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Exactly 20 years ago, an international symposium titled “A Sport Horse for the Future” was held in Cambridge. The delegates heard papers from various people involved in breeding here and in Europe.

On the back of this the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) commissioned research into British sport horse breeding and in March 1998 the subsequent report, A Breeding Strategy for the British Sport Horse

Industry, was published. I was recently reminded of these and reread the initial report and its detailed follow-up, Towards the Implementation of a Breeding Strategy for the British Sport Horse Industry.

Basically, the report’s recommendations supported a centrally organised and structured breeding programme with the aim of producing quality sport horses, of value, for British riders to compete in international competition. It suggested that such a plan would be long-term, with benefits not seen for at least 10 years. Well, twice as many have since passed — in horse terms four or five generations — surely enough to have made a difference.

To be brutally honest I wasn’t sure whether to laugh (hollowly) or cry — the report might as well have been published yesterday. Despite the fact there have been huge advances in the actual procedures of breeding, the report made me realise just how little else has fundamentally changed, while some changes have not always been for the better.

For a start the RASE, since the demise of the Royal Show in 2009, now has no equine involvement. In fact, Stoneleigh previously provided a non-private national centre — something we now lack. The RASE hosted sales, early breeders’ awards dinners, while the Royal Show supported the finals of the first national young horse competitions as recommended in the report. They too disappeared.

Generations apart

One recommendation highlighted as “of paramount importance”, was to reduce the number of stallions through “objective selection”. If anything the number of stallions has increased and not all of them undergo objective selection — in fact even after this time some still don’t have three generations of verified breeding. Why?

It also stated that the industry must have a sport horse database — and after much deliberation and support from studbooks and disciplines it did. For a while. But not long enough to make any difference. The British Quality Mark presented to studs reaching an industry standard was introduced but that too fell by the wayside.

Yes we have a director of breeding (as suggested) at the British Equestrian Federation and yes we have the Futurity series and British Breeder magazine. But not much else has come about. This is no slight on the director of breeding — I am sure she and her colleagues do as much as is possible with the available finance. Because ultimately what the report boiled down to was the need for funding and resources.

There is, however, one other important thing the report mentioned as fundamental to any progress. There was a need for a strong, lead organisation to speak to government with a single voice, presenting a united front. As was noted: “Fragmentation is the major problem facing the British non-racehorse industry”, which “would require a significant change within the culture of the industry”.

This is where there has probably been the least change and is arguably the main reason for lack of progress. In fact, within British sport horse breeding there is possibly even greater fragmentation, which doesn’t bode well for progress over the next 20 years.

Ref Horse & Hound; 6 July 2017