Sport Horse Breeding: Horse Breed Shows Have it Backwards


so fugly they're cute.  let 'em be.

Among many problems inside American Sport Horse Breeding programs, breed shows are absolutely not helping those problems, and in many cases, breed shows are harming the breeds involved.

Winning yearling breed show attributes are often mutually exclusive from lifetime quality care and training practices. Too many people equate a breed show winning yearling as a potential winning sport horse. Additionally, young horses “promoted” at breed shows are generally not being raised with their future in mind.

A valid reason to enter a young horse into a breed show could be to acquaint them with the sights and sounds of a horse show. Seeing a new place and being away from friends is especially important for raising an even tempered horse. For the young horse, the earlier new, “scary” things and environments happen, the better. An in-hand class at a horse breed show could go a long way toward creating this positive, “scary” environment.

But at sport horse breed shows, witnessing in-hand classes of young horses is difficult. On parade are a bunch of immature horses who will grow up with health and temperament problems based purely on their preparation for the show. It’s this short-sided nature of the young horse’s care and training that reflects poorly on the reasons most breeders enter the breed shows.

What am I talking about? All over the place, many young horses for sale will undoubtedly carry the title of “in hand winner.” For a young horse, this dubious title shouldn’t speak volumes to anyone. A winning yearling at a breed show is fat, shiny, and “conditioned”. A yearling shouldn’t be fat or conditioned. Young, fat horses grow too fast and put unnecessary weight on undeveloped bones. Horses that grow too fast are at severe risk to developing OCD. A yearling could be shiny, maybe, but most yearlings should have some coat bleaching do to being outside all the time.

But yearlings can’t win ribbons with sun bleached coats, so inside, in a stall, they grow.

I have heard horror stories of young horses trained for breed shows possessing terrible quirks that are hard to get rid of. One horse I knew was shown extensively on the line, at Devon, and as an adult this horse was a bit of a lunatic on the ground. As a yearling, this horse had been so conditioned to trot big in hand and take off fast that seven years after having ever been at a breed show, the horse was still miserable to lead. One sound, cluck, clap, hoot or holler, and this horse would attempt to take off like a bat out of hell. This particular horse didn’t win in-hand, but it placed in the top 5 and also had an OCD lesion removed from each hock. Lameness was always a problem, but the horse sure was pretty!

There is no doubt that movement can be seen at a young age, though maturity does tell the true tale of how a horse moves. I knew a gangly, ugly, yearling filly that moved like a Saddlebred who went on to compete at a very high level in dressage. That filly would have not only lost in hand at breed shows, she would have been laughed out of the ring. Why she moved like that as a youngster is beyond me, but she moved beautifully as a 4 year old and on!

Remember how junior high dorks grow up to be wealthy CEO’s with good looking spouses; think of young horses the same way.

so fugly they're cute. let 'em be.

As a breeder and an owner of a young horse (under 4 years), sometimes it’s hard to wait and “do stuff” with the young horse. But, patience is a virtue, and it usually pays off in the end. Allow that weanling, yearling, and two year old to look scrawny, gangly, sun bleached, and awkward. It’s okay; many a fantastic sport horse was an ugly duckling at one time or another.

When purchasing a young horse, don’t take any breed show wins as guarantees to success; instead look at lineage success, the individual horse in question, and most importantly, get x-rays! Joints of young horses can show a lot about future soundness problems that might crop up.

Until a horse and rider earn ribbons for performance, there is no guarantee a horse is worth the asking price. And just because a stallion has produced 20 in hand winners doesn’t mean that stallion produces performance sport horses. In order to get an accurate picture of a young horse’s potential, look into the performance of the mature progeny of stallions. Maybe their offspring are really pretty, but pretty doesn’t matter if they’re a mess under saddle.

With young horses, don’t get fooled by ribbons, championships, and fancy foals! On the end results of breeding matter, and those end results are not determined, not even commented on at breed shows.

All in all, breed shows tend to bring out a different kind of horse enthusiast. Those die-hard breed-showers are usually focused on:

  1. inflating horse prices, or
  2. seeing their “baby” win

In-hand classes at breed shows may be interesting for mature horses; there, experienced judges can make observations about temperament, conformation, and ability as it relates to the breed, but breed shows have it wrong when looking at young horses.

If you do choose to show your young horse in-hand, take precautions by limiting any “work” to simply manners and experiences, and let young horses be young horses by being outside as much as possible. And this is so important; do not over feed a growing horse. Follow your veterinarian’s advice and consult the stallion owner as well who may have experience with “growthy” throws.

With young horses, too big, too fast, and too fat are problems that cause long term health and fitness issues. Unless American Sport Horse Breeders stop focusing on the outside of their young babies, the horses and breeds themselves will only keep on loosing.

But then again, if it’s ribbons you’re after, horse breed shows are for you.

Just take that “sport” off the “sport horse” you’re peddling; we can call it even.