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4 September 2008


By Tom Reed
Horse International Vol 8 2008

Back in the 1980s when Ed Koch was Mayor of New York City his trademarked greeting when he met constituents was "How'm I Doin'?" Each autumn we breeders need to ask ourselves the same question. Whether we produce one foal or dozens of foals each year we must develop three important skills: (1) evaluating the quality of each foal; (2) placing a rational value on each foal; (3) and accurately answering the question, "How'm I Doin'?".

Evaluating Foals
Many breeders and riders tell me they have a hard time evaluating foals. For some people it is because they cannot set aside the strong emotional attachments they have to their foals. Others just seem to have a hard time extrapolating from what they see in front of them (i.e., a 3-month or 6-month foal) to what that foal will look like and move like when he is full-grown. Here are some suggestions:

(1) Every time you see your foal make a mental note of your impressions of his athleticism. Is he an active foal that loves to move and gallop around the field or is he loathe to expend energy? When he moves around the field is he elastic like rubber or is he stiff? When he canters does he use his hind legs to power his motion? When he moves is he light on his feet or does he seem to hit the ground hard at the trot and/or canter? Does he seem to move uphill in both the trot and canter or is he on the forehand? Does he walk like a shuffling Charlie Chaplin or does he swing like a catwalk model? Is he balanced when he moves and does he easily perform flying changes or does he have to struggle a bit to maintain his balance? When he trots and canters do his hind legs come beneath him or do they tend to trail him? Is there suspension in his movement or does he move close to the ground? When he trots does he have a quick hock or does his hind end seem to move in slow motion? Does he move straight when he trots or does he twist a leg? Is his leg conformation improving with age and will it be good enough for him to perform in sport? Does he capture your imagination -- do you have a hard time taking your eyes off of him? Overall does he move like an athlete or like a couch potato?

These daily impressions are important to record, at least mentally, because as a foal grows there will be times when his movement is not at its best because foals do not grow evenly or uniformly. So by forming an impression based on multiple observations over time you have a better chance of recognizing his true attributes.

(2) At about three months of age and again at weaning bring the mare and foal to an arena with a good soft (but not deep) surface and assess the foal more formally. Ask someone to videotape the foal for you and later transfer the video to your computer so you can really see him move and even observe him in slow motion, if you find that useful. Consider the same criteria mentioned above in (1) and critically evaluate his conformation for less-than-optimal attributes that may hinder his ability to perform in sport and/or enjoy a long career in sport. After you have observed the foal in the arena trot the mare on hard level ground and observe the foal from the front and from behind. Does he move straight? Is he balanced? Videotaping this can also prove useful if you have a hard time deciding whether the foal is a straight mover.

If you have bred only a few foals and are not sure what to look for then visit a foal inspection and/or download videos of foals from the internet. However do not be deceived by slick presentation. When we videotape our foals at Morningside Stud we bring them in straight from the field: no grooming, no clipping, no braiding, no stabling, and no feeding them up first so they are explosive. Many people can evaluate foals using only two criteria: size and color. Don’t be one of those people.

Pricing Foals
When I price my foals I start in my mind with a price of euro 0.

Why euro 0?

Because the market does not care how much the broodmare cost. The market does not care how much the stallion (or his stud fee) cost. The market does not care how much it cost to feed and care for the mare during the pregnancy and nursing period. The market does not care how much it cost to care for the foal prior to weaning. The market does not care about vet bills, feed bills, farrier bills, dentist bills, advertizing bills, etc.

All these costs have no impact on how I price a foal because they have no impact on how I and sophisticated purchasers will determine the probability that this foal will become a super athlete, a super stallion, or a super breeding mare.

And since sophisticated purchasers will value the foal based on the potential he or she perceives in the foal as an athlete, stallion, or broodmare this is how I price each foal.

I assess potential in two ways.

The first way is the paperform: the foal's bloodlines and the breadth and depth of its genetic endowment. Since I require evidence of performance in sport in the motherline of all my mares and stallions (except in special circumstances when the right kind of TB blood is being infused) each foal's potential ON PAPER is high. The greater the breadth and depth of the foal's genetic endowment, the higher the potential price of the foal.

But the paperform is not the only issue.

Even more important is the actual foal before you: the realization or expression of the genetic potential possessed by the sire and dam. If based on its athleticism (the absolute first priority), type, and conformation I believe the foal has a very high probability of being an exceptional athlete (or it has a very high probability of becoming a sire or dam of exceptional athletes) then I price the foal high. If I believe the probability is low, I price the foal low. No formulas, no simple metrics, just critical judgments about potential.

In practice my decision-making process is a bit more complicated when pricing foals by our young stallions. If I am using one of my own young stallions for the first season I may sell his foals to very good homes that will produce the foals correctly for sport and/or breeding for less than what I think their real value is. I did this in 2005 with two foals by Ulysses M2S and in 2006 with two foals by Conspiracy M2S. So for these first-crop foals my compensation is the sales price + the value of the expert care, attention, and education the foals will get -- which hopefully will bear fruit a few years from now when these youngsters are old enough to compete and/or be used in breeding.

In practice in our dressage breeding program I also will price super colt foals low because I am not interested in owning a dressage sire. If I use an outside sire in my dressage breeding program I am hoping to produce a filly foal. If I get a colt I price him low to move him on. We did this is 2006: we had an extraordinary filly sired by our stallion Ulysses M2S and a super colt sired by a Trakehner stallion. Both foals were superior. But I advertised the filly at three times the price of the colt. Both foals sold at the advertized asking price (we don't negotiate on price) to an international dressage rider in Germany. The rider paid a fair price for the filly and got a bargain on the colt.

How'm I Doin'
One way I assess my skill as a breeder is whether the foal I bred could have been predicted by the genetics I've employed.

If the foal/horse on the ground is worse than what could have been predicted based on the genetics of the sire and dam then I have made a "destructive" breeding decision.

If the foal/horse on the ground is what could have been predicted based on the genetics of the sire and dam then I have made a "neutral" breeding decision.

If the foal/horse on the ground is better than what could have been predicted based on the genetics of the sire and dam then I have made a "positive" breeding decision and I have added value to the genetics.

I then try to figure out whether that added-value was a happy accident or indeed if I have discovered a potential nick. I do this by repeating the breeding and making new (and ongoing) assessments of the combination.