As breeders, we are always going to be biased towards our own so no doubt this year's crop of foals is the finest we've ever had on the ground. We know and expect that potential buyers for those foals will take our claims with a pinch of salt. However, new research from UCD lecturer Dr Karen Hennessy suggests that Irish breeders are dangerously close to deluding ourselves when it comes to what we are producing.
Her latest work examines the value of the Irish Sport Horse (ISH) brand compared with that of other European studbooks and finds that we come up short.
"There was a general perception among those in the sport horse industry in Ireland that Irish-bred horses were generally sought-after animals in almost every sector of the market place," she says.
About 100 years ago, it was noted that "Irish-bred horses enjoy worldwide celebrity ... to have Ireland as a birthplace is reckoned as one of the best credentials, which a hunter can possess and all else being equal, a horse of Irish origin will invariably find a purchaser at a substantially better price than that of any other country," Coyne (1902).
Dr Hennessy says that to translate that statement into today's marketing speak, it would mean that the ISH is a strong international brand able to command a substantial price premium based on its superiority over competitive offerings.
"This was undoubtedly true in the more recent past," she says. "However, recession aside, current evidence suggests that while there has been a high regard for the Irish horse among foreign and particularly British-based buyers, the competitive position of the ISH and its ability to earn top prices has slipped over time."
Britain is undoubtedly the biggest export market for the ISH. During the Celtic Tiger years, a study commissioned by the Irish Horse Board, authored by Karen Hennessy and Katherine Quinn, estimated that around 38pc of horses sold -- both privately and through auction -- were destined for the British market, with prices averaging €5,000 a horse.
To get a measure of how such prices compare to the continental studbook progeny within the British market, Dr Hennessy carried out a PhD study, which showed that the ISH on average achieved a 49.5pc lower price than its European bred counterparts within the British market place.
Dr Hennessy's figures are endorsed by previous research findings of Georgina Crossman (2006), who showed the average price paid for an Irish horse bought in Britain was 49pc lower than those originating from the rest of Europe (see table 1, above).
"This is disappointing, although it bears out a widespread opinion among participants in the industry that the position of the ISH brand has declined," says Dr Hennessy, who insists that the decline coincides with a fall in the ISH showjumping studbook rankings (see table two, above) over the years, with an 11th place ranking in both 2008 and 2009 and ninth last year.
"There may be a number of contributing causes, including poorly focused breeding practices here in Ireland and the strategic efforts of competitor studbooks, particularly on mainland Europe, such as the Dutch Warmblood (KWPN) and Hanoverian brands," she says.
"These brands have invested heavily in improving the quality and performance of their horses. Their focused approach to brand management has resulted in high international competition profiles in both showjumping and dressage for their studbook progeny."
Of all the various equestrian disciplines, showjumping has the highest number of international competitions a year and also has the highest prize money purses. Prize funds exceed $1m (€695,820) in Las Vegas and Spruce Meadows with more than $200,000 (€139,164) for the winner in some cases.
Compare this with the prize money in eventing, where the sport's most prestigious event, Badminton Horse Trials, has a total prize fund of just £250,000 (€284,185) and £60,000 (€68,166) to the winner.
"Hence, despite the ISH brand topping the world rankings for 15 years for event horses, the ISH brand's slippage in the showjumping rankings would seem to be detrimental to the overall value of the brand," says Dr Hennessy.
"We market ourselves as the leading studbook for eventers but within the marketplace, the average prices that event horses achieve are not as high as those for showjumping horses," she says.
The ISH studbook, like its European counterparts, act as brands, marketing the general sport horse population of their respective studbooks. The performance of their best produce influences the average prices achieved among the general studbook population, as breeding for performance can work to raise the overall standard and value of the general studbook progeny.
Within her PhD study, Dr Hennessy found that the KWPN and Hanoverian brands were highly regarded for brand management practices such as rigorous selection and provision of extensive information on pedigree and performance.
"These brand management practices were linked with their brand reputation, their world rankings in both showjumping and dressage and, in turn, with the general value of the brand's general population of sport horses," she says.
Disappointingly, her research did not find such linkages for the ISH.
"Although there are still very strong feelings and attitudinal loyalty towards the ISH within Britain, the diminution in performance of the ISH in the international showjumping arena -- where exposure and results tend to colour public opinion -- is having a knock-on effect on the price of the general sport horse population within the studbook," she says.
"I spoke to lots of dealers in the market place and many of them said that they would be willing to pay extra for an ISH, but when I examined the sales results, it showed that they were paying much more for breeds such as the KWPN and Hannoverian, not the ISH."
The UCD researcher uses the example of KWPN stallion Hickstead to highlight the importance of showjumping performance to brand value within general markets.
"Hickstead won the title of 'Best Horse' at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010," she says. "Such a performance will help support the brand value of the KWPN for the next four years."
So what are implications for the ISH brand?
"Unfortunately, the ISH has fallen into the yellow pack category, relying on brand associations such as temperament and soundness, rather than on elite showjumping performance," says Dr Hennessy.
"Brand associations can be copied and the European studbooks are working to improve the soundness and temperament attributes, which will further pressure the ISH brand.
"Reliance on eventing performance does not reap high prices for the brand in general. Only a brand strategy focused on improving showjumping performance will underpin an improvement in overall brand value.
"In order to increase the amount a farmer breeder in New Ross or Myshall can get for his foal, we must focus on improving our showjumping performance. We need more ISHs in the international arena doing the business and it's hard to convince buyers that we have the best jumping horses in Ireland if our own riders are going abroad to get horses.
"For the past few years, we have been relying on Flexible to fly the flag for Irish horses in the world rankings.
"We had Liscalgot in 2002 and, more recently, the likes of Larkhill Cruiser.
"But we are only producing one or two top horses a year, compared with the KWPN, which has 40 or 50 horses in the top flight."
UCD lecturer, researcher and competitor Dr Karen Hennessy has conducted extensive research on the Irish Sport Horse brand and markets as part of her PhD. We will return to her research in a future edition of the Farming Independent