STEP FORWARD FOR UK HORSE BREEDS
WHILE PIN numbers and EBVs are well-used breeding tools for farmers, the horse world in the UK has not had the foresight to bring objective measurements to their breeding decisions.
Leading riders and trainers have for decades called for a measured approach, based on performance. Other countries took up this challenge, with the help of funding by their own governments. As a result, the 1990s have seen a steady stream of British dressage riders and show jumpers going to the Continent to select their future stars.
Now, the council of Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain (formerly the Hunters Improvement Society) has taken the first steps to putting UK breeding back in the centre of the world stage.
Kim Hall, the recently appointed general secretary, says: "We were being left behind, having no breeding policy. People would take their old mare – often broken down – to their local stallion. On the continent it was very different – but funding made it easier for them."
The UK funding that existed, worth up to £130,000 a year to the SHB, (low by other countries standards) ends in the year 2000. "In some ways this has contributed to making us focus on how we need to go forward," adds Kim.
The HIS already had the structure of grading stallions and mares. It was originally set up in 1884 to breed better cavalry horses. Then the societys thoroughbred stallions were led from farm to farm to cover suitable working mares.
* Systems in place
"We had many of the recording and monitoring systems in place. But for the more focused breeding policy that was needed to consistently produce top sports horses, we needed to apply a more rigorous grading programme," she says.
This thorough grading was carried out this year for the first time. At venues around the UK mares went to be inspected by three judges who operated a detailed marking system on conformation, performance and performance of progeny. When these figures were averaged, those that scored eight or more and had a known pedigree were put on the "head" stud book. Those that scored six or seven went on the main list, and those that scored five on the foundation list.
Out of 53 mares put forward for grading only ten made it to the "head" stud book. For owners the process probably costs around £150 when registration, veterinary certificates and DNA samples are added together.
The incentive for owners to put their mares through this process is that progeny from top mares and stallions should automatically attract interest and a premium. An immediate bonus is that head studbook mares are given a £100 service voucher.
"It is the mares that we feel have been neglected and we will be introducing a host of incentive to bring up their level. We are hoping to attract good competition mares, and persuade people not to breed from difficult, unproven or unsound mares." This approach has the backing of all serious breeders. Bridget Gronow has bred several good competition horses a Fir Tree Farm, Little Horwood, Bucks. "We need to show that England can produce good horses. Grading will give mares recognition, and hopefully, in the long-term will encourage people to pay better prices for British horses."
* Grading process
She put her six year old mare, Prunella, through the grading process. Prunella, also graded in the Irish Draught Stud book, was one of the few to reach the Head Stud Book in the SHB(GB). "I will be competing on her for a couple years, before breeding from her," adds Bridget.
Stallions too have had to go through a rigorous inspection. The first stallion gradings took place at Addington in November 1998. Of the dozen three, four and five-year-olds presented, just two were graded. Six-year-olds and over faired better, as many had good performance records to prove their ability.
All these measures are targeted at breeding top horses that will put UK riders back in the gold medal winning slots. But Kim is quick to point out that there will be benefits for all riders. "There will be a knock on benefit all the way down. In particular we hope this approach will improve soundness of horses for all riders."
Breeders should also receive better prices for their product – prices already achieved else where in the world. The SHBs membership of the World Breeding Federation for Sports Horses will also give them an international shop window.
Inquiries: Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain (01732-866277).
Busk Hill Gunnar V11 (above) winner of more than £2000 prize money, goes through his paces in the SHB stallion parade and (right) is pictured receiving his award at the SHB stallion grading.