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4 July 2008


By Tom Reed
Horse International Vol 6 2008
Reprinted in L'Annee Hippique 2008/2009

This year the Holsteiner Verband celebrates its 125th anniversary. From a small breeding region in the north of Germany the Holsteiner Verband and its loyal breeders/members have produced countless international showjumpers, world-class stallions, and valuable broodmares that have been exported to all corners of the world. And every single powerhouse European studbook -– without exception -- employs Holsteiner genetics to enhance their own showjumping breeding program.

What can we as breeders and studbook officials learn from the Holsteiner Verband and its members?

A Learning Community
The Holsteiner Verband's foal registration policy and marketing practices facilitate learning among the members. Each year breeders bring their mares and foals to a nearby venue (perhaps a neighbor's dairy farm or a local studfarm) where the foals are examined and branded. Breeders form and update impressions about the quality of foals produced by new and established stallions and share these impressions with fellow breeders. Judgments begin to be made or amended. Is this newly approved stallion a potentially valuable sire or are his foals "normal"? Does the stallion bring "blood" and quality to the old-fashioned mares or does he produce foals with less quality then one would expect from his own genetics and phenotype? What type of mare seems to best suit the stallion? Are we seeing once again too many poorly-conformed hind legs from this stallion?

Breeders can visit these branding venues throughout the breeding region and quickly and economically learn answers to these questions. The same type of learning takes place during stallion approvals, mare shows and performance tests, and auctions for foals, stallions, and riding horses. I believe these practices foster a "learning community" within the Holsteiner breeding region and is a major source of their competitive advantage.

The Primacy of the Motherline
Many years ago the Holsteiner Verband began assigning numbers to each damline in its breeding population. These numbers, called the "Stamm", tells us what motherline, or mare family, each horse comes from. The breeders know which Stamms tend to produce a lot of top athletes and stallions and which ones are less important, taking into account the size of the Stamm. (Some Stamms are quite large with many branches while others are small.) This matriarchial system, with its emphasis on the production of top-level showjumpers and approved stallions by the FEMALES in the pedigree, is the single greatest factor, I believe, in the success of the Holsteiner horse in international sport.

Many people think that, for example, a Capitol I x Landgraf I horse is very well breed. But the Holsteiner breeder knows that it is the quality of the motherline, the Stamm, that determines how well-bred this horse is. Two broodmares that are sired by Capitol I out of a mare sired by Landgraf I could be as different as night and day in their genetic potential: one could be very valuable and the other of little value for breeding. The Stamm helps determine which mare is the valuable one.

Singular Pursuit
Horses with the Holsteiner brand can be found competing in international eventing and dressage and in other pursuits such as driving, but make no mistake about it: the sole purpose of the Holsteiner Verband and the vast majority of its members is to breed and produce horses that can compete in international showjumping at the very highest level. They leave to the other studbooks the goal of producing good riding horses and multi-purpose horses. This singular pursuit brings a clarity of vision to every decision made by the Verband and to most of its breeders.

Concentrated Genetics with Periodic Outcross
The Holsteiner gene pool is very concentrated; these days it is difficult to find a Holsteiner that does not carry the blood of Cor de la Bryere, Capitol I, or Landgraf I. This concentration of performance genes, in combination with other factors discussed in this essay, has helped to produce outstanding showjumpers. Because such a limited gene pool can create over time unwelcome qualities relating to health, durability, and fertility the Verband periodically introduces outcross blood. In the past outcrossing was typically achieved by introducing thoroughbred and Anglo-Arab or Shagya Arab sires into the breeding population but in recent times the Verband is experimenting once again with Selle Français blood (with decidedly mixed results). What characterizes the Holsteiner Verband's outcross policies, however, is its strictness. Unlike some other top studbooks, which permit new blood to enter the gene pool via both mares and approved outcross stallions and through the use of other books within the studbook (for example, the KWPN's valuable Register A), the Holsteiner Verband keeps a tight lid of the type and quality of outcross blood.

Limited Use of Modern TB Blood
Related to the outcross discussion is the use of thoroughbred blood. Unlike some studbooks such as the Irish, which approves scores of unproven and untried and, to be frank, destructive (for showjumping breeding) thoroughbreds, the Holsteiner Verband approves very few thoroughbred sires. The ones they do approve have to have compelling attributes that, on a benefit-cost analysis, appear to have the potential to bring desired attributes without destroying the jump and the canter. Like some other studbooks such as the KWPN, the Holsteiner Verband is extremely selective on what thoroughbred sires it approves and this is one reason why the Verband and its member consistently produce top showjumpers. (The next issue of Horse International will feature two controversial articles on the use of thoroughbreds in sport horse breeding.)

As breeders we have a lot to learn from the Holsteiner Verband and its members. But also studbooks have a lot to learn. By benchmarking our policies, practices and decisions against the Holsteiner's I believe we can advance the breeding of top-level showjumpers throughout the world.