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Summer 2001

Challenges and Choices for the Irish Breeding Industry

by Tom Reed
Ireland's Horse Review, Summer 2001

The pop singer Billy Joel has an album entitled, "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player." I feel a bit like that troubadour as a write this article about how the Irish studbook compares to our competitors. The news is not good. In fact, it is dismal. But I believe we stand at a crossroads, and if we make the right choices in the next few years we can return to the top of the showjumping rankings. It's going to take clear analysis, skillful implementation, and much courage and sacrifice from all of us. But we can get to the top again.

In this article I'm first going to present the bad news. The picture I'm going to paint for you is not a pretty one. But we need to know where we stand before we can get to where we want to go.

Next, I am going to give a few thoughts on how we got into the situation we're in.

Finally, I am going to offer a 5-Point Action Plan for Breeders and a 10-Point Action Plan for the Horse Board for getting the Irish studbook back to the top of the showjumping rankings.

I know I don't have all the answers. But maybe this article will help us to find some answers that most of us can agree on.

First, the bad news. In the advertisements I recently ran, I stated that "Ireland has been losing competitiveness against the Dutch, the Germans, and the French for the last decade, and in the last 12 months the Irish Studbook has dropped like a stone from 5th place to 10th place." I understated the problem in those ads. The situation has become even worse in the couple of weeks since I wrote those words.
Our studbook is in a free-fall.

Below are eight tables that contain very important information about how the Irish studbook performs as a producer of international showjumpers. Four of the tables (Tables 1, 2, 3, and 4) rank studbooks by the number of points earned by showjumpers in international competitions. This is the measure used by the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses to rank studbooks. The other four tables (Tables 1A, 2A, 3A, and 4A) rank studbooks by the number of horses in each category.

Using recent data (the year ending 28/02/2001), Table 1 takes the 100 top showjumpers in the world, organises them according to the studbook they were born into, and then ranks the studbooks according to how many points these horses earned in international competitions. The KWPN (the Royal Warmblood Studbook of the Netherlands) is ranked
first; the Holsteiner Studbook (German) is ranked second; the Selle Français Studbook (French) is ranked third, the Hannovarian Studbook (German) is ranked fourth, and the Oldenburg Studbook (German) is ranked fifth. The Irish Studbook has dropped all the way to 14th place.

Table 1A presents the studbooks ranked by the number of international jumping horses in the top 100 horses in the world. The top five studbooks remain in the same order as in Table 1. The KWPN, the top-ranked studbook, has 21 horses in the top 100. The Irish Studbook has only one horse (Abbervail Dream, by Chair Lift, ridden by Di Lampard for the UK) in the top 100 showjumpers in the world. We share the bottom of the list with four other studbooks that have only one horse in the world's top 100.

Table 2 ranks the studbooks according to the points earned by the top 200 showjumpers in the world. The KWPN retains its top ranking, and the Irish Studbook moves up to 9th place.

If we look at Table 2A, which ranks the studbooks by the number of the top 200 showjumpers that were born into each studbook, Ireland moves up to 7th place with 12 horses in the world's top 200 showjumpers.

Table 3 ranks the studbooks according to the points earned by the top 300 showjumpers in the world. Once again the KWPN is the top studbook, and the Irish Studbook drops to 8th place.

In Table 3A, which ranks the studbooks by the number of the top 300 showjumpers that were born into each studbook, Ireland moves up a level to 6th place with 18 horses out of the world's best 300 showjumpers.

Finally, Table 4 presents data on the world's top 400 showjumpers. The KWPN retains its domination over other studbooks, and the Irish Studbook moves up a level to 7th place.

Table 4A shows that the KWPN has 87 horses in the world's top 400 showjumpers, while Ireland has 25. Ireland remains at 6th place.

So what can we learn from these tables and other analyses I have done? These are the conclusions that I have drawn:

1.) Ireland has lost its competitiveness in producing top-class showjumpers.
Only one out of the world's top 100 showjumpers is Irish-bred (1% of the total), only 12 out of the world's top 200 showjumpers are Irish-bred (6% of the total), only 18 out of the world's top 300 showjumpers are Irish-bred (6%), and only 25 out of the world's top 400 showjumpers are Irish bred (6.25%). Given our country's distinguished history of breeding top-class showjumpers, these results are very distressing.

2.) We not only have lost competitiveness in producing a sufficient number of horses in the top 100 and top 200, but the quality of the horses that we do produce in those groupings is not very high.
For example, the one horse we have in the top 100, Abbervail Dream, is ranked 88th. If this great gelding were to suffer an injury, he could quickly drop out of the top 100 and leave Ireland ranked last in the world. In the top 200 rankings, consider the Swedish Warmblood Studbook (SWB), which is emerging as a very strong competitor to the Irish Studbook. The SWB is ranked one below the Irish Studbook in Table 2, in 10th place. But if we divide the number of points Ireland and Sweden have, respectively, in Table 2 by the number of horses they have in Table 2A, we will see that the average Irish horse has only 334 points (4,012 / 12 = 334) while the average Swedish horse has 575 points (2,875 / 5 = 575). In other words, the average Swedish horse has 72% more points than the average Irish horse in the top 200. This leads me to conclude that, on average, the Swedish horses in the top 200 are of higher quality than the Irish horses.

3.) Another way to look at these data is that the KWPN has about twice as many foals born each year into its studbook as the Irish studbook (approximately 12,000 for the KWPN versus 5,500 or so for the Irish studbook).
If we take into account that the KWPN produces about twice as many foals as does the Irish Studbook, then we would expect the KWPN to achieve about twice as many points as the Irish Studbook earns in the top 100 and top 200, and about twice as many horses as the Irish Studbook has in the top 100 or top 200. So let's double the number of points earned by our Irish horses in the top 100 and top 200 (Tables 1 and 2), and double the number of Irish horses in the top 100 and top 200 (Tables 1A and 2A), to get estimates of where we would stand if we produced as many foals as the KWPN does. Even after making these adjustments, the KWPN still has about 16 times as many points as the Irish Studbook has and about 10 times as many horses as the Irish Studbook has in the top 100. In the top 200, after making these adjustments the KWPN has almost three times as many points and almost double the number of horses as the Irish studbook has. Thus the KWPN has many more excellent horses than we do in the top 100 and top 200, and the average quality of these horses is also much higher. Clearly we are in trouble.

4.) Among living sires standing in Ireland and Northern Ireland, only Candy's Boy (Castletown Stud), Cruising (Hartwell Stud), Ekstein (Morningside Stud), Glidawn Diamond (Cahirwisheen Stud), Laughton's Flight (Eric Atkinson's stud), Master Imp and Slyguff Joker (Slyguff Stud), Touchdown (James Kernan and Knockrath Stud), and Western Promise (Robert Scott's stud) have progeny jumping in the top 400.
(The progeny of Ekstein, the KWPN-approved stallion I purchased this year, represent the KWPN studbook, not the Irish studbook.) This small number of stallions standing in Ireland that are siring top international jumpers is a serious problem that must be addressed.

How did a great horse breeding nation like Ireland get into this position? How did we go so quickly from the top of the rankings as a showjumping studbook to a third or fourth tier power? What do we, Irish Sport Horse breeders, and the Irish Horse Board need to do to make the slow climb back up the rankings?

Space constraints will not allow me to discuss in detail how we got ourselves into this situation. Briefly stated, the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Belgians, the Danes, and the Swedes have been pursuing a rigorous and scientific approach to breeding top-level competition horses. These studbooks have clear mandates from their members to produce studbook rules, policies, procedures, and events that will yield world-class horses. They do this by rigorous stallion selection, careful mare grading, scientific research to support advances in sport horse breeding, and marketing strategies to attract foreign buyers to purchase these top quality horses. Our studbook is at least 20 years behind the times along all these dimensions.

What are we, Irish Sport Horse breeders, to do to help turn this situation around? Below is a Five Point Action Plan that each of us should think about as we make choices each breeding season.

1. Only breed to top quality mares.
Ireland has too many breeders using poor quality mares, and this is reflected in the low prices at the auctions and our free-fall in studbook rankings. Trade up to better quality mares and do not breed to mares with conformation problems and anything less than good temperament, very good movement, excellent jumping ability.

2. Only breed to top quality stallions.
If you are considering a mature stallion (15 years of age or older) he must have: (a) world-class bloodlines; (b) at least three offspring jumping internationally; (c) at least three sons approved as sires in leading studbooks; (d) a record of producing approved broodmares; and (e) clean x-rays with no history of bone chips. If the mature stallion does not meet these tests, then do not use him. If you are considering a young stallion (under 15 years of age) he should have: (a) world-class bloodlines; (b) a solid competition record that is improving with each year (avoid the very young stallion that no longer competes); (c) excellent movement and paces; and (d) clean x-rays with no history of bone chips. If you are using a warmblood stallion of any age, only use one that has been approved by at least one studbook on the continent. This is your only guarantee that the horse is a top warmblood stallion and is free of OCD disease, bone chips, and other problems. Approval by the Irish Horse Board is not good enough: The Irish Horse Board's stallion selection policies are at least a decade behind our competitors' policies.

3. Consider forming a partnership with like-minded breeders to upgrade your mares.
One of the keys to successful breeding in Holland is that the top stud farms form partnerships with breeders. The stud and the breeder own an equal share of a very high quality mare, and the stud uses its network to market the foal each year.

4. Become active in the Irish Horse Board.
This Irish Horse Board is a cooperative society that has a democratic structure in place. Unfortunately, positions on the Board of Directors of the Horse Board often go uncontested, leaving power in the hands of the same individuals year after year. Consider running for a position on the Horse Board if you have the time and energy to make a difference.

5. Buy and study the "International Breeding Guide".
This "bible" for breeders is published each year by the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses. It will allow you to begin much of the research that needs to be done when picking a sire.

I offer below a Ten Point Action Plan for the Horse Board to return the Irish Studbook to the top of the showjumping studbook rankings.

1. Benchmark our studbook's policies, procedures, and programmes against the top 5 showjumping studbooks.
We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Let's do what businesses do all over the world and benchmark ourselves against the world's best.

2. Cull mares that are not suitable for breeding.
The Horse Board should petition the government for a one-year culling programme to
begin immediately. To be eligible for the programme, mares would have to be under 17 years of age, have produced at least one foal in the last three years, and have one or more serious conformation faults that render the mare unsuitable for breeding. The mares would be examined by a panel of independent vets and independent experts (such as professional riders with no ties to the mare owner). The owners of the mares selected for this voluntary programme would receive a £1,000 culling payment and be allowed to keep whatever money is paid for the mare by the knacker.

3. Grade mares.
Following the policies used by the KWPN, filly foals should only be entered into the main portion of the Irish Studbook after they have passed a basic inspection for type, conformation, and movement. Older mares should be graded as Star and Premium mares.

4. Establish a quality mare purchase incentive scheme.
The Horse Board should petition the government for a programme to encourage breeders to bring into the country world-class broodmares from leading continental studbooks. Many of these mares will have Irish blood in them through foundation sires exported to the continent such as Ladykiller, Furioso, and Water Serpent.

5. Reform the stallion approval process.
We should benchmark our stallion approval process against the best in the world: the KWPN. The stallion inspection committee should be selected by a vote of the membership. Only world-class stallions should be approved.

6. Reform the stallion purchase incentive scheme.
If warmblood stallions are to be brought into Ireland under this scheme, it should
be required that they have been approved for at least one year by a warmblood studbook on the continent. We cannot reach the top of the studbook rankings by bringing in warmblood stallions that are not good enough to be approved on the continent.

7. Launch an annual Irish Stallion Show that will bring in foreign buyers from throughout the world.
Our studbook competitors have annual stallion shows that feature stallion approval, auctions, and showjumping competitions. Breeders and buyers from all over the world go to witness and buy. We have to stop holding secret stallion inspections (the Irish Horse Board calls these "private inspections") and invite the world to see and buy the best that we can breed and produce.

8. The Horse Board should collaborate more with the UCD Veterinary School.
I propose a three-year project to upgrade the skills of vets in scanning and artificial insemination, using both chilled and frozen semen. We also need to upgrade the skills of vets in reading x-rays to detect hereditary diseases such as OCD, even after the bone chips have been removed.

9. Institute term limits to bring new blood into the Board of Directors of the Irish Horse Board.
Two terms should be long enough for anyone to serve.

10. The Department of Agriculture and the Board of Directors of the Irish Horse Board should conduct an independent review of the top
management of the Irish Horse Board to assess its performance in running the Irish Studbook.
The staff of the Irish Horse Board do an excellent job implementing the policies of the Board of Directors and the Director General of the Irish Horse Board. However, the studbook is in a free-fall in the international rankings and Irish-bred horses no longer play a role in breeding programmes on the continent. I recommend an evaluation of the Irish Studbook's performance under the current Director General should be launched immediately by the Board of Directors and the Department.

There is a saying in the States that "The show's not over 'til the fat lady sings." (Opera fans will know what I mean.) The fat lady is warming up her vocal chords, but she's not on stage yet. We can turn around our Irish Sport Horse breeding industry if we have the courage to make changes. What we don't have is another five years of time to waste.