That Pedigree Thing, Again

In the last Horseblog we talked about pedigrees and purebreds and crossbreds and the ramifications thereof. Some commenters were all in favor of pedigreed animals. Some spoke up on behalf of the healthy mix. There were discussions of cats and dogs as well as horses.

One argument against “purebreds” is that once humans get to messing with an animal, things can get out of hand. Dogs so long-backed and short-legged they’re barely functional, cats so attenuated and inbred that they have basically no brains left, horses bred to such an extreme of muscularity that a serious and often fatal genetic mutation is actually sought after (albeit with serious controversy).

So, purebreds are bad, right? Everybody should avoid “pure” breeds and pedigree breeding. Right?

Well, no. The opposite “so overbred it can’t survive” is “so randomly thrown together it can’t survive.” Breeding for a narrow range of traits (color, head shape, size, etc.) can end up excluding factors that actually make the animal functional, such as feet big enough to stand on. But throwing together random individuals without any plan at all turns the whole operation into a crapshoot. You might get something great, but chances are much higher that you’ll get an agglomeration of spare parts.

Animal shelters are full of randomly bred cats and dogs. Many are wonderful animals. But every shelter I know of will require that you neuter any animal you adopt–and most will do so before the animal leaves the shelter.

The problem for smaller animals is huge–and cats and dogs are, generally speaking, fairly economical to keep, and can live in fairly small spaces. Shelters are overwhelmed with strays and abandoned pets, and in kitten and puppy season, literally cannot give away all the dogs and cats that are brought in.

Now think about horses. Large animals. Need a lot of room to move around in. Eat a lot. 15-20 pounds of grass or hay a day, and that’s if they have a normal metabolism and aren’t in heavy work. Can’t keep them in city apartments. Can’t keep them in many suburban areas, either, what with the manure and the flies. If there is a place to board them, that place may charge more per month than the average mortgage for the area.

So, what does this have to do with pedigrees and, as we circle around to the topic, quality? Basically: Resale value. As hard as it can be to place a pet whose owner can no longer keep it, it’s exponentially more difficult to place a horse. A horse with papers, with a breed to belong to and a provenance behind it, has more resale value than a horse without those things. There’s more of a market for him, and more chances for his owner to do with him what horse owners like to do, such as showing or racing (racehorses have to be registered in order to race).

But even a pedigreed horse can turn up at the meat auction, selling for a few cents a pound. And that’s where the quality thing comes in. Whereas it is possible in bloodline-only breeds for breeders to produce literally hundreds of substandard animals on a single farm, and in some breeds the standard is so narrowed down by show fads that the results are not functional outside of the show ring, still, if you get enough enthusiasts together, and enough pressure on breeders, there’s at least some hope of producing sound, functional animals. And because those animals are sound and functional, they’re more likely to find homes.

A dog or a cat with physical problems can be a real challenge to place. A horse, which needs so much more care, feeding, and space, is as likely as not to end up on a meathook in Mexico.

In some areas and cultures, this is accepted. Dogs are bred for meat in parts of China, too. I know a lady who used to rescue Lipizzans–a breed so rare it’s just this side of the endangered list–from butchers in Italy. But our culture tends to regard the horse as a companion animal, so much so that there are slaughter bans in many US states. What happens to surplus horses then? Where do they go? Who can take them?

The answer for too many is a place on a van shipping to slaughter in Canada or Mexico. For others, it’s starvation or abandonment, and a whole lot of badly overstrained rescue operations.

And that’s where breed associations and registration requirements come in useful. Educating people about breeding, encouraging them to buy or adopt animals already on the ground, and helping them to place animals they can no longer keep. And also, within the registry, developing and maintaining a standard for the breeders to breed toward, with the goal of producing sound, healthy animals.

Breeders have to be realists. In a world of increasingly limited resources, they can’t afford not to be. Even if they’re actively breeding for the meat market, they have to consider supply and demand. If they’re breeding horses for recreation or sport, it’s critical that every animal they put out there have the best possible hopes of finding a home. And with a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, that’s a fairly long term to consider.

That’s why pedigree matters. It tells you where the horse came from, what sorts of things he’s meant for, and what his basic market value is. If he’s a cross, the components of the cross matter, too. It’s not as simple as saying, “Oh! Breed A is popular, so is Breed B. I’ll make a mix and hit both markets!” If Breed A is so different in shape, size, and function from Breed B that the combination looks like a spare-parts special, even if someone is foolish or tenderhearted enough to buy the result, that result may not be sound enough to be ridden or driven.

Crosses can work, sometimes spectacularly well. The European Warmblood Verbands combine different breeds to fit an agreed-upon standard for conformation, movement, and performance. But they cull ruthlessly, and will not approve breeding animals that don’t produce the standard. Sometimes a cross is so successful that it produces its own breed–that’s where most modern breeds got their start, including the Thoroughbred, the Quarter Horse, and the American Saddlebred.

But there again, once people agree on what the cross should be, there’s a standard, and with a standard, you start talking about pedigrees. And that brings us right back around to the original discussion.

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