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30 April 2010

Sometimes Even the Buddha Is Wrong

by Tom Reed
Horse International No. 4 2010

Since the late 1980s breeders in the southern hemisphere, North America, and Great Britain have been heavy users of imported semen from the most fashionable showjumping and dressage stallions in Europe. Most of this semen was used initially on thoroughbred and half-bred mares but in the 1990s and 2000s there was a great trade in mares purchased in Europe and imported into these countries. Today the semen is used on imported mares; daughters, grand-daughters, and great-grand-daughters of imported mares; and TB mares and their half-bred and quarter-bred descendants. This "natural experiment" has been costly as stud fees for imported semen are high (often euro 2,500 - 3,000) and the veterinary charges for using frozen semen in those counties are often astronomical.

What has been produced by these efforts at "remote" breeding? Not much at all. You would be hard pressed to find many international dressage horses and international showjumpers that were produced directly or indirectly by imported semen used in those countries.

The cases where breeders from outlying countries have been very successful can be counted on one hand. In these successful cases the foundation of the breeding program was good imported stallions bred to a large number of good imported mares. Imported semen played a much smaller role. "Soft knowledge" was created and used to breed athletes from later generations.

Why were these stud farms successful and so many breeders elsewhere unsuccessful?

There are two primary reasons. First, many mare owners had no or very little insight about what the stallions they used produced and what kind of mares best suited them. They made breeding decisions based on photos, rankings, indicies, and advice from people who understood the genetic characteristics of the mare population that the stallion served in Europe but did not know understand the genetic characteristics of the mare population in the outlying country.

The second reason is that within the outlying countries there were never enough foals produced by any given stallion, or there were never enough foals produced near enough to each other geographically, for learning to take place among the mare owners and soft knowledge to be created.

A development in the last few years is that several serious breeders of American Holsteiners have thrown in the towel and capitulated to the notion that they cannot breed world-class Holsteiners in the USA. These breeders came to this decision for a few reasons: (1) in the USA they cannot have access to the entire genetic pool of Holsteiner stallions so they are handicapped; (2) the Holsteiner mares they are able to buy and import often are not representative of the Holsteiner mares in Germany that are producing excellent athletes; and (3) they will never be able to replicate the soft knowledge and the learning community that is so vital for successful breeding. Yes, they read stallion books and stud farm catalogues and the Holsteiner Verband's (German language) magazine. Yes, they can visit the approvals and the gradings and the foal brandings in Germany. But they will never be able to access the soft unwritten knowledge, wisdom, and insights this community of German breeders has developed over many generations and share with each other.

So what have these several serious US breeders done? They now have their breeding operations in Germany! They visit their horses a few times a year but they let others give advice about mare selection, stallion selection, foal retention, producing youngster for sport, etc. So they have out-sourced many of the critical breeding decisions although they still see themselves as the "breeder". I suspect they will have success but the success will often be more attributable to their agents rather than to the principals.

What would have been the alternative to out-sourcing breeding decisions to the Germans? It would have been building a distinct American Holsteiner breed based on German Holsteiner genetics but contextualized for the realities of the USA. This idea was rejected by the American Holsteiner studbook in favor of a deeper commitment to "pure" German genetics. It will fail. But the Germans will make a lot of money selling them mares and frozen semen and the occasional stallion they no longer want.

In history there have been several instances where a breeding community or studbook has anointed stallions that they thought could make a profound contribution. Where would the Holsteiners be without Cor de la Bryere and Alme from France? Zangersheide leased Alme, Cor de la Bryere, and Ramiro and built a world-class breeding operation on their shoulders. After a leasing hiatus of a decade or more Zangersheide leased Coriano from the Holsteiner Verband. When the lease expired Zangersheide reluctantly sent Coriano back because the Verband wanted him back. Finally, a few years later, Zangersheide brought Coriano back to Belgium while still guaranteeing the Holsteiner Verband and its members access to his semen at an affordable price.

Why did the experiments with Cor de la Bryere, Alme, Ramiro and Coriano work? These were stallions with excellent genetics, the experts saw they had potential to make a huge contribution in the new environment (remember that Cor de la Bryere had failed in France), and each stallion was given the opportunity to service a large number of mares so that learning and upgrading of the mare base could take place. Soft knowledge was created and leveraged.

The idea that by using imported semen there can be a turn-around in breeding in a country like Ireland that has lost its way, or that an outlying country can build a world-class breeding program using imported semen from a multitude of famous stallions, is a notion that has failed everywhere it has been tried and there is nothing to suggest this strategy will work now. If the solution were that easy the countries noted above would all be breeding a lot of world-class athletes. But they are not. It would make more sense for breeders in these countries to use the good imported (and home-bred second and third generation) stallions they have at their disposal, to learn what these stallions can produce while simultaneously learning what their mares can produce, and to develop the soft knowledge that is so critical for breeding success.

Most recently we are seeing attempts to promote "armchair breeding" using frozen semen imported half-way around the world on mares located halfway around the world that the breeder has never seen (except by video link over the internet) and whose genetic endowment certainly cannot be understood. In the 1970s the priest/poet Daniel Berrigan wrote:

"Don't just do something," Buddha said. "Sit there."

In this case the advice of the Buddha is not helpful. Armchair breeding, like any kind of remote breeding, is doomed to fail.