Tuesday, July 30, 2019

What Choices Most Improved Your Breeding Program?

by Anna Goebel, inspired by a discussion on Facebook.

"When looking back over your breeding career, which choices did you make that most improved your breeding program?"

That is the question recently posted on Facebook by breeder Kendra Hansis. Thoughtful answers were posted in response. There were things that surprised me, and there was a lot of agreement on several of the answers. I thought it might be useful to curate the responses and post them here.


1. The first response was posted by Marne Martin-Tucker, and was echoed by several others: "Buy great young mares." She usually buys foals, as does Kimberly Davies, who says, "I’d never be able to afford the horses I have now for breeding or sport if I hadn’t bought them as foals." Jackie VandenBrink said she "bought an amazing broodmare when the opportunity presented itself. Never regretted it. Best investment." Holly Kovach told of selling half of her barn "to buy the foal that I wanted from the Elite auction. The bloodlines are incredible and we’re not available in the US at the time." Broodmares are the heart of the breeding business, and have a huge influence in each specific cross - so it makes sense to have the best broodmares you possibly can. 

2. Continue to improve your breeding stock. Every foaling season is a time of evaluation, and your program will improve every time you tweak things in a better direction. This includes "culling" mares - removing them from your breeding program if they're not producing what you want - and bringing in new mares that fit your goals. Says Kendra Hansis, "I continue to try to improve my mares because I believe they’re the most important part of the equation." Debra MacMillan describes her approach: "Purchasing top bloodline mares, retaining even better fillies from them and now doing my own breeding, hopefully using more stallions here in the US. I feel my mare herd is top and this allows for many choices."


3. Ride your horses. I hadn't thought of this as a critical piece for a breeder, but in some cases it can make a big difference. Eliza Rutherford responded that it was a very important choice for her. "No amount of staring at them on the ground compares to actually riding them and getting a feel for what they are like in the connection. It has absolutely made a huge difference in all breeding decisions." Theresa Schnell says that in "developing our horses, ... I have learned [that] rideability and temperament (absolutely 3 good gaits) trump huge crazy gaits and nutty horses." Jennifer Hoffman agrees. "For me, one of the biggest assets is having been able to ride many of my broodmares. This has allowed me to have much more insight past their character in the stable and seeing their gaits. I am able to feel how the contact, sensitivity, trainability, looseness of the back and many many more traits can weigh on my breeding choices. I choose stallions I have either sat on myself, or can or have seen ridden. This has been a large factor in my breeding choices and also how I can advise potential buyers on what the offspring may feel like." As Marne Martin-Tucker puts it, she has tried to buy great young mares and "competed them myself so that I knew better what they needed to either get to the big tour or get there faster." Kendra Hansis, however, relies more heavily on feedback from her mares' professional riders and her foals' buyers about her horses' rideability, because she is breeding for professional riders, and believes that her own opinion as a rider, in comparison, isn't as important as what pros want or need in a horse. The ultimate breeding goal is important to bear in mind. "Some breeders focus on producing for themselves or for the amateur rider," Hansis says, "but how or what I like to ride has little bearing on what my clients want in a horse. I get tons and tons of feedback from top amateurs and professionals," she says, which helps inform her breeding decisions. She advocates in general for more good conversations between breeders and riders.


4. Travel. Theresa Schnell takes yearly trips to Germany. "Seeing what nicks work and seeing stallions in person really helps in picking boys I might or might not have picked. That goes in both directions; they may look good in video and not in person." Dawn Spencer also lists a trip to Europe as her most important choice, to see examples of the bloodlines in person, and to evaluate European business practices. Kelly Gage says it's important for her as well, "spending time in Europe to see an entire generational effect of bloodlines."


5. Do your own repro work if you can. As Eowyn Brewer put it, "learning to do your own breeding work is huge in regards to being able to survive financially." Vet work is a big piece on the expense side of the ledger, and many breeders have learned to handle much of it themselves. Jane Bartram takes a different approach, and says one of her best choices was "having an equine vet as a husband"! Kendra Hansis says doing her own vet work "has saved me so much $$$." If you use a vet, Cheryl DeRoche Johnson advocates sticking with one to improve accountability. She travels to one repro specialist after some bad experiences with her local generalist.


6. "Listening to my gut," is important to Holly Kovach, "and not to the peanut gallery." This comment got several Likes and a lot of agreement. Kendra Hansis adds, "being a good breeder means trusting yourself."


Contributors:


Kendra Hansis posted the original question, above. She has had a phenomenal year as a breeder, which left her feeling "like floating on air, but also reflective," and thinking about how to keep improving. As someone who firmly believes in the power of community among breeders, she posted this question. Her farm is Runningwater Warmbloods, in New Jersey, where she breeds Oldenburg horses, with international quality as the goal.


Marne Martin-Tucker owns Aspen Leaf Farm in Maryland. The goal of Aspen Leaf is to breed foals of CDI-quality with friendly temperaments. Marne is also a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist who has competed at Grand Prix in the US, Germany, and England.


Debra MacMillan breeds superior-quality warmbloods at her Ridgefield Farm in Maine. Her goal is to breed excellent athletes by choosing the finest sires for her top-bloodline mares.


Kimberly Davies focuses on breeding and developing high-quality warmblood sporthorses at her Ariston Farm LLC in New Jersey. They own the approved premium stallion Escamillo (Escolar x Rohdiamant x De Niro).


Cheryl DeRoche Johnson has been breeding since 2003 and is in the process of scaling back to retire.


Jennifer Hoffman has a small breeding program in Pennsylvania called Autumn Charm Sport Horses, where she breeds for the amateur rider in dressage, hunter, and eventing. She also stands the stallion Coromino. "At the end of the day the riders only really care about the feeling, connection and ability to expand and contract the gaits or produce a flawless jump. My end goal is always to produce horses who end up with great homes. This has to be due to a combination of character/ temperament/ athletic ability and soundness."


Kelly Gage of Lexington, Kentucky is a USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist and owns and operates Team EnGaged Dressage. She actively develops young horses towards the FEI, and maintains a very small breeding operation on the side that focuses on Dutch and German lines with the goal of high performance. Her first homebreds started foaling in 2019. 


Jackie VandenBrink operates VandenBrink Warmbloods in the Niagara Region of Ontario Canada. The breeding program targets mostly the hunter and dressage markets. Originally from the Netherlands, she has an appreciation for Gelders foundation lines as well as the modern Dutch dressage horse but will use whichever bloodlines help make a marketable product. Character and temperament are high on the list of priorities in addition to the goal to produce a horse with great conformation, superior gaits and athleticism.


Dawn Spencer breeds modern dressage horses in the Midwest, at Spencer Sport Horses. She has streamlined her mare herd to include only modern Dutch and German bloodlines and movement. She breeds to talented, relevant stallions, hoping to "ensure my foals are desirable and marketable in-utero or their first year."


Theresa Schnell owns Rock Solid Warmbloods LLC, a boutique breeder of top quality German Warmblood horses. "We strive to breed horses that Professionals want and love to ride and Amateurs can enjoy as well. We have done really really well in developing, testing (MPTs,SPTs) and showing our horses. I have great riders/trainers that have now ridden generations of my horses. We currently stand FEI stallion Rock Solid (Rosenthal x Parabola/Parabol/Efendi). In 2019 we will add: Rock Royale RSW (Rock Solid x SPS/El Alsonara/Archipel/Weltmeyer) and Jackson FF (Johnson x El/Lhoretta/Lörke).


Holly Kovach co-owns Iron Horse Farm, in Kentucky, with her husband David, and they breed mostly Hanoverians for the hunter jumper disciplines. Holly is on the Jumper Breeding committee of the American Hanoverian Society.  


Eowyn Brewer has been a breeder of Oldenburg, Hanoverian, and RPSI horses since 1997, striving to produce horses that are suitable for amateurs and juniors.


Jane Bartram is the owner of Hollands Bend Warmbloods and Elite Frozen Foals in Victoria, Australia.


Eliza Rutherford manages Foxwood Hanoverians in Vermont. She breeds Hanoverian foals by top German stallions out of high-quality mares, with an emphasis on temperament.



Thank you to all who took the time to post, and to respond to my emails! Breeders supporting breeders with good conversation and thoughtful comments is one of my favorite things!


Note that these are dressage breeders, because the original thread was posted in a dressage breeding group on Facebook. If you breed hunters or jumpers or eventers, would you agree? Are there other decisions you made that you feel made you a better breeder? Please post comments below.





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