Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Develop the 'Irish brain' to improve blood lines

Townend wants thoroughbreds to put Ireland on top of rankings

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Event rider Oliver Townend has urged Irish event horse breeders to take advantage of the "unbelievable opportunity" offered by the economic recession to use thoroughbred sires on their mares.

The former Badminton and Burghley winner is a self-confessed fan of what he calls the "Irish brain" in some of his event horses.

"Irish horses are trying horses and 70-90pc of the event horse is in the brain -- he must want to do it," he says.

However, Townend added that he believed that thoroughbred blood is the other key element in producing a top-level horse.

"I've had Carl Hester, a hero of mine, ride some of my horses and he said they were horses that he could produce into top dressage horses," he told the Teagasc National Equine Conference. "Geoff Billington has told me that some of my horses could go high up the showjumping ranks into 1.35m-1.40m.

"But we are all singing off the same hymn sheet -- no matter what discipline we are competing in, we need plenty of blood in the horse," Townend added. "Carousel Quest is probably the best horse I've ever sat on and he was bred out of a Group One Flat mare.

"La Biosthetique Sam, probably the best horse in the world currently, is by the thoroughbred sire Stan the Man."

The Yorkshire native, along with business partner Nina Barbour, has bought three sires from Ireland in the past year: Power Blade (TB), Stormhill Miller (TB) and Ramiro B (BWP).

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"In the cases of Power Blade and Stormhill Miller, they were the sires of a lot of horses that I liked at Goresbridge," he says. "In the case of Ramiro B, I had ridden a lot of his progeny and I loved their attitudes."

Teagasc equine specialist Norman Storey gave breeders at the conference a comprehensive analysis of the performance of Irish-bred event horses.

The results pointed to a link between declining thoroughbred blood and Ireland's slip down the world eventing studbook rankings in recent years.


For 14 consecutive years up to 2009, the Irish Sport Horse (ISH) studbook took the number one spot in the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH) Eventing Studbook rankings. However, last year, the Irish Sport Horse was overtaken by Germany's Hanoverian studbook, pushing the ISH into second place. This year, the ISH has slipped even further, into third place, with the Selle Francais taking the top spot and the Hanoverian in second place.

As Mr Storey pointed out, the rise of the Hanoverian and Selle Francais studbooks has not been a surprise. Both studbooks have increased the number of individual horses in the top 100 event horses every year.

In 2004, there were just two Hanoverian horses in the top 100 but, by this year, this had increased to nine. Similarly, the Selle Francais rose from just two horses in the top 100 in 2004 to eight horses this year.

During the same time, the number of ISHs in the top 100 ranged from eight to 17, with 13 in the top 100 this year. Between 1994 and this year, 59 ISHs featured in the top 100, while the number to feature in the top 100 from 2005 to this year was considerably lower at 29.

The Teagasc specialist examined the breeding of these horses by sire. Between 1994 and 2004, 87pc of the event horses were sired by thoroughbred stallions, but this fell dramatically between 2005 and this year. In this more recent period, only 38pc of the top event ISHs were by thoroughbred sires, while 31pc were by ISH sires.

In fact the percentage of thoroughbred (TB) blood in top ISH eventers has fallen by almost half since 1994. In 1994, the percentage of TB blood was 62.5pc, compared to just 36.4pc in 2011. This year, the top Hannoverian horses had 43pc TB blood on average, while the Selle Francais had 26pc TB blood on average.

Mr Storey pointed out that the ISH event rankings each year were the result of breeding programmes undertaken 13 years earlier.

The 1994 champions were born in 1981, when 65-70pc of the 3,000 foals registered were by thoroughbred stallions. This year's horses were born in 1998 when only 30-35pc of the 4,698 foals registered were by thoroughbred stallions.

The equine specialist then examined the breeding of the six- and seven-year-old event horses which competed at the young horse championships at Le Lion d'Angers, France.

Last year, when the ISH studbook was crowned champion out of 12 competing studbooks, 25pc of the 105 horses competing were Irish bred. They were born in 2003 and 2004, when TB stallions sired 25pc and 21pc of the foal crops respectively.

Next, he looked at the 81 four-year-olds competing in this year's Future Event Horse League (FEHL). These horses were born in 2007 when 7,440 foals were registered and 17.5pc of the total foal crop was sired by TB stallions.

Of the 81 FEHL four-year-olds, 26pc were by TB stallions and 46pc by foreign-bred stallions. Within the top 10 FEHL four-year-olds, four were by foreign-bred sires, four by ISH stallions and two by TB sires.

The recent Goresbridge 'Go for Gold' event horse sale proved that buyers were seeking horses with high amounts of TB blood in their pedigrees.

Of the 36 four-year-olds catalogued, 22 were sold at an average of €16,804. The average percentage of TB blood in these horses was 30.9pc.

Mr Storey outlined what he believed were the key points for the Irish event horse breeding industry to work on to move up the world rankings again:

•Identify mares and fillies that have scope to breed eventers;

•Identify and nominate stallions for mating to these mares in a breeding programme;

•Organise show classes and championships for foals and young horses with eventing specifications;

•Don't ignore the sires of current Irish Shows Association championships because some sires have proven themselves to be producers of both show and event horses. It has also been proven that foals with show ring performance achieve a 32pc higher sale price;

•Continue special sales like the Goresbridge 'Go for Gold'.

All of the presentations made at the Teagasc National Equine Conference are available online at

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