The Breeder’s Eye

hugephiny_bvcThis week’s entry is a response to a request. In comments recently, cedunkley asked about the background of a character in their work in progress. That character is a horse breeder.

We all know from our own experience that in every line of work, field of study, hobby, etc., different aspects call for different emphases. This is just as true of a person who breeds horses as of anyone else.

A writer who is not a horse person or a horse breeder herself may want to add a detail or two that will tell a reader in the know that this character is for real–and in the process, maybe educate the non-horsey reader as well. First of all we can assume that the serious horse breeder is also a serious horseman–someone who knows the species inside and out, understands at least some of the various disciplines of riding, driving, handling, etc. that are known and/or current in the setting of the book, and has a strong interest in making more horses.

That probably goes without saying, but there are some aspects of being a breeder that may not be so well known or understood. The basics are pretty basic. You need a stallion and a mare, and you get a foal out of it. In a historical setting, this is done the old-fashioned way: stallion breeds mare, mare goes off and gestates for an average of 345 days, baby is born. In a modern or science-fictional setting, things can get interesting, with artificial insemination, cloning, genetic engineering, surrogate mothers, and so on. However this can get complicated fast, not to mention technical; a writer who gets into it will have to do quite a bit of research, and the book will probably have to revolve around it in some way.

Here I’ll concentrate not on the mechanics of breeding but on what goes into breeding, and how a horse breeder ticks. While he will be a horseman, he won’t necessarily be the same kind of person or have the same priorities as a horseman who is a rider/driver or a trainer. In fact I was told once by a world-class trainer that “I know absolutely nothing about breeding. I can take the results and train them, but breeding? No clue.” He went on to add, not entirely facetiously, that a breeder and a trainer seem to be mutually exclusive concepts. If you’re one, you can’t be the other. This is not in fact true, but it’s useful for understanding how different the two aspects of horse expertise can be.

A rider nearly always encounters the horse when it’s well along in its development, after it has all or mostly matured physically and mentally and has had its basics instilled and confirmed. A trainer may meet the horse right before all this happens, when it has been born, raised at least to weaning and probably to riding age of three or four years (younger for modern race horses and show horses, occasionally older for slower-maturing breeds, broodmares turned into saddle horses, pasture rescues, and so on), and is ready to be trained for the use for it was intended.

The breeder makes this possible. There is a lot more to serious, successful breeding than finding horses with the right equipment and putting them together (which by the way can happen by several methods, including turning them loose in a pasture or other open but confined space–pasture breeding; by holding each partner on a line and controlling the process–hand breeding; or by artificial means, i.e. artificial insemination or cloning). Horses are bred with great care and attention paid to their genetics as represented by their pedigrees (which describe what specific individuals and traits contributed to the individual under consideration), their own individual physical and mental qualities, and their suitability for the purpose for which they are intended. With a race horse, the main aspect will be speed. With a general riding horse, it will be soundness of mind and body, and build and movement in keeping with the kind of riding the horse will be meant for. A driving horse may be built differently than a riding horse, because it is designed to pull rather than carry; a draft horse, which is a puller and a working animal, will have different specs than a fine harness horse or a working cow horse.

The breeder knows his breed, what its variations are, and what general standard the breed has been designed to meet. He will know what the fads and fashions are, and he may agree with and breed for them, or he may be vehemently against them if he feels they have violated the original purpose of the breed. An example of this would be the difference between the modern ranch or working Quarter Horse (including the reining and cutting types) and the halter Quarter Horse, which is one of the more distinctive examples in recent equestrian history of separating form from function.

The breeder takes sides. He decides that he wants to see within the breed or type of horse, then he chooses individuals who he feels will come closest to creating the ideal. Much of this process is analytical: analyzing pedigrees and researching individuals and their records of performance both in the discipline (riding, racing, driving, whatever) and as breeding animals (what they produce when crossed on specific individuals and bloodlines). Every truly great breeder however is also an artist. After research and analysis comes intuition: the ability to look at a stallion and a mare and get this feeling for how the cross will work, even before seeing it actually happen. Two near-perfect individuals with champion bloodlines may not “nick” well together at all; they may produce mediocre or inferior offspring. Conversely, two less than ideal individuals might carry traits that, when combined, result in stellar offspring. The breeder is the person who can make a strongly educated guess as to what will work–and apply intuition to make the final choice.

How does that work in practice? Your breeder stands in the pasture and looks at a mare. The mare is a fine example of her breed. She’s well put together, she has a good mind, she’s healthy, sound, with excellent feet. These are standard for a horse of any breed or use. He will look at her as a representative of her breed, too. Does she have a pretty dished face and a refined and elegant build if she’s an Arabian, or a long, deep hip and a solidly muscled body if she’s a Quarter Horse? If she’s a Thoroughbred, did she race well herself or is she descended from great race horses?

Now he’ll look at the parts of her that are less perfect according to the breed standard and his own personal ideal. Is she little narrow in the chest, maybe, or are her hindquarter angles somewhat less than ideal for her breed and type? Could she have a better set to the neck or more slope to the shoulder? Is her back a little longer than optimal? How about her mind? Is she calm, or is she spirited? Does she have a good attention span or is she more ADD? What is her personality? Is she easy to train or is she more challenging?

These factors are what the breeder will look to improve in his quest for the ideal. No horse will ever be perfect (and if it were, the gods would repossess it), but the breeder aims to come as close as possible. Now that he has assessed the mare, he considers the stallion he has in mind to breed to her.

Because of the economics of horse breeding and the simple biological facts that go along with it, the number of mares who are suitable for breeding will generally far exceed the number of suitable stallions. Mares are allowed to be fairly far down the scale of imperfection (rightly or wrongly), because as one breeding-stock evaluator noted, “A mare can only produce a foal a year. The worst she can do is add a dozen or so individuals to the hundreds or thousands in the breed. Whereas a stallion can sire a hundred or more foals per year. He can do a lot more damage in a whole lot less time.”

As a result, even in cultures such as Spain and Egypt where geldings are relatively rare, stallions who are actually allowed to breed are fairly few. Serious and dedicated breeders will choose the best of the best and exclude or geld the rest. (These become the staples of the riding academy and the cavalry, as well as general use for draft and transport.)

Stallions represent an elite, chosen for their exceptional qualities. They are not all perfect, however, any more than the best mares are, and the breeder’s job is to choose the right stallion for the mare. He looks for physical perfection (as close as the horse can come), mental soundness and appropriate temperament to match (or tone down or jazz up) that of the mare, and complementary traits. If the mare’s hindquarters are somewhat less than optimal, a stallion who passes on ideal hindquarters should help to produce a foal that improves the mare in that department–and the breeder hope to improve the stallion as well through traits that the mare in turn passes on. The  goal is to come closer to the ideal with each new generation, by selecting crosses that have a good chance of making this happen.

This is genetics literally on the hoof, and it fascinates the breeder. Breeders live and breathe bloodlines, genetics, traits and crosses. They look at a horse and recognize him by his traits–“Oh! That’s an Almerina mare, I’d know that attitude anywhere.” “Yes, I can see he’s a *Bask descendant, he’s got the build and the athleticism, and he’s that lovely shade of bay.” They can’t help mentioning what a cross might do, too, when put into a group of assorted horses. “I’d love to cross my mare on that stallion; he’s got that great neck, and she could use a little more in that department.”

He’ll be cutting about the failures, too. “That stallion would make a great gelding.” “Oh yes, your Rosie is a sweetheart, but please, unless you’re totally prepared for her to pass on her numerous undesirable traits, let her just stay a riding horse and keep on making you  happy.” “Were they blind when they bred that horse? He should never have been born.”

And of other breeders he may nod and say, “Yes, she’s got the eye–look at what she’s got on the ground over there.” He can look at the fuzzy cuteness of a foal and see the adult it will grow into, which is something few riders or trainers will know how to do;  he learns it by observation, by experience, and by that indefinable intuition that makes him a breeder in the first place.babymonster_bvc




The Breeder’s Eye — 5 Comments

  1. I have always wanted to be a breeder, but my chosen breed (the thoroughbred)’s bloodlines escaped me while I was in college, and I haven’t the patience or inclination to get back into it since they’re letting crap breed to crap.

    Instead, I gaze longingly at Andalusians, Fresians, Gypsy Vanners, and other classical breeds where the standards are still held, and wish I’d discovered *them* as a horse-crazy kid with way too much free time.

  2. Did you see the article yesterday on retired race horses, in the New York TIMES? There’s an editorial on the subject today as well.

  3. Thanks for the link! Yes, sadly, that’s how it is in racing. Or, Don’t Get Me Started.

    11 years old is OLD? Ye gods. I have 20something mares who are still young. A TB at that age, too often, is broken down and/or dead.

    No. Don’t get me started.

    Pooka’s first stud fee was a painting by a retired racehorse. The horse was doing them for the ReRun charity fundraiser, and the person who had adopted him wanted to breed a (Morab, not TB) mare to my Fat White Guy(tm)–she got a beautiful colt out of the bargain, and I got this amazing abstract painting of a horse by a horse, elegantly framed, with portraits of the artist and a brass plate with his name on it.

    That horse was lucky. He got rescued and has a home for life.