Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Are American Breeders "Hysterical"? The Reaction to WFFS

by Anna Goebel
Warmblood Stallions of North America

Have American breeders been “hysterical” in their reaction to Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome? I’ve seen that word used twice by Europeans in the last month to describe how American breeders reacted to WFFS. 

The first instance was on Facebook in response to a news item I posted on February 22. The news was that 15% of the samples tested by Labogen in 2018 were positive for WFFS. Labogen is the testing lab that is licensed to perform that test in Europe, and has substantial numbers behind its result. Lars Le was one of the first to respond, posting “…this is not a real number.” He then stated that the reaction to WFFS was “Totally out of proportion panicing [sic] by american breeders”. Later in the same thread he told American breeder Kathy St Martin, “You are hysterical,” when she explained why the financial concerns of American breeders do not constitute panicking, nor is it unreasonable that American breeders are frustrated with European stallion owners and organizations who will not test, or refuse to provide full disclosure that will enable breeders to make informed decisions. 

The financial issues with WFFS are not only that foals born with the disease, who are in a terrible condition, suffer and have to be euthanized within a day or two. It’s also the likelihood that WFFS may cause mares to abort if the unborn foal has the defect. There are not data on the total financial loss to breeders from WFFS, but it be may be extensive.

Mr. Le went on to accuse everyone in the thread of "bullshitting", and specifically accused Mary Nuttall of lying about having an affected foal born on her farm, calling it “fake news.” All his comments in that thread were irrational, sloppy as to facts, and overall did not compel much respect. His accusations that American breeder reactions were "totally out of proportion" and "hysterical" were, well, a bit hysterical.

The second instance was more serious, since the author of the statement was Werner Schade, head of the German Hanoverian Verband. He was interviewed by Christopher Hector for HorseMagazine.com while he was in Australia conducting Hanoverian inspections. In the article he discusses WFFS and how it affects the income of owners whose stallions have positive test results. His response is, “That hurts, all the big boys, but for me, how this problem was dealt with was a little bit hysterical.” It’s not clear exactly what he meant by “how this problem was dealt with,” but his feeling seems to be that the demand for information and facts among breeders is unreasonable. He feels it’s an overreaction “because we don’t have so many verified cases of this disease and we don’t have data on possible abortions.” 

Dr. Schade is addressing the two separate issues of WFFS: 1) the humanitarian one that foals born with the disease suffer and die, and 2) the financial one that there are likely to be hidden casualties of WFFS, based on the mathematical probabilities predictable with recessive traits, and these probably have been causing breeders significant financial losses. His comment seems to apply to both issues. 

The financial issues need more study, but they almost certainly do exist. In recessive traits, there is a simple mathematical formula to determine what percentage of affected offspring will be born with the defect if no one is aware of what individual breeding animals are carriers. It starts with the basic fact that if you breed carrier to carrier you indisputably have a 25% chance of an affected foal, so you can accurately project numbers in a large population if you know the percentage of carriers in the population. It became clear that fewer WFFS foals were born than expected. The reasons have not been studied systematically, but it's a reasonable hypothesis that fetuses with WFFS are lost at some stage before birth - especially since that has been documented extensively with similar mutations including in people. The loss for breeders is likely substantial. Dr. Schade's claim, concerning Londonderry and Don Frederico, that "... if there had been a high rate of abortions then we would know that, the breeders would tell us" is interesting, but short on actual facts - and rather missing the point. Since we know the formula is correct, the missing live births have to be explained. You can't dismiss the financial risk with anecdotal evidence - nor should you call people "hysterical" for exercising a very reasonable caution.

The humanitarian issue is the one which definitely produced some hysteria. Hysteria is defined as “deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion.” When breeders learned that an affected foal was fragile to the point of skin tearing and ligaments coming apart, many were indeed affected by extreme emotion. That would be a normal reaction for anyone with the ability to picture how painful that would be and what a cruel thing to inflict on a newborn foal. Frankly, I would have a hard time understanding someone who was not affected by that mental image. I am aware that there are many people in the world with no ability for empathy, and many who believe it's good to repress the empathy they have, but I find it unfortunate when their work involves animals.

American breeders, on the whole, are in breeding because they love horses. They tend to have an emotional bond with their horses, and that’s important to them. It’s a good thing, because there’s not a lot of money in breeding in America. If they weren’t in it for the love of the horse, the satisfaction in producing the best quality they can, and the joy they get from a happy, healthy foal, they wouldn't be in it at all. It's also a good thing because many of them have the ability to recognize suffering and believe it matters. They are less likely than breeders who are in it purely as a business to ignore or tolerate unnecessary suffering. Humane treatment of animals is a concept which most of human history has ignored - but it's gaining traction and will be recognized as one of the hallmarks of true civilization.

Many reactions to WFFS and posts on Facebook and other social media at first were certainly also "uncontrolled," as people vented their gut feelings and reactions to what they initially knew. 

After the initial shock of hearing about the live birth of a foal affected by WFFS, however, American breeders got organized on social media to learn all about WFFS and share facts. Guided by one Facebook group in particular, they established knowledge and understanding as the top priorities. They found experts in the field, heard first-hand experiences, learned a lot about genetics and the warmblood breeding pool, and learned more about the history of WFFS. They acquired solid facts, and then encouraged each other to make rational decisions based on a good understanding of all the complexities involved. 

Pretty much the opposite of hysteria. 

What developed was the consensus that one should never breed a carrier of WFFS to another carrier. It’s the same conclusion reached by many other breeders (of different species) who have been faced with how to handle a damaging or lethal genetic defect, and there’s a reason for this: it’s the middle ground that is manageable, sensible, and humane - while avoiding constricting the gene pool even further. It has become the “best practice” for handling this type of defect, across breeds and species.

More importantly, what developed alongside this was the conviction that breeders have a right to make the decision that allows them to not breed carrier to carrier. Each breeder has the right to decide that they don’t ever want to risk having a foal affected by WFFS, that that is horrible enough that they choose to guarantee that no foal of theirs will ever suffer it, and that they themselves never want to witness the birth of a WFFS foal. They also have the right to decide whether they can take the financial risk that comes from breeding carrier to carrier.

When breeders are faced with a decision with both humanitarian and financial consequences, demanding full information from stallion owners is not a “hysterical” reaction, but in fact the only responsible one. A breeder has a right to run his or her own breeding operation on humane principles, and not give in to pressure from anyone who finds an inhumane outcome (the birth of an affected foal) totally ok if it only happens occasionally. It's also more than reasonable to make conservative decisions when facing financial risk. The mares and the mare owners are, after all, the ones who have to deal with the consequences.

That means that each breeder has the right to ask for, to demand, full transparency from stallion owners about a stallion's WFFS status. That demand could certainly cause some financial hardship for some stallion owners. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t justify any attempts to block mare owners' access to full information to make the decisions that are theirs to make. 

While there was initially some hysteria in the reactions to WFFS, it was a normal and human reaction to the news of a genetic defect with pretty horrific consequences. That was soon replaced by the work of acquiring facts and information, and building consensus based on knowledge. Breeders in America and elsewhere can be proud that they reacted quickly to prioritize facts and information, became well-informed, and that they are standing up for what they believe is right for themselves, their mares, and their breeding programs.

For an FAQ about Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome, click here.

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