Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Horses: Staying one step ahead of the rest

With our number one breeding ranking in jeopardy, the Irish bloodstock sector must be innovative

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

The Irish Sport Horse studbook has topped the world rankings for eventing for 15 years now -- a record that reflects the success of our breeders in finding the type of animal that has the speed, carefulness and quality to compete in all three disciplines.

However, other countries are now targeting our record and aiming to take Ireland's breeding crown.

Rather than being complacent about our horses, Irish breeders are keen to stay ahead of the rest, and the groundwork for our future champions is already being worked on.

Some breeders believe we should stick with our tried- and-trusted formula, while others believe we should be looking at other options.

The recession has given everyone plenty of food for thought, but the fall in the price of thoroughbred horses could offer opportunities for breeders of eventing horses.

Former Olympic medal winner John Watson is one of those who believes we can take advantage of the greater availability of National Hunt stock to improve our eventing breeding.

"The great thing about a recession is that it forces you to look at all your stock critically," he says. "It forces you to spring clean.


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"All those rubbish half-bred mares should be got rid of. Breeders don't need premiums for good mares because their progeny will look after the breeder when they sell."

Watson believes there is a definite need for a cull premium to entice breeders to remove poor quality mares from the national breeding herd.

"Give it a slaughter premium if it's not worth the breeding premium," he claims.

"If we get rid of those, we create a vacancy in the herd."

The former event rider maintains that there are plenty of quality National Hunt fillies available that trainers do not want but that could be ideal for breeding eventers.

"A slow National Hunt filly is like a millstone around a trainer's neck.

"But from the point of view of eventing breeding they are big fillies, with plenty of substance and quality. They would make ideal mares to breed from."

As far as using thoroughbred blood in eventing, Watson has the utmost faith in using as much as possible.

Puissance, the sire of six of the seven horses his son Sam will campaign this season, is 80pc thoroughbred. Horseware Bushman and Hoyo are two Puissance horses that are expected to feature in the top flight in the years to come.

"Puissance is 14 or 15/16ths thoroughbred and a very classy horse," Watson explains. "Using him will give you a horse that is well suited to the intensity of eventing, as well as the quickness and toughness.

"You still need a horse that is hardy and has guts."

Using a National Hunt sire on a sport horse mare is a proven route for producing event horses, as evidenced by the latest British Eventing rankings.

Over to You, ranked number one on the British list of the all-time best Irish-bred horses, was by Over the River, while Moonfleet, ranked sixth on the same list, was by Strong Gale.

The current European champion, Miner's Frolic, is a thoroughbred proving his quality on the circuit, while Moonfleet and Ensign are also from National Hunt lines.

As far as choosing a National Hunt filly to breed from, Watson has definite ideas.

"You can see in the field if she's got the walk and trot, and a balanced canter," he says. "I might even teach a youngster to lunge and jump a small pole.

"You will know if she's got the quality you need.

"If we got rid of all the rubbishy, plain, cartish types, we could do an awful lot for the average quality of the Irish sport horse mare. The others are only filling up riding schools and trekking centres."

So what type of National Hunt filly would fit the criteria as an eventing broodmare?

"It is important to have a good proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres," says Watson. "You need both stamina and some sprint."

The eventer turned breeder says he picked up a trick listening to legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien.

"He was very, very keen on knowing how a horse breathed in a flat race.

"A horse takes a big bellows breath after every seven furlongs usually, but a horse that took a big breath after six furlongs could get ahead of the rest."

However, in a jump race, the horse clears his lungs at every jump.

"In eventing you need a horse that can make 40 jumping efforts and stay for nine to 11 minutes," Watson says.

So what is the entry point for buying a National Hunt filly of the right type for eventing breeding?

"They are not very expensive now, you should get a good moving filly with a good pedigree and not too much black type for under €2,000.

"I would put her straight into foal as a three year old to a good Irish sport horse sire with results behind him."


Choosing a filly from a good family, the right model, with class and the right temperament, is imperative.

"You need the right shape, model and movement and mind," Watson says.

However, choosing a good sport horse sire is also critical.

Asked what sport horse sires he would use, the breeder nominates Carraig Diamond Lad.

"He's a sport horse between 50 and 75pc thoroughbred and he's got the movement. If you put him on a nice National Hunt filly, you would have a classy but raw material on your hands.

"The cost of the filly is written off over a long number of years, add in veterinary and stud fees and everything else, and you should still get a high-quality foal on the ground for €1,500."

As far as using continental breeding in the eventing mix, Watson is very cautious.

"If the other studbooks are working to achieve what we've been doing for the past 20 years, why would we go for what they are moving away from?

"We need to stay ahead of the rest and if what we are doing works, don't fix it. Let's just make it better."

Modern eventing is moving to a faster game, without reducing the number of jumping efforts required in the cross-country phase. The open sections of the course are disappearing, and horses and riders who would have taken complicated arrowheads and other tricky obstacles at 250m/minute are now being forced to go into them at 350m/second.

"The horses need to be good in front, which is where the fast-twitch muscle fibres are needed," Watson claims.

"You also need a horse that can think for itself and has the cop on to do it.

"That is one of the best things about hunting here -- our horses have to slow down to jump, perhaps stop on a bank and think. You soon know whether you have a wimp or a warrior on your hands.

"We have some wonderful hunting mares that could be sent to thoroughbred sires," he adds.

However, Kilkenny breeder Ken Digby is adamant that a National Hunt filly could also be used as a broodmare to produce potential eventers from a stallion that has both thoroughbred and Selle Francais breeding.

Quality Safari, standing at his stud in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, is by OBOS Quality, a Selle Francais sire, and out of Safari Dancer, a thoroughbred dam by Safari.

Quality Safari is this year progressing to showjumping at National Grand Prix level, according to Digby.

"He combines the scope and athleticism of the continental jumper with the temperament and bravery of the Irish thoroughbred," says Digby.


In fact, Digby is so confident in his sire's potential that he is offering a breeder's prize of €5,000 if any of Quality Safari's progeny win either the four-year-old young event horse class in the RDS or the final of the FEHL league in Tattersalls by 2020.

Digby is keen to promote the potential of eventing breeding as an alternative market for current National Hunt owners.

"Whilst many of the poorer mares have been removed from the breeding herd already, many breeders would like to give their herd the benefit of some time," adds Digby.

"This is the breeders real dilemma. Progeny on the ground or closely related stock may turn into the stars of tomorrow, completely transforming the value of today's marginal mare."

The solution, he says, is to diversify the market that breeders are servicing, substantially reducing costs while at the same time buying time for stock on the ground to perform.

"Fillies retain their value and there are sales opportunities as foals and three year olds," Digby claims.

Compared to continuing to breed to National Hunt sires, breeding to a sport horse sire has lower costs and lower stud fees, while the use of AI means the National Hunt mare does not have to travel.

While the debate over traditional Irish and continental breeding is likely to continue long into the future, the only certainty is that every breeder will choose a sire that he likes and is confident will produce the goods with his mare.

However, Ireland's place at number one in the studbook rankings is not guaranteed and with the other nations keen to catch up, Irish breeders will have to stay on top of their game.

Here's to another 15 years at the top.

Irish Independent