Alex Robinson asks if show horses are ever bred specifically for the job, or if they are strategically given new career paths after another one has failed
With the cost of breeding a foal often outweighing the price achieved for progeny – unless said youngster comes with an established form book – it’s no surprise many breeders are hanging up their boots.
In disciplines such as racing and showjumping, young horses with strong, on-trend pedigrees fetch thousands – sometimes millions – but a prospective show horse, such as a hunter or riding horse, is unlikely to sell for the same amount of money. The financial expenditure needed to compete successfully in the show ring is usually much less, but sport animals can go on to achieve global titles and win back their price tags many times over in prize money. So, with lucrative breeding opportunities in other spheres, would anyone actually set out to breed a show animal?
Producing a future Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) champion is certainly a tall order. The mounts we see donning red rosettes at top level combine the perfect balance of quality conformation, breathtaking movement and extremely level heads, all finished off with a touch of untrainable presence and sparkle. But have our national champions been bred with these centre-line moments in mind or have they actually been destined for another career and failed to make the grade?
Baz Jones breeds horses alongside Shelly Argyle under the well-known Carnsdale prefix. The Cheshire stud has produced plenty of show ring winners; their latest superstar, Carnsdale Wise Guy, won the intermediate show hunters at HOYS in October. Baz admits that while an eye for a good dam and sire pairing is handy, the end result often boils down to pot luck.
“As long as the mare moves well and has good conformation coupled with quality limbs, it whittles down to the choice of stallion,” says Baz. “We look at the mare and assess what we want to produce at the end; if we wanted a working hunter, perhaps we’d use a Connemara stallion on a thoroughbred mare. It takes a lot of experimenting to find out what combinations work.”
Baz says that although the stud has downsized in recent years, it has simultaneously tweaked its breeding programme to incorporate more pure jumping blood.
“The market has changed,” he continues. “While we’ve been lucky to have a relatively consistent market for our show horses, a couple of years ago we decided to change tack a bit and use some showjumping stallions, such as Kannan and Ramiro B.
This means that if a horse is not going to have a career in the show ring, there is still an end market for it; we make sure we keep moving with the times.”
Baz and Shelly are also seeing a decline in young horses and foals available in Ireland. “A breeder would get a lot more money for a young show prospect 25 years ago,” adds Baz. “And they were also easier to buy in. But people just aren’t breeding on the same scale any more.
“While it is certainly more costly to breed a jumping horse – the stud fees are a lot more – you can get more money for the end product. I also find that people want show horses for next to nothing. They don’t always look at a foal and see the future in it; if you want a nice one to come through, you need to pay a bit more for them. Breeders can often get a bad deal.”
Georgie Belton of the Gemini Stud, in Leicestershire, agrees that conformation should be the foundation of any performance horse.
“Competition horses that have better conformation tend to have fewer lameness issues, so it makes sense to breed a horse – even if not for the show ring – that is well put together,” says Georgie, who also tends to select sires from showjumping, thoroughbred and eventing blood. “But that ‘look at me’ factor in a horse is as much admired by event buyers as it is by showing buyers.
“However, our selection criteria for breeding show horses does follow a particular path. Most of our stock comes from full thoroughbred mares that have had showing careers themselves or have come from CCI4* and CCI5* eventing damlines. The thoroughbred dams give the foals elegant fronts, good heads and excellent limbs. Using jumping sires on these mares then adds outstanding paces and also hopefully the ability for those foals to go on to be top-class eventers in the future.”
Gemini’s resident stallion, the Classic Primitive son Classic Opera, is Sport Horse Breeding (GB) graded and much admired by the showing community due to his own in-hand tally which includes qualifying for the Cuddy in-hand final.
“Many of our clients breed a foal with the hope that one day it will be in the Cuddy,” says Georgie. “By contrast, Classic Opera’s Cuddy status is less of a driving factor for the event horse buyer, but they recognise that he could perhaps breed something for the Burghley young event horse series.
“Classic Opera was actually bred to event; along with his full brother, The Classic Composer, who was due to event this season with Harry Meade prior to the halting of eventing in the UK as a result of coronavirus.
“Our customers come to us in three categories; to buy a foal or to use one of our sires to breed specifically to show in-hand then under saddle; to breed solely to event, or to breed to show in-hand then to event. A good example of the latter was Ernie Jamieson, who bred the eventer Something Classical. He was shown in hunter breeding and sport horse classes up to a three-year-old and is now competing with Daniel Scott at CCI3*-L.”
But interestingly, Georgie does believe that there is a specific – and potentially lucrative – market for quality showing prospects.
“It is generally governed by a discerning and well-financed set of buyers. For example, a three-year-old hunter that has a great record at county level commands a higher value than a three-year-old potential event horse with no form. Private sales of three-year-olds in the showing market – typically after HOYS each year – often generate higher prices than those in the Goresbridge Go For Gold sale in Ireland, which is popular with event horse buyers.”
Third-generation home-bred dams
The Bloomfield prefix is a well-known name in showing classes both in England and Ireland. Jane Bradbury and Daphne Tierney of the stud in Wicklow have bred a brace of Dublin winners; their foundation mare, Aerlite Classic, produced 2011 supreme Bloomfield Ollie as well as Pembroke Cup winner Bloomfield Rebekah and 2013 two-year-old champion Bloomfield Eulogy. The stud is currently breeding from third-generation home-bred dams.
“While we primarily breed to show, we realise that all horses won’t go to the top,” explains Jane. “The show ring is a good early education for them and it sets them up to go on and do other things.”
Producer Jayne Ross is a regular visitor to the stud and makes visits each spring to scout out future talent. She has the promising middleweight Bloomfield Greystones on her yard this season.
Bloomfield’s mares tend to be pure- or part-bred thoroughbred breeding. “We like our mares to have movement and most importantly size,” adds Jane. “A big, roomy mare is more likely to produce a good-sized foal. It’s important to look at a stallion’s progeny as well as himself.”
Bloomfield has had success with thoroughbred sires such as Emperor Augustus, Watermill Swatch and Financial Reward, but Jane says such stallions are now harder to find.
“Colts in racing are being sold out of the country and there are fewer smaller country studs, so Continental blood seems to be taking over,” she says. “We’ve used some Continental and Irish Draught sires. It takes a couple of breedings to see what works, and if we click with one sire, we’re not afraid to use that same one again.
“The market for a very nice show horse is still strong and the ones that aren’t good enough for showing can go on to event or hunt; there’s always a sale for an athletic horse with a good temperament.”
Bloomfield has also had success with animals they’ve bought in as raw youngsters. These include several top ridden hunters such as 2016 HOYS and Windsor hunter champion Bloomfield Excelsior and respective 2017 HOYS heavyweight and middleweight winners Bloomfield Ambition and Bloomfield Valhalla.
“The problem with breeding is that it is such a long wait,” says Jane, who buys from Goresbridge and also directly from local breeders, whom she is keen to support.
“If breeding our own, we try to keep them until they’re three, but it’s a drawn-out procedure. People are definitely breeding less; the farmer in Ireland with two or three mares is less common. I hope in 10 years’ time we’ll still be breeding; I love nothing more than seeing new life in the spring.”
Three horses that were destined for greatness in other spheres, but have also hit the big time in the show ring:
Heads Up: eventer Hayden Hanky rode Catherine Witt’s then five-year-old Irish-bred gelding to top a 39-strong field of working hunters at HOYS last October. The OBOS Quality son was only contending his second-ever worker class.
Silvano KR: Helen Christie’s Wolfgang-sired gelding has won up to advanced medium in the dressage arena. But the 21-year-old took the show scene by storm in 2019 when he won the SSADL veteran supreme at Olympia in his debut season, with fellow showing newbie Gracie Catling.
Barbers Shop: who can forget The Queen’s former racehorse who forged a stellar partnership with producer Katie Jerram-Hunnable? Before his showing career, the bay gelding – who was supreme at Windsor and won at HOYS – ran 24 times under Rules and had eight wins.
Ref Horse & Hound; 2 April 2020