The beautiful site of The Horse Trust in Buckinghamshire was the venue for a recent seminar: welfare and ethical issues in 21st century horse breeding.
The discussion was based on several papers led by a keynote presentation made by Madeleine Campbell, Wellcome Trust clinical research fellow in veterinary ethics at the Royal Veterinary College.
The day raised several issues: as expected over-breeding was brought up, as were the possible effects of artificial reproductive techniques (ART) on welfare.
Most agreed that, from a welfare point of view, breeding mares in particular are often better off than many stabled ridden horses. In general, mares and foals are those most able to perform natural behaviours as they usually live in herds at grass, although vet Huw Griffiths from Liphook Equine was concerned about the increasing prevalence of obesity in breeding mares.
However, the main issue for concern from all parties was the increase in the number of colts now kept entire as possible stallions, or simply in order to help ensure a mature looking horse with topline and muscle. The concern was that many of these entires are deprived of the ability to perform natural horse behaviours, spending most of their life alone and in a stable.
Not what they seem
Curiously, at the same time, this was the theme of a piece doing the rounds on social media written by renowned German trainer Klaus Balkenhol. The piece centred on the premise that the market requires three-year-old horses to look older; albeit the reality is that while they look mature, they aren’t — with the result that once they start work, “degeneration sets in”.
Balkenhol is quoted as saying: “Few breeders have the sense to geld the yearling stallions and leave them on pasture to mature naturally.”
It is not that long ago that the vast majority of colts were routinely castrated, with prior to weaning considered least stressful for the foal. Castrating older colts — ie three- and four-year-olds — increases risk to the horse (through surgery), who may well by then have developed stallion behaviours that may never be unlearnt.
But why there is a trend to keep colts entire is a mystery. The world is not short of breeding stallions — in fact never there has been a greater choice — and why go to the trouble of keeping an entire, when in most cases he will be a super gelding that can be safely ridden, stabled and turned out with others and has greater potential to excel at his job?
Do we know what we want?
I did feel for organisers and vendors at the latest Brightwells British Sport Horse sale (report, 26 June) who all spent a lot of time, energy and expense for little return. It took me back 20 years to the British High Performance Sale, enthusiastically run by Jennie Loriston-Clarke at Stoneleigh for about five years before folding due to lack of support from buyers.
Ever since, there have been frequent requests from British breeders and producers for a shop window. Well, they got one, and while it was supported by many well known studs, it was not well supported by potential buyers who bizarrely still expect to pay the same sort of price as was obtained in 1994 — and that’s without taking inflation into account.
Perhaps the date wasn’t the best, but for me it also begs the question: what is it that the market wants? And are breeders providing it? At this sale ridden horses sold best, but few studs can offer these — and most certainly not at the prices buyers seemed to be expecting to pay. Someone has to get realistic. But is that the buyer, the breeder or both.