With more than 700 of the world's top young showjumping horses competing at the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH) jumping championships this year, the event was the perfect opportunity for Irish breeders to examine the type of horse required for the top flight.
In September, Declan McArdle and I accompanied 30 Irish producers to the event in Lanaken, Belgium, as part of Teagasc equine educational tour.
Here are some of the highlights of our trip, including several stud farm visits.The first thing that struck us on arrival at Lanaken is the sheer size of the complex. It takes six weeks to erect all the stands, marquees, tents and covered practice arenas for the four days of the show and another three weeks to dismantle.
With start lists in hand, we all set off in different directions to watch the qualifier classes for five-, six- and seven-year-old horses, which were taking place simultaneously in different arenas.
There were 240 horses entered in the five-year-old class, a further 269 in the six-year-old class and 194 in the seven-year-old class, so it is no mean feat to reach the finals of this competition.
The five-year-olds jump 1m25 in the qualifiers and 1m30 against the clock in the final or 1m25 in the consolation class.
The six-year-old qualifiers feature a 1m30 qualifying track and only the top 30 horses go forward to the 1m35 final against the clock. Seven-year-old horses jump 1m40 in the qualifiers, 1m35 in the consolation class and 1m45 in the final.
The demands on young horses are high at Lanaken. Given the hectic season our Irish Sport Horses (ISH) have at home prior to Lanaken, it is a big ask for these young horses to compete at their best from beginning to end.
This is a show where there is no forgiveness from day one, so horses must start well and keep the performance up.
Perhaps the calendar here at home should be addressed in this regard. The ISH horses certainly put up a good fight and we should be very proud of them. Five of the 15 ISH team horses made it through to finals on Sunday.
The best performer in the finals was the bay Darco stallion Codarco, ridden by Thomas O'Brien. With a little more luck on our side, we could have been in line for more great results but the clock took its toll unfortunately.
Whilst at Lanaken, our group had an opportunity to do course walks with Comdt John Ledingham, Tom Holden, Edward Doyle, and Jack Doyle. This is something that breeders should try, in order to understand the demands of the tracks and what questions course builders are asking.
Perhaps this is an area that could be developed for breeders here at home as both riders and course builders are only too happy to share their knowledge.
As part of the trip, our group also visited the farm of Ludo Phillipaerts and his sons.
Ludo shot to fame back in the late 80s and early 90s through his success on the stallion Darco.
Darco still plays a significant role in the damlines of many of the mares on the farm and consequently in many of the riding horses.
The Phillipaerts stud is a fabulous facility with no expense spared, including a wall dedicated to showcasing Ludo's successes in the saddle. However, our main interest was in quizzing the farm manager who looks after the mares and youngstock.
The stud carries a sizeable number of mares and youngstock on an outside farm.
Taking a look at one group of mares, we could see they were a nice looking bunch of mares with good toplines, mostly correct, and good length to their bodies and limbs. But not only that, they had all either jumped themselves to 1m30 or above or were very closely related to horses who had. The pedigrees were deep in performance attributes.
We discovered that they tend to put the three-year-old fillies in foal and take a foal off them at four in order to see what they will be like as potential broodmares.
Next, the mares are put under saddle and a further selection takes place. Those that are good enough progress to jumping and may enter an embryo transfer programme.
The foals are jumped loose over a small fence after weaning in order to gauge their ability and then left alone until they reach two years of age.
At two, they are loose jumped perhaps four times, again over small fences through a grid.
In fact, the farm is slow to compete their young horses. For those horses with talent, all the focus is on producing them slowly for the sport rather than the sales ring. These talented horses will not compete before they are six years old, and then only lightly.
Our group had the opportunity of speaking to world champion Philippe le Jeune at Lanaken and he also emphasised that too much jumping at a young age was not beneficial in the long term.
He insisted that they were animals, not machines, and must be treated as such, a point that Comdt John Ledingham had made earlier in the day.
Interestingly, the attitude to soundness of wind and limb at the Phillipaerts stud did not appear to be as stringent as here in Ireland.
Their attitude to wind unsoundness was that the majority of issues are rectifiable with veterinary intervention.
This means that as breeders, we need to be careful to ask the right questions when sourcing bloodstock from abroad.
All two year olds on the farm are x-rayed. With regard to OCD and bone chips, they seem to have a more relaxed approach being critical only of multiple chips. So again, caution is required on our part.
Next, our group travelled to visit another local breeder, Gerard Lenaerts of Stud Farm Overis. There we saw some very nice foals that had already been sold for in excess of €10,000.
Gerard has a band of 25 mares and annual costs of €200,000, which must be earned to keep the business running. He uses embryo transfer for some of his mares and chooses popular commercial stallions on all his mares.
All the dams have performance pedigrees and have performed themselves or are closely related to performers. Nothing is left to chance, he insisted, adding that he uses the internet extensively to market his youngstock.
The group were given the chance to view a small number of two-year-olds still on the farm. One by one, they were pulled out into a small paddock built specially for the job of loose schooling.
Each of the young horses was allowed to show its paces loose and jumped over a grid of fences.
Afterwards, the group were taken to a cosy café to chat about the horses and pass around business cards. It was clear to all that Gerard is a consummate professional when it comes to marketing his horses. We have a lot to learn from our foreign counterparts in this regard.
Finally, we took the opportunity to Z Quality Auction at Zangersheide Stud, where we first had to come to grips with the fact that in many cases, the foal is with its embryo transplant recipient mare rather than its own dam.
With 57 foals on offer, the auction had a turnover of €568,000. The average foal price was €9,965 and 16 foals sold for more than €10,000.
The top price paid was €26,000, achieved by a colt foal Taloubet Z x Berlin x Germus R. Its great-grandam jumped at Grand Prix level and its great great granddam won the EC Young Riders for Great Britain and also produced AD Uceline, who jumped to 1m60.
While there were some pretty ordinary models among the foals, a few stood out above the rest. In general though, the foals had good toplines and active hind legs, as well as performance damlines.
We hope the group gained some useful insights from our time with the various professionals who so willingly offered of their time at Lanaken.
We look forward to organising the next Teagasc educational tour in the not too distant future and welcome any suggestions for the next trip.