set the breeding bar high

Caitriona Murphy

What it takes to produce a foal capable of hitting the heights in showjumping

What does it take to breed a showjumper capable of reaching 1.30m or above? More than 160 breeders attended the recent series of showjumping-focused seminars organised by Teagasc to hear from showjumping producer Jacques Verkerk, Peter Leonard, Tiernan Gill and vet Tim Brennan.

The overwhelming message to come out of the two seminars in Athlone and Horse & Jockey was that, to maximise your chances of breeding a capable show jumping foal, the priority should be to start with a mare with a proven showjumping pedigree.

Speaking at the Tipperary seminar, Mr Gill, a well-known producer, said his first move when selecting foals to buy each year was to look at the dam's performance record.

"Before I will even consider going to look at a foal, I will find out about the dam," he said. "To me, what the dam has done is 70pc of the reason for buying a foal.

"In Holland, every mare is assessed and jumped before she goes in foal but here in Ireland, if the mare doesn't jump, she's the one that is put in foal."

Vet Tim Brennan highlighted the importance of soundness in the broodmare.

"You must start with a sound mare," he insisted. "She should not have any conformation defects to pass on.

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"While small defects -- for example, a slight pigeon toe or slight wind -- can be corrected in foals, there should be no major conformation issues," he maintained. "Absolute no-nos for me would be a weak hock or dipped back."

The vet reminded breeders that reproductive anatomy was also critically important in mares.

"This is particularly relevant for mares that have been competing," he explained.

"The mare might have won a Grand Prix, but if she should have had a Caslick's operation as a three-year-old and she's been sucking in air since, she could have damaged her cervix or uterus irreparably," he said.

He cited the example of Marion Hughes's unforgettable mare Flo Jo, who was retired to breed at 14 but never produced a foal to carry on her genes.

Dutch producer Jacques Verkerk emphasised the importance of rideability in choosing a broodmare.


"If a horse does not have a good attitude, it will not be a good performer," he told breeders. "A good horse with a good work ethic will win more than a great horse that does not have a good mind.

"If you select a correct mare with a performance pedigree on both the dam and sire side, that will also show rideability," he added.

When asked about using the traditional Irish cross of Irish Draught with thoroughbred, the panel were quick to point out that modern showjumping course design required a more modern type of horse.

"The thoroughbred/Draught cross was the sport horse of the 1970s but we have moved on," insisted Mr Verkerk.

Vet Tim Brennan agreed, saying that the Irish Draught/thoroughbred was the foundation stock of good mares, but there was no point in going back to breeding foundation stock at this time.

"What we need to do is to cross those good mares with stallions that have the scope to jump 1m50 and 1m60," he said. "At the moment we have 20-30 breeders in Ireland trying to breed to top showjumping stallions, but we need 500 breeders to do it."

Mr Leonard was highly critical of the Irish Draught policy of requiring four generations in the pedigree.

"The Irish Draughts have gone backwards since they became a breed," he maintained. "The best of the old Draughts, Clover Hill, had a thoroughbred grandma, Beaker View," he pointed out. "But today's Irish Draughts must have four generations of draught in their pedigree."

Mr Leonard was also keen to point out that while a showjumping horse needs to have a high proportion of blood in it, it does not necessarily need to be thoroughbred blood.

"If you are breeding an event horse, you have to have thoroughbred blood but, in jumpers, too much thoroughbred blood can cause problems, especially in the first cross," he said.

"When riders say they want blood in a horse, they mean they want a horse that is sensitive, responsive and rideable," he explained. "They want a horse that has quick reactions and reflexes, a quick jump and is quick across the ground."

However, Mr Leonard added that he would not discount the thoroughbred mare completely in breeding showjumpers.

"There is still a place for the thoroughbred mare, but she must be assessed through her linear scores and she must tick all the boxes when it comes to type, movement, scope, correctness and temperament," he insisted.

Mr Leonard and Mr Gill were anxious to explain to breeders that they did not want to discount Irish-bred horses completely from showjumping breeding.

"There is still hope," said Mr Leonard. "We still have Clover Hill mares in this country, we still have King of Diamonds' sons and Cruising mares."

"We still have good mares in this country," added Mr Gill. "But we have to realise that courses have changed and we need to produce balanced, reliable horses that can jump them."

In response to breeders who questioned the panels' opinion on using Irish versus continental European stallions, Mr Verkerk, a Dutch producer, was adamant that breeders should not get hung up on where the stallion came from.


"An Irish horse is any horse that is born in Ireland," he insisted. "There are lots of Dutch horses with German breeding but they are still Dutch horses. There are also German horses with Dutch breeding but they are still German horses."

"Don't look back," he urged breeders.

The former KWPN inspector and judge added that in Holland, breeders were offered the facility of ringing up the KWPN office for advice on stallion selection for their mares.

The Dutch breeding consultant pointed out that Irish breeders were at a disadvantage from a numerical point of view, with up to 13,000 KWPN foals hitting the ground every year.

"Half of those are bred to be jumpers, the other half are dressage foals," he said. "But that gives us 6,000 jumper foals every year."

"At the eight foal sales, there will be 500 foals for sale at each sale," he told the seminar.

Mr Verkerk pointed out that only the top 1pc of those foals on offer were sold for top prices, while a large number of foals were also sold for slaughter at €200-500/hd.

"Lots of foals don't make it," he said. "There are plenty of foals that do not cover their covering fees of €800-1,500."

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