me find the stallion that might pass on desirable traits for my mare.

I’d say my Tuschinski has the best hind leg but not the best balance. I love her conformation in general. However, the engine and the hind leg reach overpowers her, esp. in the canter. It’s hard to make it smaller or bring it back once extended. At 15.3 hands she has no problem making distances on a jump course set for a 17+ hand show jumper. A better rider would have gotten this under control sooner. Her trot doesn’t have as much knee as I’d like, but actually, if I can get her to really use her hind leg–with a swinging back– the knees come up more. 

As for balance, the UB40 and Johnson both don’t have the hind leg she has, but they were very well balanced from the beginning. The natural balance helps training tremendously.

So how to breed for natural balance with the scope and reach etc. ?

Temperament: I admit I have 3 horses with fairly difficult temperaments (and sires with bad reputations) but they are all trail ridden, trained, trailered, and shown. I have them because they were young and good deals, and I didn’t know any better. My spooky UB40 loves the hunt. The Tuschinski loves to jump (small jumps for me!) and can really try in training. They all are, except for the Tuschinski, good in the cross ties, clipping etc. They can all behave at shows. Still, their temperament can get in the way of training and just being a horse in the human world. I also have a Clydesdale x QH that does PSG-I1 . His temperament is incredible. Enough fire to do the hard stuff and an incredible try but super social and easy to get along with. He’s the envy of every trainer temperament wise. How do we breed for that? Dutch horses don’t have the best reputation. 

About breeding: I read that one year you had complete fails in several frozen attempts. How can frozen be economical for a small breeder? With no guarantees (it seems they have a price for Europe and another for the US?) and not reliable information on quality (that I can find). I’m guessing you don’t pay what I would have to if I got semen from Judy Yancey or SES. I know people do it all the time but it seems like there should be more transparency about quality or the mare owner shouldn’t be taking all the risk. 

Anyway, I hope you have time and feel like answering some of this. I’ve always wanted to breed on a very small scale and I did breed a few horses years ago, but it seems daunting. I want the temperament of my Clydes x with the balance of the UB40 and the hind leg and conformation of the Tuschinski with a longer leg and more knee ….

 

Firstly, these are really good questions. They’re the kind of questions we should be asking ourselves as breeders, especially as new breeders. Secondly, I’m going to attempt to break this down question by question, so let me know if I miss something.

1. You wrote that “certain stallions or stallion lines bring to breeding (traits) that I try to avoid, such as loose stifles, difficult characters, weak pasterns, etc.,” How does someone like me not make the mistake to breed to these stallions? Where is the information for both good and bad traits? 

This may be the hardest question for which to provide a truly helpful answer. For Dutch stallions, a lot of the information exists in the KWPN’s published database. It’s available at kwpn.nl. I don’t know why KWPN-NA members don’t get free access to all of the online information. Some of it is available, but not the depth of information available to KWPN members vs. KWPN-NA members. The highlights of the information is occasionally published in KWPN-NA newsletters, however. For German stallions, some of the information is available, but not a lot of it. Every Dutch stallion approved in Holland gets a training report at the end of his testing, which includes a description of his pedigree and his dam. He also gets a foal report and a linear score diagram. Some semblance of this information is available for Dutch stallions approved in North America, but it’s not as comprehensive. Historically, American owners of stallions have been reticent to have anything negative published about their horses. As a stallion owner myself, I understand that, but it has had an effect on the information available to breeders. The most powerful tool available to breeders is accurate information. That’s the primary reason I was drawn to the KWPN. Sometimes social media is a good place to get “mixed” information; there are too many people offering their opinions on stallions they have never seen in person, and may have experience with only one or two of the given stallion’s offspring. Frequently, I see inaccuracies on different FB groups about stallions and what they contribute/produce. Unless it’s blatant misinformation that directly affects my horses, I’m always hesitant to correct people publicly. It rarely goes over well, and it’s not my place. There are a few people posting regularly who are quite knowledgeable and offer good insights. Those posts I try to at least like or add some words of support. All of this being said, other people’s opinions and writings about particular horses have only so much value. You have to see some of these horses yourself. A major hole in my education is never having been to Helgstrand to see any of their non-Dutch stallions. I had reserved my seat for the Open House in April and purchased my plane ticket…that same Wednesday night the flight restrictions to and from Europe were announced. Maybe next year. Although I’m super appreciative of their showcasing a different stallion every day during the start of the breeding season this year, it’s not the same as seeing the horses in person. And, that’s what’s most difficult about answering this question: You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to be expensive to make these mistakes. They’re going to be costly in time and money. On the flip side, if you do as much research as you can, see as many horses in person as you can, and find one or two people you trust to give you good advice, you can make fewer mistakes. If it’s any reassurance, even the most experienced of us still makes mistakes. Breeding is not an exact science. Mares don’t always cooperate with your breeding plans. Stallions aren’t lucky enough to find the right rider/trainer or promoter. The safest equation for making fewer mistakes is to breed unproven mares to older, proven stallions, and take your risks with younger, less-proven stallions on proven mares. 

 

2. Breeding for movement. You want scope, swing, and great movement. How do you really choose a stallion for that? A friend of mine evaluated my mare and suggested Gribaldi x Donnerhall crosses because he was able to look at genetics and then suggest something that would give a more supple back. How else does someone like me find the stallion that might pass on desirable traits for my mare? I’d say one mare has the best hind leg but not the best balance. I love her conformation in general. However, the engine and the hind leg reach overpowers her, esp. in the canter. It’s hard to make it smaller or bring it back once extended. She’s small, but has no problem making distances on a jump course set for a 17+ hand show jumper. A better rider would have gotten this under control sooner. Her trot doesn’t have as much knee as I’d like, but actually, if I can get her to really use her hind leg–with a swinging back– the knees come up more. As for balance,my others don’t have the hind leg she has, but they were very well balanced from the beginning. The natural balance helps training tremendously. So how to breed for natural balance with the scope and reach, etc. ?

Well, you’ve made a good start here because you’re honestly assessing your mares’ strengths and weaknesses. That is the point from which we all have to start. The mare is the controlling factor in the equation. The general rule of thumb is to only attempt to “fix” one or two issues in each generation, while capitalizing on the strengths of each mare. For me, balance is the most important aspect of good movement. From the very beginning, I want to see my horses, even in free movement, be able to carry themselves, naturally lifting into transitions, and shortening and lengthening easily. If a horse can do this naturally, it’s going to make the whole training process easier and more successful for both you and the horse. Flashy gaits are fun, and they sell better, but overall athleticism is much more important than flash. In the early days of warmblood breeding, stallion owners and state studs determined what the mares in their area needed, and that’s what they went out and bought/procured for stallions. Proximity was the major deciding factor in selection, as it is in nature. Now, with frozen semen transported world-wide and a few stallion owners with tons of money, multiple stallions, and a high-powered marketing strategy, we breeders have to both honestly determine our own needs and sift through the ‘fake news”. The short answer to your question is find a stallion that has the kind of movement you like, and use him. Again, if you’re unsure, go with a more proven stallion who either has competed successfully or has offspring competing successfully. The long answer is going to be specific to what we do, and may or may not apply to your decision process. Everyone has different goals and different mares. There is no right or wrong approach necessarily. Here, at SSF, we separate stallions into three categories:  Past, present, and future. My goal is to have our breeding program on the forefront of breeding, always producing a better next generation, which, in turn, can produce a better generation after it. The first set of questions I ask myself when evaluating a stallion is “Does he help build the future of our program?” “Is he on par with what we have now, so, therefore, doesn’t hurt our program, but doesn’t help it grow?” “Is he going to hurt our program, taking us back instead of forward?” After I determine he is a stallion that can help us build toward the future, then I start evaluating specifics, such as qualities of the gaits, etc. I always try to look at the “total” horse first, however. It saves me a lot of time by selecting only the “future” stallions, because I’m going to pick apart every horse I’m considering anyway. By eliminating the vast majority of stallions in the first step, it gives me more time to obsess over the particulars of the ones I’m considering. And, to get back to your question specifically, natural balance is a primary consideration in our stallion selection. Which, again, takes us back to my short answer above, “find a stallion that has the kind of movement you like, and use him.”

 

3. Temperament: I admit I have 3 horses with fairly difficult temperaments (and sires with bad reputations) but they are all trail ridden, trained, trailered, and shown. I have them because they were young and good deals, and I didn’t know any better. My spooky UB40 loves the hunt. The

4. Tuschinski loves to jump (small jumps for me!) and can really try in training. They all are, except for the Tuschinski, good in the cross ties, clipping etc. They can all behave at shows. Still, their temperament can get in the way of training and just being a horse in the human world. I also have a Clydesdale x QH that does PSG-I1 . His temperament is incredible. Enough fire to do the hard stuff and an incredible try but super social and easy to get along with. He’s the envy of every trainer temperament wise. How do we breed for that? Dutch horses don’t have the best reputation.  

The preponderance of Amor and Farn in the Dutch lines, combined with a lot of “blood” from both Trakehners and TBs did make for some difficult horses out of Holland for a while. I really think that’s the exception rather than the norm now, however. The KWPN has been active and persistent in addressing this as a concern in the breeding population for a number of years. But, we have to keep in mind, if we’re breeding for a horse with the brain, energy, stamina, and will to compete at the very top of a given sport, that horse is a partner in the pursuit, not a robot on whom you push the right buttons to get the right result. There are going to be some negotiations and relationship issues. That being said, there are definitely some difficult stallions to avoid. I don’t mind hot, I don’t mind a little spooky, but I do mind bastard. The biggest jerk we ever had on the farm was out of some (at the time) popular German breeding, not Dutch. I don’t know enough about this particular line to recognize if he was an anomaly or a product of his heritage, but I have never bred to or purchased another horse with his lines again. To reiterate, temperament and ridability have become a strong focus in the selection criteria of the KWPN. I know of a number of stallions that have been excused from the testing over the last few years because they were too difficult. There have been a number of top sport horses that started their careers as stallions, but proved to be better partners as geldings. We base a lot of our assumptions on stallion behavior–when it probably makes more sense to look at the behavior of the geldings produced by a particular stallion. I’ll mention UB-40 because you do. As a young horse, UB had a bad day, in a very public way, at a big show. For many people that was enough to write him off and brand him as having a bad temperament. We used him over 20 times. There were a couple of tough babies, but the vast majority of them turned into really good riding horses with lots of ability. Granted, I didn’t keep any of them as stallions. Maybe I would have a different opinion if I had. The two most difficult babies we’ve ever had were sired by a stallion known for producing good temperaments. As I said in answer to the last question, breeding is not an exact science. What works for me in my program might not work for you in your program or someone else in his or her program. This is another area of selection where your best option is to meet the horse in person. If you can’t, you can play it safe by going with a horse or a line that has lots of offspring out competing with amateur riders, or you can ask enough questions of the stallion owner/manager until you’re satisfied with the answers.

 

5. About breeding: I read that one year you had complete fails in several frozen attempts. How can frozen be economical for a small breeder? With no guarantees (it seems they have a price for Europe and another for the US?) and not reliable information on quality (that I can find). I’m guessing you don’t pay what I would have to if I got semen from Judy Yancey or SES. I know people do it all the time but it seems like there should be more transparency about quality or the mare owner shouldn’t be taking all the risk. 

The only way I afford to do as much frozen semen breeding as I do is that I do all my own breeding work. I spend most of the breeding season with manure stains around the upper part of my right arm and on all my t-shirts. I don’t care how long the palpation sleeves are, they always slip down. It costs us $75 to have a vet drive into the yard, $50 for the scan, then the cost of any drugs. Since it’s necessary to be as close to ovulation as possible, that’s most likely a minimum of five or six scans, insemination, and then the post breeding checks. It’s really easy to spend between $500 and $1000 on one cycle of frozen semen breeding, just on veterinary costs. I can’t do that, especially if we’re breeding six to twelve mares every year. On top of that, most of the frozen semen available in North America doesn’t come with a live foal guarantee. The new Schockemohle stallions now come with the option of guarantee, but it’s only a guarantee that they will provide you with two doses of frozen; it’s not a live foal guarantee. Additionally, I believe the contract calls for shipping one dose at a time (I understand the rationale behind this–they are trying to limit the extra doses floating around that people either sell or use without reporting), and shipping the frozen semen can cost close to $300, one way. So, yeah, you pay $1500 minimum for the breeding, hundreds of dollars in shipping, then your vet costs…by the time you’re done, you’d be better off buying a baby already on the ground. Some European stallion owners, such as VDL and Nijhof do offer a live foal guarantee, and both of these stallion stations are good to work with when you’re having trouble getting a mare pregnant, here or in Holland. There are European stallion owners who sell frozen to North America and don’t stand behind it. 

As far as my own failed attempts with frozen, I’ve learned some expensive lessons. First, and most importantly, I do the work myself. I know my mares better than vets; I do more breeding work than any of the vets in my area; and, it’s my money on the line–I’m going to be much more careful in the timing and the handling of the semen since I’m the one losing a shitload of money if doesn’t work. Second, each mare gets either one or two tries with frozen, then she goes back to fresh cooled. I don’t like my mares to have a year off from breeding, and I don’t want really late foals because of the shortened period in which I get to rebreed. If it’s late enough in the season and it’s a mare I really want pregnant, then I only use fresh cooled. Third, do your homework. The FB threads about the viability of different stallions’ frozen are really helpful. Of course, there are stallions everyone seems to get pregnancies from except me (Bordeaux)–and stallions I’ve gotten tons of pregnancies from while others have had difficulty (Governor)–but, for the most part, if someone else has been getting pregnancies with the frozen, if your mare isn’t pregnant after a couple tries, it’s probably the mare or your process and not the frozen. To finish this part of the question, other than spending what we needed to to buy top fillies who have turned into top mares, the second most important investment we’ve made is to buy an ultrasound machine. It paid for itself a couple times over in the first year. Given all of the uncertainties and hidden expenses with breeding, I’m not sure it’s ever “economical”. Our farm has been a major tax right off for most of its existence. Fortunately, time, patience, experience, education, and enough successes to keep us motivated through the tragedies have paid off, and the farm is doing great now. But, it was a long time coming. 

Most of the last part of this question was answered in my response to the European stallion owners who were complaining about being taken advantage of in their frozen semen sales. This response was published on Eurodressage.com and it’s in my journal from a couple months ago.

As far as what I pay vs. what you pay for breedings, frozen or fresh cooled, I do get a break sometimes because of the sheer number of mares I breed and the reputation and successes of our program. That’s just good business on their part. I’m a good customer who is guaranteed to continue to support them and to promote their stallions through quality offspring and marketing. I give a big discount to upper level riders and repeat customers when they buy babies from me. My feed store gives me a discount on grain because of the amount I buy. It’s all the nature of doing business. That being said, if I use a frozen semen broker only occasionally, I don’t expect him or her to give me a break in price. I’m not a regular customer. I always try to do business with people who are fair and treat me well. In our very first year of breeding (the babies were born in the K year, so that’s 30 years ago, we had two TB mares. I contacted a number of stallion owners about breeding these mares. I was nobody. I had two TB mares. I had no clue what I was doing. Liz Hall from Silverwood Farm was the ONLY stallion owner who was nice to me. So, I bred our mares to her stallion. I made up my mind then that if people weren’t respectful and helpful, they weren’t getting my money. 

 

That’s a Ton of Writing!

Are ya still with me? I don’t know how much of this is helpful information, but, hopefully, some of you find something useful in all this. Can you imagine how long this would have taken me if I’d tried to type it all with my thumbs on my phone? 

Seriously, I’m always happy to answer questions and/or have a conversation. It helps me to process things, as well.  Plus, it’s rare that I don’t learn something from the conversations. I’ve always told people that I learned more from my students than they ever learned from me over my many years of teaching high school. 

Enough for now. Probably more than enough! Updates coming on an exciting new stallion available through SSF via frozen semen for 2021. Lots of pregnancies and sales to report.

Stay safe out there