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10 December 2009

Keeping Trakehners on Track

by Tom Reed
Horse International Vol 10 2009
This article will appear translated into German in Der Trakehner, the official magazine of the Trakehner Verband, March 2010 issue.

The Trakehner has a long and distinguished history as an all-purpose riding horse breed dating back to 1732 and as a source of top international athletes in all three Olympic disciplines.* In the annals of dressage the names of Biotop, Pepel, and Peron TSF will be inscribed forever as will Nurmi, Habicht, and Windfall in eventing and Abdullah, Almox Prints J, and Livius in showjumping. However in the latter part of the 20th century many Trakehner breeders turned away from a strong emphasis on sport and instead focused their attention on another breeding goal: the "Trakehner type". For many breeders, and the Verband, "pretty is" became much more important than "pretty does". In the 21st century Trakehner breeders and the Verband are once again committed to breeding athletes rather than simply beauty pageant queens (and kings) but the damaging legacy of these "lost years" will persist for several decades.

How can the Trakehner reclaim its past glory as a breed that consistently produced world-class athletes in all three Olympic disciplines? Unfortunately it is a lot easier to damage an outstanding genetic endowment than it is to re-build one, especially when the studbook is "closed". Warmblood studbooks permit stallions and mares from other populations to be incorporated into their gene pool to create improvement or to enhance genetic diversity. The two extreme examples of this are Studbook Zangersheide and the Trakehner Studbook. Studbook Zangersheide has an almost completely open policy in that it will register any foal that has been sired by any stallion that is approved or licensed by any member studbook of the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses and is out of a mare registered by any WBFSH member studbook. On the other extreme we have the Trakehner Studbook, which will
only allow a select few thoroughbred, Arabian, Anglo-Arabian, and Shagya Arabian sires and mares to be entered into the studbook. Every other stallion and mare must be a pure Trakehner.

As an almost-closed studbook Trakehner faces an extraordinarily difficult task if it wants to improve athleticism in its population. If the Hannoverian or KWPN studbooks want to improve their members' ability to breed international showjumpers the stallion commissions will approve good Holsteiner jumping stallions. If Hannover or KWPN want to improve their members' ability to breed international dressage horses the stallion commissions will approve good Trakehner dressage stallions. And Dutch breeders also will look for excellent Trakehner mares to bring into their breeding program. But the Trakehner commission cannot look to the KWPN or Hannover or Holstein for improvement sires and the breeders likewise cannot look to other warmblood studbooks for outstanding mares.

So what is the Trakehner breeder to do?

Select and Cull
Two fundamental activities in any breeding program are selection and culling. For an almost-closed population such as Trakehner the duty to select carefully and to cull vigorously is paramount because it is highly unlikely that the source of great genetic improvement in the population, especially with respect to jumping ability, will emanate from an external source such as a thorougbred or Arabian sire: they just don't make them like they used to! It is more likely that that the source of athletic improvement will be internal to the Trakehner population but only if selection and culling of both stallions and mares are taken more seriously than they are taken now, and if selection and culling decisions are made on the basis of athleticism and not "type". If a characteristic (such as athleticism, elasticity, jumping ability) is not "selected on" in a breeding program that characteristic will not magically appear (or re-appear) in the population. Instead it will disappear. Trakehner breeders must select on athletic attributes if world-class athletes are going to be systematically produced.

Reduce the Number of Newly Approved Stallions
The Trakehner association is very small compared to many of its competitors: only 1,234 foals were registered by the Trakehner Verband in 2009. It does not enjoy economies of scale like other studbooks and its members probably expect the same level of service as that provided by much larger studbooks. But despite its small size each year the Trakehner Verband approves approximately the same number of stallions as the Holsteiner Verband, which register about five times more foals each year. And the Trakehner Verband approves approximately the same number of stallions as the KWPN, which is 11 or 12 times larger. Trakehners breeders must wrestle with the financial forces that motivate the Verband and its stallion commission to approve many more stallions than are worthy of approval. For such a small breeding
population even if 10 sub-par newly approved Trakehner stallions serviced just 24 mares each the resulting 240 foals would represent approximately 20% of the next year's entire foal crop. Trakehners cannot afford to risk that such a large percentage of their foal crop each year may be sired by less than outstanding young stallions. Further newly-approved Trakehner stallions must be required to come from mare families with outstanding sport performance. A damline that produced multitude approved stallions and winners in mare beauty pageants is simply not good enough.

Renew the Focus on Sport
I have already mentioned how the Trakehner breed lost its way for a period of time and for the Verband and many breeders "type" became more important than athleticism. In the most recent period the Verband's breeding policy has been focused on increasing the size and frame of the population. These are worthy goals -- the marketplace demands large horses even if most riders are women who are not tall and cannot easily ride large horses -- but these are not attributes that will help breeders produce excellent athletes for sport. On a fundamental level Trakehener breeders must decide whether their goal is to breed pretty, tall, and large-framed horses or world-class athletes. That is the stark choice. It is impossible to maximize on the latter goal while maximizing on the former goals.

Recommit to Jumping Ability
The Trakehner breed cannot become once again a reliable producer of world-class international showjumpers: too much of the genetics have been lost or destroyed in the last few decades and it is virtually impossible to expect a thoroughbred, Arabian, Anglo-Arabian, and Shagya Arabian sire to bring modern jumping ability to the Trakehener population. While we probably will never again see Trakehners like Abdullah, Poprad, and Topki competing in the Olympics in showjumping it is absolutely vital to the breed that the Verband and breeders recommit themselves to preserving their existing jumping genetics and building on that foundation.

Why is it vital to preserve jumping athleticism if we have capitulated to the idea that Trakehner breeders cannot systematically produce international showjumpers like they once did? One answer is easy to provide: Trakehners still produce a lot of top-class eventing horses and this should continue to be the case in the future if correct choices are made by all involved. The other reason is that small doses of excellent jumping genetics often help in dressage breeding programs. One of the reasons the Trakehner has made such a profound and positive contribution to Dutch warmblood dressage breeding is because the mare base in the KWPN, even within its dressage mares, has a large dose of jumping genes and the resulting excellent canter, power in the hindquarters, and elasticity that are associated with excellent
jumping genetics. Although a horse like the amazing Totilas is a surprise, it is not surprising to me that he comes from a cross between an excellent Trakehner sire and a KWPN mare with predominantly jumping genetics.

Preserve Jumping Genetics
Some of the most valuable jumping genetics in the Trakehener breed have been damaged in recent years by breeders diverting these mare families to dressage breeding. (Yes, such a diversion can produce a Totilas but if most breeders with jumping mares use them in dressage breeding then the population will suffer.) Even at the 2009 Trakehner stallion approval there were several instances where some of Trakehner's best jumping mare families had been crossed with dressage-bred stallions. In my frustration at this reality at one point I turned to a German friend and said that the stallion commission should require every breeder of a stallion candidate to stand up in public at the approvals and explain the reasoning and logic that produced that stallion candidate. Likewise it makes no sense to use a dressage-bred stallion with little "blood" in his pedigree (such as Grafenstolz TSF), that happened to be successful in eventing, on a jumping-bred mare if one hopes to breed a top-class showjumper or eventer.

Recently approximately 70 doses of high quality frozen semen from the world-class Olympic showjumper Abdullah were released for sale in Germany. This is probably the last semen from this great athlete and sire. I acquired 20 doses for my own breeding program within the Warmblood Studbook of Ireland. The Trakehner Verband should acquire every remaining straw and carefully dispense this genetic heritage to only the best jumping mares in its population. In addition to Abdullah among the showjumping stallions Trakehner breeders should be using whose genetics could help to rebuild jumping ability within the gene pool are Heops, Hirtentanz, Luecke, and Tzigane. The latter US-bred stallion was recently sent to Germany by his American owner to stand at stud following a successful career in both showjumping and eventing at the national level in the USA. And of course Trakehner breeders in Europe should be pounding on the stable door of the Olympic eventing horse Windfall and demanding that his owner make Windfall's frozen semen available in Europe. Windfall is proving to be a very valuable sire in the USA and it would be a shame if this great son of Habicht were forever lost to Trakehner breeders in Germany. With his athleticism and pedigree and "blood" Windfall is the type of eventing stallion that could make important contributions to both jumper breeding and eventing breeding within the Trakehner studbook.

Take Advantage of French Anglo-Arab Sires
There are some excellent Anglo-Arab stallions in France that have proven themselves in international showjumping and in breeding. Several of these stallions are closely related and descend from the great AA mare Yasmine. Although the cherished "Trakehner type" will likely be diminished by these AA showjumping stallions they provide exactly what Trakehner breeders need: full-blood sires that jump internationally and are producing successful showjumping progeny.

The Trakehener breed has a rich history and the potential to build upon its past accomplishments. It would be a tragedy if in this century the Trakehner became simply a supplier of genetics to other studbooks and diminished its ability to produce its own pure-bred international athletes. The Trakehner is on track to continued excellence but it could easily be derailed if the Verband and breeders do not think clearly and act decisively.

*For a highly informative living history of the Trakehner see