North American Stallion Sport Test
Since I am one of the lucky ones to have a ticket to the North American Stallion Test at Hilltop next week, I thought I should probably get off my ass and write something about my last two trips, first, the Netherlands and, then, much of the East Coast, before I start writing about the Stallion Test.
Yup. That’s how I started a journal entry two weeks ago. Didn’t happen. So, while the NASST is fresh in my mind, let’s start with that.
Full disclosure: We sent a stallion through the North American testing in the early 1990s. It was a terrible experience. I have been jaded against North American testings since then. In retrospect, we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have our stallion pre-approved by the KWPN-NA. We didn’t have him properly prepared. Thirty-plus years in this business has taught me that we made a mistake, and most of the blame for our bad experience was mine. Most. There are still elements of the experience that could have been handled more openly and fairly than they were; nonetheless, I’m still here to talk about it, so live and learn. As it is, we sent our two-year-old colt to the Netherlands to go through the approval process, rather than do it here, partly because of our past experiences.
That being said, at this point in time, I’m all for a North American Stallion test. And, I think the format I witnessed over the last three days can work. However, there are some important discussions that need to be had. Please, believe me, when I’m saying I intend no judgement in what I’m about to write. As I just said, I think this format can work. My hope in writing this is to give my observations of what I saw, and to begin a discussion about how we can make this work for KWPN-NA breeders/stallion owners. With the exception of one or two stallions, I’m not planning on writing about individual horses–I’m more interested in starting a discussion about the testing itself and its application to my chosen studbook.
Firstly, the NASST serves as an important showcase for North American breeders. Regardless of the lack of consistency of quality of the stallions presented, internal politics of the studbooks involved, or strengths and weaknesses of the format, the NASST gives breeders and owners a very public and widely advertised venue for marketing and promoting their breeding programs and individual stallions. North American breeders are always decrying, and rightly so, the dearth of opportunities available for them for studbook-sponsored marketing and promotion. The NASST is a big one. Its social media presence is huge and it attracts international attention. We North American breeders and stallion owners have so few opportunities for unified national and international exposure, this is reason enough for me to be much more supportive of the NASST in the future, and I urge the KWPN and KWPN-NA to have more of a vested interest in this testing.
Secondly, there’s a marked difference in the philosophical approach to stallion approval in the various studbooks, and that has an effect on the overall quality of stallions presented. I’m generalizing here, but it’s my impression the majority of the German studbooks, at least the North American German studbooks, have the primary consideration of supporting their members and allowing their breeders to select from a larger pool of approved stallions, with the hope/understanding that the breeders will recognize the better stallions and use them predominantly. Whereas, the KWPN’s selection process is an analytical reaction to the breeding population as a whole, and stallions are selected to improve/strengthen that population; therefore, the KWPN supports its members in a different manner by telling them which stallions they think breeders should use. Again, this is a generalization, but I believe it to be basically accurate. So, assuming my observation is correct, more stallions are licensed or approved in the German studbooks, their members are happier, and, as long as their breeders are sufficiently educated, the studbooks grow both in memberships and the quality of the horses they are producing continues to improve. In theory. The KWPN licenses/approves fewer stallions, its members are often more frustrated, but they don’t have to be as self-educated as their German counterparts to be successful breeders because the system has a built-in safety net through the Stallion Commitee’s selection process. Again, in theory. Again, a generalization.
I can see advantages to both approaches, and I can see disadvantages to both approaches. It doesn’t matter which of the two I prefer. Happier members, members being the lifeblood of a studbook, both financially and workforce-wise, keep a studbook growing and self-supporting. On the flip side of the equation, however, how many North American breeders have seen enough horses in person to accurately assess which stallions they should be using and which they shouldn’t? Most of us rely on Helgstrand or Schockemohle to tell us to whom we should be breeding. (After Andreas Helgstrand’s latest interview talking about improving North American breeding, this comment probably deserves a separate journal entry, which I will probably never finish. So, let me just say this: How many of their famous stallions have they bred and how many have they purchased? Recognizing a top stallion and buying him takes a completely different skill set than breeding one. Personally, I take my breeding advice from top breeders, not top buyers.) I can be manipulated by good advertising and marketing as easily as the next person. Not throwing stones here. I’m just saying that most North American breeders have not seen enough high quality horses in the flesh to develop the cerebral database necessary to accurately assess their own horses, and, subsequently, make the best decisions to improve their programs in a consistent and articulate manner, thus improving the breeding population as a whole. That’s the primary danger of approving a greater number of stallions at a lower standard–it relies on a well-educated and experienced group of breeders to move the overall quality of the breeding population to a higher level and, consequently, adds a greater number of breeding horses to the population that are not going to make progress for the studbook. At this point in my breeding career, I would welcome a more supportive, less restrictive approach–I’m comfortable having the training wheels taken off and safety net removed. I’m not sure that would be the right decision for everyone, however.
Thirdly, as far as the format of the test itself, there are a few things to talk about. Scoring: Of the horses I saw at Hilltop, almost across the board, they were judged fairly. I can think of half a dozen instances in which I would have given a .5 difference in the scoring. Most times lower, but a few times higher. That’s not a big deal. In the grand scheme of things, it makes no difference. Fundamentally, the scoring was fair and accurate, even by my admittedly snooty KWPN standards.
On my drive home from Maryland, my thinking evolved about this next point: Quality of horses at the testing. There were MANY moments when I thought, and probably said out loud, why is this stallion even here? From my perspective, considering all breeders’ needs and goals and not just those of my own program, there were maybe five or six stallions at the testing who are legitimate candidates for consideration as breeding horses. Getting into my car on Wednesday afternoon, that’s where my brain was at. Somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike, I started thinking about what possible benefits the owners and breeders of the rest of the stallions were possibly getting, and I ended up convinced that the lack of consistency in quality of the stallions isn’t as important as the feedback, exposure, and showcasing these people and horses received by participating in this experience. For one thing, if you love your stallion and want to use him in your program, who am I or anyone else to tell you you can’t? If by participating in this testing you have more, or, at least, better, registration options for the foals, then that’s a bonus. If you have the opportunity to see your stallion in the company of other stallions, then, unless you are truly barn blind, you’re going to get a better perspective on what you have. Plus, every single stallion had a fan club. In a non-Covid environment, there would have been more fans for each boy. Who’s to say that some of these stallions aren’t “gateway” horses into our studbooks? In the end, even the owners of the lowest scoring stallions left the testing with more information, a better perspective on their horses/breeding programs, and more exposure for their programs than they had when they got there. This alone is reason enough to support the NASST.
Here’s a point about which my thinking has not changed: Sufficient preparation and the quality of riding. I’ll start with the latter. It should go without saying that an owner or breeder wants his or her horse shown to his very best advantage for a stallion testing, during which scores are given the horse will live with for the rest of his life. The quality of riding was ALL OVER THE BOARD. It went from top professionals with years of experience who have been training the particular stallion for months or years, to professional riders brought in to ride for the three days, to amateur riders with experience, to amateur riders who haven’t learned how to sit a trot. In over half the instances, we saw a completely different horse when Jessica Wisdom, the guest rider for the dressage horses, began riding. And, in all but one instance, I thought she improved every horse. In this shortened format, I really like the concept behind using your own rider if that rider is capable and has been working with the horse consistently, but, in fairness to the horses and the equity of the scoring, there has to be more consistency in the riding somehow. My second point on this topic is the preparation of the horse pre-testing. There were all different degrees of fitness and conditioning going on. This shortened format is really arduous on the horses. There were a number of horses that looked much better on day one than they did on day three simply because they were so damn tired and unfit. From a safety perspective, I thought the judges were cognizant of this, and, therefore, didn’t push some of the horses as much as they needed to on the final day, but it definitely affected scoring and the overall presentation of some of the stallions. Summarizing my thoughts on the format, this shortened, three-day test can work if the riding is consistent and the horses are fit enough coming into the testing.
Fourthly, there’s no reason the KWPN-NA can’t participate in this testing. There were multiple studbooks participating. Some of them just came to license stallions not participating in the test itself, but brought to a central location. Some of them were actively judging/scoring. All of them were communicating and supporting their breeders and owners, mingling, networking, educating where they could. The KWPN-NA and the KWPN had the Covid excuse this time, which is fine and understandable. But, in the future, we need official representation at this event. There is no reason the Dutch judges can’t give their own scores and make their own decisions. Maybe they participate in the overall scoring and judging. Maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. Stallion owners can go through all the same steps we do for approval: attend a keuring first and get selected as a stallion candidate, submit the x-rays, endoscopy, and D-OC, get the pedigree approved…then go to one of the NASST sites and be judged by KWPN judges. As it stands right now, I believe for full approval a stallion has to come to the testing twice within a certain number of years to show development, or achieve competition results in addition to one appearance at a testing site. Why can’t this work for the KWPN-NA?
I have to talk about one horse: Maximus (Ibiza x Apache x Trento B x Elcaro x Doruto x Amor). Alice Tarjan, owner. Ad Valk, breeder.
He was a bit of a fire-breathing dragon to start with on day one, but, in his defense, he shipped in late from a show and didn’t have as much time to settle in as the rest of the horses. He became progressively more relaxed over the course of the three days. Also in his defense, people are ridiculous if they expect a four-year-old colt with the presence of a true breeding stallion to play “gelding” at all moments. This horse is a phenom. On the level of Jovian, but a little more modern in type. He is damn near 18 hands. Gorgeous conformation. Gorgeous head. Incredibly balanced and aware of his body for such a big horse at such a young age. And, he appears to have a very good work ethic and trainability once he focuses. He is elastic, supple, and powerful. Every step uphill and carried. The walk is his weakest gait, but I would have given it a slightly higher score than the judging committee. They gave it a 7. Once he relaxed, he had good tact and a nice overstep with plenty of suppleness. A completely sufficient walk for an upper level horse. When his head came up and he started looking around, the walk obviously suffered. I don’t see much Ibiza in him other than that he is taller and heavier than most Apaches. To me, he looks like a direct Apache. The mareline is fine, not stellar. As an individual, he’s stellar enough all by himself to make up for any weakness in the mareline. He was approved AES before the testing. My guess is he is now approved by every studbook that was there. Unfortunately, he won’t be available for breeding. Alice’s focus is on sport, and with this boy, I don’t blame her an iota. She gets her stallions approved early so they are all set when she retires them from competition or for some reason can’t compete them any longer. At any rate, Maximus is a special horse who deserves a mention in any piece of writing about the NASST at Hilltop.
There you have it, Scot’s reaction to the North American Stallion Sport Test. Thanks to Hilltop, Natalie, and the staff for hosting. It’s such a lovely facility. I always enjoy visiting. Thanks to Louise Masek for giving me one of her four tickets. It was great to meet so many FB friends in person and reconnect with folks I’ve known for years. KWPN-NA BOD, let’s do this!